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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

This Girl Child Marriage Brouhaha!

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Last week, the social media was awash with the story of a certain Kano Alhaji, who was alleged to have recently married a girl of 11 (eleven years).The man alleged to be in his sixties was quoted as saying that they are married because “they love each other.”

Could this mean that, marriage is consummated only at the altar of love irrespective of age? Hence, a girl child can be taken into marriage no matter how old she is, and the responses of her biological appurtenances? Expectedly, the issue attracted a can of condemnation, castigation, vilification, opprobrium, vituperation, etc., from many social media activists.

This is one of the many girl juvenile marriage transactions going on predominantly among the Muslim Faithful in Northern Nigeria. Of course, they are only reported when the high and wealthy are involved. As Shakespeare would say (in Julius Caesar) “when beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

One cannot forget in a hurry how Senator Yerimah of Zamfara State, nearly lost his seat in the Senate some years ago, when his colleagues fiercely tackled him for marrying a minor. In fact,they called him out on the floor of the senate and he had to defend his action rather with a brute force. It is not only him that has travelled this route but some other politicians, businessmen, traditional leaders, etc.

 

But, is it an acceptable practice in Islam? Does Qur’an support it? From my research, marriage to a girl child is more or less a parochial historical antecedent rather than a modern permissible ethic. Historically, it was the marriage of Aisha at 9 (nine years) to Prophet Mohammad, which many Islamic scholars have attributed to as, a special privilege, given the supreme, superior, and exalted kingdom of Mohammad . Wikiislam.net, observes that, “Today, many modern Muslim countries have legislated to raise the minimum age of marriage, in many cases to the age of 16 or 18 for girls (though often with loopholes or with ineffective enforcement) and to prevent forced marriage, often in the face of opposition from Islamic scholars”.

The United Nations regards child marriage as a human rights violation and aims to eradicate it by 2030. A girl is vulnerable to spousal abuse and childhood pregnancy which greatly jeopardizes her health and future. Medically, organizations such as UNICEF warn of medical risks to vaginal sexual intercourse with young girls and young adolescents, including their hips being too narrow to safely give birth. Beyond the medical risks are the social and psychological ones.

In www.quran-islam.org, a classical Islamic scholar, Ro Waseem, argued against child marriages thus: “One of the biggest misconceptions about Islam is that it permits child marriages, and it is therefore looked down upon as medieval, oppressive and illogical by non-Muslims. Shockingly, instead of viewing this as a downright tarnation and disgrace to Islam, Muslims in complete ignorance of the Quran actually defend and support this point of view. If Muslims, themselves, are going to portray such image of their religion, then I really don’t see why they would get agitated with the criticism on Islam”.

Taking a triangular peep into what the supreme Islamic Book says about marriage, from the expose of Ro Waseem, will help the readership of this piece understand and draw cogent conclusions on this epochal issue, even as I highlight the emphatical points therein.

First, what Quran asserts about child marriage: (Quran, 4:6); “And test the orphans (in your charge) until they reach a marriageable age; then, if you find them to be mature of mind/sound in judgment, hand over to them their possessions…”The emphasis here is ‘mature of mind/sound in judgment’.

Second, is the Quran advice to Muslims to marry Monotheists: (Quran, 2:221) it advises that “Do not marry the females who set up partners until they acknowledge. An acknowledging servant is better than one who sets up partners, even if she attracts you. Similarly, do not marry the males who set up partners until they acknowledge. An acknowledging servant is better than one who sets up partners even if he attracts you”. The high point is ‘until they acknowledge’ –acknowledgment.

The third is, marriage, as a solemn oath: (Quran, 4:21); It states, “And how could you take it away (marital gift) after you have given yourselves to one another, and she has received a most solemn pledge from you”. The bottom line is ‘a most solemn pledge’.

Deducing from the above points therefore, the child bride lacks mature mind and sound judgment of the marriage venture, lacks knowledge of its intrigues and intricacies, and above all, the solemnity, which is the sincere, genuine, earnest, wholeheartedness and sworn consent to the transaction. All because she is mentally, physically, and socially immature to coordinate and appreciate the package.

But some Islamic scholars have argued that the age of the girl is not important as long as her body weight and size (fatness) are capable of withstanding the marriage romance. This position is rather self-serving, unconscionable and wicked. It smacks of lust rather than the mutual beneficial relationship a true marriage is intended to achieve.

 

Now, let us look at what some intellectual compendiums and Psychologists have to say about age, as captured in last week’s article of this writer, published in the Advocate News of March 13 and National Star of March 14, 2023, titled; ‘Under-age Voters: A call for Sympathy’.

Age is the length of time that a person has lived or thing has existed. Collins English Dictionary defines age as the state of being old or the process of becoming older”. It added: humans grow wiser with age. Psychologists define age as a combination of physical, psychological, biological, and social maturity. They further divided age into four types: Chronological Age – which is the age calculated based on the year of birth; Appearance Age –the way one looks; Biological Age –the age that is measured by the body’s vital organs at a cellular and molecular level; and Psychological Age – this is associated with behavioral and thought processes. Fairly speaking, a girl child does not possess any of these categories to qualify her for marriage.

Physically, she is still very tender and fragile. Psychologically, her behavioral and thought processes are immature. Biologically, her vital organs, cells and molecules are still developing and infirm. And socially, she is not capable to undertake contractual agreements and consents, be it legal, marital, etc.

This scenario becomes more strategic and exhilarating whenwww.dictionary.com, captures Age as “a period of human life, measured by years from birth, usually marked by a certain stage or degree of mental or physical development and involving legal responsibility and capacity.” This obviously, includes the age of marriage, etc.

The burning and poignant question is: Are these under-age girls mentally mature? Are they physically developed? Are they legally responsible to grant marriage consent, since the extant laws and the Constitution of the land have accorded them the status of a minor? The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended, Section 29(4)(a) defines “full age” as the age of eighteen (18) years and above. Hence, anybody who is below the age of 18 years is a minor, a child or a juvenile.

According to Child Rights Act (2003), (which is a law that guarantees the right of all children in Nigeria), a child is anyone below the age of 18. The part 111 (three) of the Act stipulates that teenage girls in Nigeria should not be married before the age of 18. Unfortunately, some states in Nigeria have not domesticated this all-important Act, particularly in the Northern part of the country. Even the states that have done so are yet to enforce it so that it can work.

More pathetic is that, the same 1999 Constitution that pegs full age at 18, conversely harbors a conflicting clause in section 29(4)(b) which asserts that, upon marriage a girl is to be regarded as an adult regardless of the child’s age when she is married. This runs counter to section 29(4)(a) of the same Constitution that fixes full age at 18 and above. I would want to hope and believe that the framers of this aspect of the Constitution did not factor in their self-serving motives, otherwise, the contradiction would not have been necessary; criminalizing it outright would have sealed the deal.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported Nigeria as having a whopping 3.3 million child marriages; the third largest after India and Bangladesh. In 2020, the number grew to 3.74 million, according to Statista. Mr. Mausi Segun, African Director at Human Rights Watch, has advised Nigerian states to adopt, implement, and align existing laws with the provisions of Child Rights Act, which criminalizes marriage before the age of 18 and protects girl’s rights.

Child marriage, no matter the side of the coin, is a violation of the rights of the girl child. It is violence meted out to the juvenile bride. These rich old grooms purposefully, flagrantly and ruthlessly invade their ego, pride, value, conscience, privacy, dignity, confidence, morale, psyche, and general ethos. And this should not be allowed to fester. Governments at all levels must strengthen their laws and close-up all loopholes. NGOs and International Agencies should rev up sensitization programs, particularly in the North, where poverty, hunger, illiteracy and insurgency have put the monster on the increase. Adult men should reserve some respect and dignity for themselves and develop some conscience and consciousness to do to others as they would have others do to them. Child marriage equates child abuse. It is callous. It is anachronistic.

By Sam Otuonye

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