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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The illegality of marrying off 100 orphaned girls in Niger State.

A plan to marry off 100 girls, orphaned by the surge of banditry in a local government in Niger State, has ignited public outrage and concern over its legality from human rights advocates. There is no iota of verifiable evidence that they have reached the country’s statutory age of marriage. Therefore, critics demand, and rightly so, that the ceremony should be stopped. The girls, who have been traumatised by life’s cruel circumstances, should not be further subjected to indignity, violation of their human rights, and neglect by the state which should protect them.

What makes the bid more irritating is the quasi-imprint of the state on it, with the Speaker of the State House of Assembly’s involvement in the matter. Some traditional rulers and religious leaders are also embroiled in the controversy. Patently, the plan is indecent and unlawful. The Speaker, Abdulmalik Sarkindaji, the chief lawmaker of the state, ought to know better.

It is good that the Federal Government has swiftly waded into the matter with the action of the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, who has filed a suit to stop the wedding, just as she petitioned the Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, for possible action. This move may have compelled the Speaker to renounce his involvement.

The lawmaker, who represents Mariga constituency, said his initial action was predicated on appeals from religious and traditional rulers and was “aimed at alleviating the sufferings of the impoverished.” Specifically, he has provided the dowries to be paid and all other material support required by the “less privileged parents” he adjudged incapable of hosting the marriage feast. The ceremony, billed for 24 May, Sarkindaji explained, is now left in the hands of religious leaders and traditional rulers to decide whether it will hold or not.

It bears repeating that the ages of these girls are not known. But the Speaker, in defence, claimed they are between 18 and 24 years old. There is no evidence of how he arrived at this estimation. His claim is suspect, we posit. Niger State has 42.8 per cent of out-of-school children in the country, according to the National Mass Education Initiative data; and it is among the worst 10 states in this regard. This is a big concern, in a country projected as having over 20 million such disadvantaged children, which has earned it a dubious distinction of being the highest in the world.

We strongly believe that the majority of these girls are part of this unfortunate population and may not have reached the age of marriage. Scores of them might not have even been to school at all, which is another flagrant breach of the country’s statute on free and compulsory basic education. From the Speaker’s utterances, some of them are not orphans, but of less privileged parentage. But whatever their social statuses, the ideal benefit from their lawmaker and the state government should not be assisted early marriage.

Making sure that they complete, at least, basic education and exposing them to skills acquisition like sewing, hairdressing, confectionery-making and tools of empowerment in their chosen vocations would have been rational steps to take. This will put them in good stead to be useful to themselves and society, rather than putting them in harm’s way of early marriage. Pregnancy complications, high mother and child mortality, poverty, sexual subservience, malnutrition, Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) disease, among others, are health challenges associated with such marriages in Nigeria.

Under the 1999 Constitution, as amended, no minor or under-age girl can consent to marriage, given that Section 29 (4) stipulates that 18 years is the “full age,” at which a woman could legitimately marry. The Child’s Rights Act reinforced it with its prohibition of the marriage of a minor. Accordingly, a marriage so contracted “is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.”

Early marriage is a cultural and religious practice, common in some parts of the country, which has bred all sorts of socio-economic crises that have not been successfully addressed yet. A senator, in 2010, for instance, married a 15-year-old and got away with it, despite the supremacy of the Constitution. “I don’t care about the issue of age since I’ve not violated any rule…,” he dared. As a result, it is time the authorities exerted the full weight of our laws to negate habits and cultural practices that undermine the health of our underage girls. An ill-prepared marital life is hazardous not just to the girl, but to the larger society. This is the story the case of the almajiri children partly amplifies.

Since the Niger State Council of Imams has demonstrated belligerence on this matter, with its one-week ultimatum to the minister to steer clear of the Speaker’s sponsorship of the mass wedding, we urge her to pursue the legal challenge to its logical conclusion. A court pronouncement has become a necessity to set the records straight.

Governor Umar Bago of Niger State, who was named, along with the Emir of Kontagora, Alhaji Baru, to serve as guardians to the 100 girls during the mass wedding, should break his silence on the issue. ‘Orphans’ in civilised societies, more so in a democracy, deserve the care and protection of the state. There are orphanages where they could be accommodated, given basic education and vocational training to prepare them for a better life; and not simply betrothed to suitors, who are not likely to have the capacity to live up to the social responsibilities of marriage.

Bago should not cast his administration in the mould of that of Babangida Aliyu, who defended a N5.1 billion subsidy on pilgrimage in 2013 on the basis of the seeming abandonment of the beneficiaries by the state: “They do not benefit from government’s electricity, housing, road and other infrastructure. They only benefit directly from government through subsidy on pilgrimage.” It is obvious that the girls’ lives could be bettered if the state could access its Universal Basic Education (UBE) fund backlog of about N2.6 billion for 2022 and 2023. It is an important federal support for improved basic education delivery. A total of N54.9 billion was not utilised by states at the end of 2023, for failing to comply with a set of criteria.

As citizens’ welfare is one of the primary reasons why government exists, Bago should demonstrate it with the existential challenge of these girls. Their present predicament is no fault of theirs but stems from a gross leadership failure of the Nigerian state. Since the 2011 bombing of a church in Madala, in the Suleja area, the state has been a haven for terrorists and bandits, whose activities have claimed thousands of lives of citizens, including those of security personnel.

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