A UNESCO report released on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child (11 October) shows that 180 million more girls have enrolled in primary and secondary education since 1995.
Three times more women are also now enrolled in universities than two decades ago, with particular progress seen in Northern Africa and Western Asia. In Morocco, parity was achieved in 2018, compared to just 3 women enrolled for every 10 men in the early 1990s.
Despite the encouraging progress, gender still plays a significant role in enrolment in many countries as girls are still more likely to suffer exclusion than boys, and this is further exacerbated by the current pandemic.
Amaka Mbadiugha was just in Junior Secondary School, class two when a neighbour got her pregnant. Even though the neighbour accepted responsibility for the pregnancy, he was unprepared for marriage and couldn’t take care of little Amaka.
She had to stay under the roof of disappointed family members and soon after delivery, she was unable to return to school. “I was ashamed of going back to school and my parents were not ready to take me out of home for school in another town,” she said.
After some months of nursing her baby at home, Amaka gained unprecedented body weight, looked older than her age and that was the end of school for her.
“Over time, I got pregnant again and this time, my parents pushed me out of the house and insisted that the man must take me in. He agreed and that was how I got married,” she narrated.
To survive and take care of her kids, Amaka has opened a small shop in the front of their house where she sells food items.
The story of Amaka is similar to that of Florence in Lugbe Abuja. She got pregnant by a man within their neighborhood and her parents pushed her into marrying the man without much ado.
When this incident happened, she was just in JSS 3 but years have now passed “and I don’t think I can go back to school. My husband said I should stay at home and take care of the kids,” she said.
However, Ogechi aged 15 wasn’t in for marriage in her own case but the events following her pregnancy shattered her educational and personal dreams. In fact, she didn’t know who was exactly responsible for her pregnancy.
As an orphan, Ogechi was a housekeeper for her ‘Madam’ in Abuja. When her madam discovered the pregnancy, she was sent out of the house. She was taken in by another woman who arranged for the baby to be sold soon after her delivery.
Data shows that the prevalence of child marriage varies widely from one region to another in Nigeria, with figures as high as 76 per cent in the North West and as low as 10 per cent in the South East.
Poverty, poor educational attainment and strong social and religious traditions are drivers of child marriage in Nigeria. Then, there is the continuing onslaught on girl-child education by Boko Haram evidenced by the recurring abduction of school-aged girls and women.
Research and data show that poverty and living in a rural area are more strongly associated with child marriage globally. This holds true in West and Central Africa, where child marriage is more than twice as common in rural areas as compared to urban areas. Child marriage is over three times more common among those who are poor compared to the rich.
There are disparities between the poorest and the richest in all countries in the West and Central Africa region, with particularly marked disparities in Nigeria, where over 80 percent of young women in the poorest communities were married in childhood compared to 10 percent of those in the richest homes.
According to GirlsNotBride, a charity that works to promote women’s rights “Education is a strong indicator of whether a girl will marry as a child. 82 per cent of women with no education were married before 18, as opposed to 13 per cent of women who had at least finished secondary education.”
And to underscore the negative impacts of this scourge on the Nigerian society, the former Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, late Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan, “Child marriages and early marriages are closely linked to low levels of economic development.”
“Girls who marry early are likely to be poor and remain poor for the rest of their life. They go through physical and psychological trauma- an experience that is unimaginable and it violets human rights.” She lamented that the practice of child marriages rob girls of critical childhood growth which is essential for their physical, emotional and psychological development.
A Programme Assistant under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Spotlight Project, Darlington Uzor said “Child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18 adding that it has the most effect on poor girls.
Uzor, who runs a campaign to end child marriage and improve women’s right, says that educational opportunities should be provided for young girls in communities by the government and its partners adding that “free education should be provided most especially at the primary and secondary school levels, because acquiring education has been shown to delay girl-child marriage.”
“The government needs to provide free health care services to young women. These young girls and their parents also need to be informed of the dangers inherent in involving in child marriage and the risk involved in it. By so doing, reducing the rate of child marriage in Nigeria empowering young women through various programmes,” Uzor said.
Besides these, he further suggests that social and economic programmes should be provided for out of school girls, including non-formal education programmes. “For girls who are not in school, these programmes will help build in her a sense of financial independence, as she will be able to develop business ideas,” he added.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Africa continent has the highest incidence rates of child marriage, with over 70 per cent of girls marrying under the age of 18, in three nations.
“Among Nigerian women between the ages of 20 and 24, 76 per cent reported marrying before the age of 18, and 28 per cent reported marrying before the age of 15. As of 2006, 15-20 per cent of school dropouts in Nigeria were the result of child marriage,” UNICEF said.
Child marriage, with its devastating consequences on the overall welfare of the girl child remains one of the sore points. The country, according to UNICEF, has the highest rate of girl marriage in Africa with over 50 per cent of women in the North married off before age 16.
According to a recent report by Ford Foundation, about 48 per cent of girls in Nigeria, predominantly in rural areas, are married off before age 18. Cases of Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF), a subtype of female urogenital fistula, and maternal mortality, have been on the increase especially in rural areas partly caused by early marriage and ignorance of family planning methods.
A 2014 UNESCO report said that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. This owes mostly to economic hardship and government’s indifference to children and the non-implementation of the Access to Universal Basic Education law in addition to the on-going anti-western education insurgency in the north
Out of this figure, girls are in the majority. The gross lack of interest in girl education and welfare in many regions across Nigeria’s has given rise to child marriage as economically-hit families want to ‘do away’ quickly with their girl children so as to give priority attention to their boy. Child marriage not only deprives a girl of education and her childhood but exposes them to sexually transmitted disease such as HIV especially since they are unable to negotiate for safer sex.
A report by UNICEF titled ‘Ending Child Marriage, Progress and Prospects’ indicates that though child marriage in Nigeria has reduced by one per cent annually in the last 30 years, hundreds of girls are still at risk due to Nigeria’s peculiarly large population. It further revealed that of the world’s 1.1 billion under aged girls, 22 million are already married.
The global body also expressed fears that if there is no reduction in child bride practices, up to 280 million girls will be married before age 18. That could even increase to 2.1 billion by 2050 owing to population growth.
Besides, child marriage directly hurts the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Goal SGD 5 which focuses on gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.
Governments should put in place an enabling legal and policy environment to combat child marriage. As part of these efforts they should invest in the development and implementation of national strategies, costed action plans and legislation to address child marriage. Continental and regional bodies such as the African Union, ECOWAS and ECCAS should strengthen their efforts at regional and continental levels to end child marriage in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the AU Agenda 2063.
Education is a powerful way to prevent child marriage as girls’ education, particularly at the secondary level, is strongly associated with delays in age of marriage
Education represents a positive alternative to child marriage. Research also shows that addressing sexual and reproductive health needs of all young people, including through comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services, can lead to significant reductions in unintended pregnancies.