Noura Hussein Hammad was forced to experience the misery of child marriage at the age of 15. Despite her refusal, she got married on paper to one of her relatives at 15 years old. Three years later, the husband, along with her family, insisted on completing the official wedding ceremony.
Miss Hammad escaped to stay with her aunt in Sinnar city to avoid her fate, but was deceived by her father who convinced her to return, claiming that the family stopped the marriage ceremony. Upon her return, she was surprised with the preparations for her own wedding, which ended up happening against her will. She went to Khartoum with her husband and stayed in an apartment in Mohandiseen as part of their honeymoon.
Noura refused to consummate the marriage for five days and, on the sixth day, her husband brought his brother and cousins and they held her while he raped her. The next day, on May 3, 2017, the husband tried to rape her again, but she stood up for herself and stabbed him in the back with a knife that he brought into the bedroom to threaten her into sleeping with him. After she stabbed him in different parts of his body, she ran to her family’s home, where she admitted what she had done. Her father took her to the police station. Subsequently, her family abandoned her, never visited her or provided any support. On April 19, 2018, Noura was charged under article 130 of the Criminal Act and, on May 10, 2018, sentenced to death. Some activist lawyers are appealing her case.
This is the most recent scenario in the Sudan, a country in Northern Africa that is number five on international ranking of child marriage rates. Statistics from UNICEF in 2017 shows that 9 per cent of girls were married off by their 15th birthday, while 52 per cent were married by 18. This implies that approximately one in three girls in the Sudan is married before her 18th birthday.
Well, in Nigeria, the story is not so different, as 43 per cent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Seventeen per cent are married before they turn 15. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report in 2017, Nigeria currently sits at number 11 in international ranking on child marriage rates though the prevalence of child marriage varies widely from one region to another, with figures as high as 76 per cent in the North West region and as low as 10 per cent in the South East. Available data shows a 9 per cent decline in the prevalence of child marriage since 2003. However, action is still needed to prevent thousands of girls from being married prematurely in coming years.
Child marriage directly hinders the achievement of at least six of the Sustainable Development Goals. Child marriage violates girls’ rights to health, education and opportunity. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives, and traps them in a cycle of poverty. The indigenous African traditional system restricts the education of the girl child to the well-known form of informal domestic education in which she receives training at home on hygiene, cooking, laundry and general home management. Some parents would easily give their girl child’s hand in marriage to some older, wealthier man, believing that the marriage would bring some economic gains their way.
Nurah, 35, was arrested after he tried to kill his 13-year-old wife, Ai’sha. His young bride had angered him by fleeing their home to stay with her mother after enduring years of abuse from her husband and mother-in-law. Nurah came to the mother’s house to kill Ai’sha for leaving their home, and ended up stabbing Ai’sha’s grandmother multiple times as well when she tried to cover Ai’sha with her body to protect her.
Ai’sha was engaged to Nurah when she was only a one-year-old and was married at nine. As a premature bride, she lacked the skills to be a proper wife, which resulted in the abuse she received. Ai’sha’s mother, Latifah, said: “I kept my daughter at my house and hoped to explain to my son-in-law why he should not beat her, but he barged into the house and tried to kill her.”
Apart from obvious reasons of poverty, other major factors are responsible for child bride. These include traditional practices, religious or customary laws and social/family honour.
According to the UN, 37,000 girls under the age of 18 are married each day. We now have the greatest number of married girls and girls at risk of child marriage than ever before. Therefore, one in three girls in the developing world is married before 18 and one in nine is married before the age of 15. If the present trend continues, more than 140 million girls would be married before the age of 18 in the next decade.
Child marriage violates the rights of children. It affects both boys and girls, but it is more common among girls. Child brides are also subject to extreme domestic and sexual abuse, causing psychological, physical harm and dangerous pregnancies.
Recent research by UNICEF shows that, worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. Seventeen per cent of them, or 125 million, live in Africa and for a place like Sudan where child brides are sold in exchange for cows with refusal resulting in a death sentence, like in the case of Noura, one can only imagine what will be the possibility of achieving the 17 SDGs with its 169 sub-sections.
With inadequate legislative framework and the state of a country’s civil registration system in place, the implementation of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is only a dream. In 2003, Nigeria signed the International Human Rights convention agreement on the rights of the child. It was officially passed into law in 2003 during the Olusegun Obasanjo government as the Children’s Rights Act 2003 (CRA). It was created to serve as a legal documentation and protection of children’s rights and responsibilities in Nigeria. The question, however, is, has the law been implemented, especially as it concerns child marriage?
Understanding that all these goals are interconnected and to achieve one is to achieve all, it dawns on us all that we cannot cheery pick any one and tweak it to suit our narrative and then ignore the rest. Child marriage effectively ends a girl’s childhood, curtails her ability of acquiring education, minimises her economic opportunities, increases her risk of suffering domestic violence, and puts her at risk of early, frequent, and very high-risk pregnancies with deteriorating health conditions.
Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and face higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries, such as obstetric fistula. Child brides are often unable to negotiate safer sexual practices and are, therefore, at a higher risk of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections. Children of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers older than 19, and families of child brides are more likely to be poor and unhealthy.
So, in order to achieve the SDGs and meet the aspirations of Agenda 2063 that envisions the “Africa We Want,” Africa must accelerate and increase strategic investments in its young people, no matter their sex or gender and rebuild our women, especially our girl children. Our judicial institutions should do better, embrace what is coming and begin to restructure to protect our children. Government and civil society organisations should make plans for taking this message to the grassroots, invite all stakeholders to the table.
Training and seminars should be organised for religious leaders, town union presidents-general, traditional rulers and the media. Empowerment programmes, hygiene education, and family planning training also need to be coordinated for girls already trapped in this cycle.
They should be nurtured as children that they are allowed to be children and not brides.
• Odigwe is a radio and television content developer.