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Child marriage in Anambra: when custom fights against law

Ngozi Obinna, (pseudo name) a 20-year-old woman from Ebenebe, in Awka North Local Government Area is one of the victims of custom that permits child marriage. She was impregnated at 15 (2016) by a young sojourner from Bayelsa State, who had since deserted her. Since the culture of the people abhors female children procreating under the roof of their fathers, her mother in consultation with kinsmen sealed a marital union between her and a 70-year old man, as a quick fix to escape the consequences prescribed by custom. It was a time when Ebenebe firmly upheld the culture of “Tum, Num”, which compels anyone who impregnates a woman or girl to marry her, regardless of age.

“My father died while I was still a child. My mother could not provide for me and other siblings. I was asked to marry an old man. I never liked him, but I have no choice,” Ngozi regretted.

However, she never allowed her distaste for the man to wane as she endured her stay with him for only two months. “I told him that I want to go and greet my mother with the baby, that was how I left and never returned to him”.

Shortly afterwards, Ngozi found a young suitor, but her conjugal tie with the older husband stood on her way. “He refused to let me go. My family went to pay the dowry back to him but did not collect it”.

Traditionally, the old man must release her (by collecting the dowry he paid to the family) before she could actualize her dream with the man of her heart. But, since the old man insisted on his marriage to Ngozi, the matter ended up at the palace of the traditional ruler of the community, Igwe Chris Nnaegbuna.

When the matter came here, we told him that the girl never agreed to marry him. She was only carried to his place when she delivered and she didn’t stay long. Since her people gave her to him, the baby belongs him, but the girl is not his wife. We asked me to go back and collect the dowry he gave to her people so that the girl can marry the man she wants. That was how I dissolved the marriage,” Igwe Ebenebe revealed.

The Traditional ruler of Ebenebe, Igwe Chris Nnaegbuna

In far away Mmiata-Anam and the entire Anambra West Local Government Area, child marriage is said to have become a way of life, as parents, especially mothers, are in the habit of hurriedly marrying off their teenage daughters. “Here in Mmiata, girls in primary school are married away. Only few of them proceed to secondary school. Mothers give out their daughters as early as 13, 14 years so that they don’t get pregnant while still with them,”. Chief Mattias Ameke revealed.

One of such incidents is that of Amara Okeke, who at 14 became a wife to a 35-year old man. “My parents asked me to marry him but I have no feeling for him. My father struggled to allow me reach JSS3. We are farmers and we don’t have money”.

Although the practice is not alien to the community, Amara was ambitious about becoming a university graduate and rising to the peak of her career. She fears this dream is almost slipping away from her. “Any time I see my mates who continue their education when I dropped out, I am not happy. But, if I see any help, I will do business.

From interactions with different stakeholders, it is clear that child marriage as witnessed in Ebenebe and Mmiata-Anam, are replicated across rural and remote communities of the state, including: Anambra East, Ogbaru, Ayamelum, Oyi, as well as Orumba North and South Local Government Areas.

Factors fueling child marriage

A number of reasons have been identified as fueling child marriage in Anambra State and the entire South East Region. Top on the list is culture, followed by poverty, ignorance, and failure to enforce existing laws. The traditional ruler of Ebenebe, Awka North Local Government Area, Igwe Chris Nnaegbuna, shed light on the position of tradition on teenage pregnancy and its link with child marriage.

In a typical Igbo community, a girl is not permitted to give birth to a child while living with her parents. Such child, even if a boy, is viewed as a bastard who has no right of inheritance. Her own father cannot be the father of her child. So, they arrange for marriage to whoever is interested. She goes there and gives the son to the man marrying her”.

Igwe Nnaegbuna highlighted the negative consequences of breaking such customary law, which even modernity and civilization has not been able to change “We are trying to change some things, but up till now, a child born under the roof of the girl’s parents will never enjoy certain privileges. As the oldest man in his kindred, he cannot break kolanut. He will never be initiated into any titled society because he has no father. The stigma hovers over him all his life”.

Buttressing the position of the traditional ruler, another custodian of culture, Chief Mathias Ameke, said: “If they allow her at all to give birth under the roof of the parents, they are making frantic efforts to marry her off as quickly as possible. And whosoever pays her bride price takes the child”.

Also, the Co-ordinator, Child protection Network in Anambra State and Executive Director, Victorian Clarion Foundation, Mrs Uju Onyendilefu, revealed: “In so many areas where we have had our interventions, some mothers believe that at that tender age, the girls are still pure and safe and should be married off in their pure state. They assume that the more they get mature, the more they become impure”.

In many communities, marriage has become a weapon for fighting sexual exuberance indiscriminate pregnancy among teenagers. For instance, the people of Ebenebe agreed to address the problem with enacted a local law called “Tum, Num”, (meaning, if you impregnate me, you must marry me)”.

That was on-going when in 2019 the people were exposed to the provisions of various laws following an intensive campaign by a Non Governmental Organization, Women Information Network, (WINET) Enugu, which was targeted at ending child marriage. “We have seen that it is not working well. Some of the teenage girls married out die prematurely, get sick or live in sufferings and sorrow until they die”.

With this discovery, the custom of child marriage was abolished with a royal proclamation by the traditional ruler, Igwe Nnaegbuna. Since the royal proclamation of December 31st, 2019, the traditional ruler said pregnant teenagers are no longer rushed into marriage, but are made to stay with their parents until they give birth and go back to school, apprenticeship or any other life endeavour. “As a community, we also encourage some of them with scholarship so they can achieve their academic dream,” Igwe Nnaegbuna explained.

Apart from culture, child marriage is equally promoted by high level of ignorance amidst the populace. “The girls in those areas are mainly ignorant. They are cut off from education and information. They still live in the old ways,” the Coordinator, Child Protection Network, Mrs Onyendilefu, explained”.

Implications of child marriage

Child marriage is not just a violation of the rights and privileges of the teenage girls, but also presents several negative implications which sometime extend to their families and the society at large. Chief Mathias Ameke enumerated some of these impacts. “The girl in question is unfairly treated. The child is also unfairly treated. He is seen as a bastard in the family he belongs to. Besides, most of such marriages don’t last. Child marriage is the common cause of divorce”.

For some other commentators, child marriage is nothing but a trap for the teenage victims, who are not yet prepared for all marital obligations. Most of them ended up being abandoned by their spouses. Such abandonment contradicts section 18 sub-section 1 of the VAPP Law of Anambra State 2017, which states that “a person who abandons a wife or husband, children or other dependents without any means of sustenance, commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or to a fine not exceeding N500,000 or both.

According to Plan International, an independent and humanitarian organization that advances children’s rights and equality for girls, the tendency for medical complications during child birth is higher for teenage mothers than adults. Plan International further revealed that: “Adolescent pregnancy remains a major contributor to maternal and child mortality, while complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 globally. Pregnant girls and adolescents also face other health risks and complications due to their immature bodies. Babies born to younger mothers are also at greater risk”.

An Onitsha-based Gynaecologist, Dr Emeka Aniebonam, shed further light on these medical challenges. “Teenage pregnancy leads to low birth weight, higher neonatal mortalities, while the teenage mothers are not likely to initiate breastfeeding of the babies. The babies are likely to be born pre-term”.

Child marriage also presents psychological challenges to the teenage wives. “Everyone bullies her. Everyone instructs her. You can imagine a girl of 13 years in a meeting with co-wives over 20 or 30 years, even if she has ideas, she can’t contribute. It diminishes her self esteem and she is dying psychologically,” Mrs Onyendilefu noted.

Financially, a teenage mother is absolutely dependent, a situation that can spell doom for her any time she falls out of favour with her hubby. “Many times, you see them here in this palace. A girl of 16, 17 years looking like she is over 30 or 40 years, older than even her mother. Child marriage impacts negatively on the girls, their families and even the community,” Igwe Nnaegbuna of Ebenebe explained.

However, teenage boys who impregnate fellow teenagers do not face weighty consequences like their female folks. They are not sent out of their fathers’ houses, while their academic pursuit continues unhindered. For some of the respondents, such discriminatory treatment is tied to patriarchy, which encourages gender disparity and inequality with women and girls as victims.

“The boy moves on with his education, apprenticeship or trade. Only the girl is forced to sit back at home to carry her pregnancy and take care of her baby. When the boy is schooled and the girl is not, at a point, he sees her as unfit. Eventually, he abandons the girl,” one of the respondents regretted.

Government is equally worried

Apart from non-state actors and activists, the concern about child marriage in the state is shared by the state government, as explained by the Special Assistant to the Governor on Social Welfare, Women and Children Affairs and Technical Adviser to the Commissioner for Women and Children’s Affairs, Mr Onyeka Ebenebe.

“The Ministry has effectively collaborated with the Caring Family Enhancement Initiative, CAFÉ, a pet project of the Wife of the Governor, to train about 4000 young girls in different skills. This is to enhance their economy to be able to beat poverty, which mainly drives child marriage”.

“We have been using the platforms of Anambra State Association of Town Union, ASATU and its women wing in the 181 communities to carry out periodic campaign on the dangers of child marriage. We educate the rural populace on the benefits of going to school,” Mr Ebenebe explained.

Such fora, the Special Assistant to the Governor on Social Welfare, Women and Children Affairs, said are also used to showcase great female achievers from the state to encourage the young ones to follow suit. “We have used those occasions to highlight the inherent health challenges of child marriage such as the VVF and others”.

Although, some respondents believed that child marriage is partly linked to poor implementation of Child Rights Law in the State, Mr Ebenebe argued that the law is operational in the State. “In 2019, we had a story a girl child of under 16 that was married to a man who has development challenges (an imbecile) from a wealthy family. The family gave her because a huge sum of money was given”.

The intervention of the ministry led by Lady Ndidi Mezue, the Commissioner, rescued the girl from a relationship she quite desired. “But we invoked the Child Rights Law, took hold of her and got her rehabilitated. She took part in the skills acquisition and empowerment but we went further to enroll her in school. We are happy she is now in school,” Mr Ebenebe said.

Child marriage: battle between law and tradition

The Co-ordinator, Rule of Law and Anti Corruption Legal Aid Committee, Anambra State, Mrs Nkoli Ebede

A Legal Practitioner and Co-ordinator, Rule of Law and Anti Corruption Legal Aid Committee in Anambra State, Mrs Nkoli Ebede, opined that the culture of child marriage is a flagrant violation of the rights of the child as contained in the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), the Child’s Right Law of Anambra State 2004, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Law of the State 2017 as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, which was ratified by Nigeria.

“All these laws prohibit child marriage. And of course, whenever custom and law are in conflict, the law prevails as definitely such custom must be contrary to natural justice, equity and good conscience and to that extent, it is null and void”.

According to Section 23 of the Child Rights Law 2004, anyone under the age of 18 years is incapable of contracting a valid marriage, and any contracted with such a teenager, is a nullity. Section 25, prescribes a fine of 500,000 (five hundred thousand naira) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment, for offenders, upon conviction.

Section 16 of the State Violence Against Persons Prohibition, (VAPP) Law criminalizes emotional, verbal and psychological abuse. This is a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards any person, including repeated acts of insults, name calling or ridicule, threats to cause emotional pain, , which some of the teenage girls go through.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, in its 4 core principles prohibits discrimination; promotes the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development as well as respect for the views of the child.

Appeal to communities on ending child marriage

The appeal to end child marriage was led by the traditional ruler of Ebenebe, Igwe Chris Nnaegbuna, who had set a good example with the abolition of same in his community since December 31st, 2019. “I appeal to my fellow traditional rulers and the entire Igbo nation to make frantic efforts towards stopping child marriage. It exposes our girls into untold hardship and violates their fundamental human rights”.

For Chief Mathias Ameke, “It is counter-productive to rush the girls into marriage. I have a 22-year old daughter, who is still in school. She must finish her education before talking about marriage. They should be allowed to attain at least 20 years and above. It helps them to get mature and ready for marriage”

With all these legal instruments in place, respondents recommended conscious and committed efforts towards ending child marriage or reducing it to appreciable level in the state. The Child Protection Expert, Sir Emeka Ejide: “While we look up to the government to assist with serious enforcement of these good laws, the obligation of educating and sensitizing the populace is collective. You will play your role, I will play mine and all of us will do our bit. When we keep silent, the illegality continues”.

For Mrs Ebede, advocacy should lead the way. “What I think can be done to stop child marriage include: advocacy to communities that practice it, sensitization and awareness creation on the issue of child marriage and its attendant negative consequences”.

While they unanimously called for an end to the culture of silence, respondents strongly believed that diligent prosecution of offenders will go a long way in discouraging potential offenders and their accomplices.

Writing by Alfred Ajayi; Editing by Tina Oyinsan

Support for this report was provided by the Media and Gender Project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism #CREATESAFESPACES