Myne Whitman: Child marriage – Where we ALL got it wrong!
by Myne Whitman
It is said that a large number of Nigerians don’t really know the law or their rights, and I think the lawmakers fall into this category. Those who pushed to delete section 29(4)(b) did it on the grounds that it infringes the right of a child by allowing early marriage but I think otherwise.
If you asked me whether the Senate really changed the age of marriage, the answer is, I don’t think so. Yesterday, some people around my social media sent me a couple of links to www.change.org petitions to stop the Senate, the House of Representative and the Nigerian government, from altering the constitution in a way that would allow for child marriage. By then, I had seen the headlines on some blogs, and was fulminating inside, thinking of writing a scathing post, or something.
I went over to sign one of the petitions, and there was a link to a Premium Times article that initially reported the constitutional amendments currently being voted on by the Senate. These parts of the report caught my attention immediately.
The contentious provision, Section 29, allows citizens who are of age to renounce Nigerian citizenship if they wish. For that purpose, the constitution says, 18-year-olds and above shall be considered to be “of age”.
In addition, a woman or girl who is married, shall also be considered to be of age-a section that could be interpreted to imply that even a day old child, once married, shall be considered to be of age.
The Senate’s amendment committee had proposed that definition be deleted.*
So it turns out we’re talking about a woman’s right to renounce her citizenship of Nigeria, and at what age and marital status. Which is very far from the viral stories of the Nigerian Senate sneakily passing a law that made pedophilia legal through early marriages.
Even the Nigerian Feminists Forum was hoodwinked. They recently released a statement about how “greatly concerned” they were “about the resolution by the Senate to alter section 29(a) of the Constitution which stipulates that a woman shall not be qualified for marriage until she attains 18 years of age.”
Should we blame the ThisDay journalist whom they quoted without verification? Because that is not what section 29 of the constitution is about at all. Section 29 relates to the renunciation of citizenship, and this is the section in full.
29. (1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation. (2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of his section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria. (3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if- (a) the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or (b) in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy. (4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section. (a) “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above; (b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age. The part under contention is actually section 29(4)(b) which the senators had wanted to remove because it seemed to be a repetition since Section 21 of the Child’s Rights Act of Nigeria already forbids the marriage of persons below 18 years with a punishment of N500,000 or a 5 year jail term, or both.
In as much as I might disdain his personal life, Senator Yerima, former governor of Zamfara state, champion of Sharia, and husband of a 15-years-old girl, was actually calling the other senators to proper order. The constitution does not allow the legislature to rule on issues of Islamic marriage.
Item 61 of the Second Schedule, Part I in the Exclusive Legislative List says the Legislative Powers include “The formation, annulment and dissolution of marriages other than marriages under Islamic law and Customary law including matrimonial causes relating thereto.
I took time to read more of the Nigerian constitution – which you can download free from GooglePlay or read online here - and it does not stipulate in any section the full age as regards marriage.
So contrary to reports that some clauses were removed that defined the age of marriage for women, a clause was left in for women, or in this case girls, who are married before the age of 18 to be deemed of “full age” not for any other reason, not voting, not age of liberty (majority), but for the sole purpose of renouncing their Nigerian citizenship.
It is said that a large number of Nigerians don’t really know the law or their rights, and I think the lawmakers fall into this category. Those who pushed to delete section 29(4)(b) did it on the grounds that it infringes the right of a child by allowing early marriage but I think otherwise. Section 21 of the Child’s Rights Act already stipulates legal age of marriage, though I don’t know if it covers Islamic marriage. I believe section 29(4)(b) of the constitution deals with the age of a woman after the fact of marriage, and what rights she has at that time.
There are gender and child discrimination in the Nigerian constitution for sure, with only 2 mentions of the noun ‘woman’ and 7 uses of ‘child/ren’ compared to 235 appearances of the pronoun “he”. However, after my study, I support that the senate left in the clause allowing the under-age girl who is married the right to renounce her Nigerian citizenship. I see some sweet scenarios where this right may be used;
Senator Yerima’s Egyptian child-bride who is probably now a Nigerian citizen by registration using section 26(2)(a) can decide she’s no more a Nigerian right now instead of waiting till she’s 18, and leave Nigeria back to Egypt. She, and other under-aged Nigerian women married under duress or coercion, can also seek Asylum and citizenship with another country without being burdened by their Nigerian citizenship. For a lot of countries, you can only have one, two and most times not more than 3 countries you’re a citizen of.
But I temper my support based on a second scenario where this right can be abused. The husband of an under-aged Nigerian wife may be able to force her to renounce her citizenship either to deny her rights to freedom under the Child’s Right Act or citizenship and other rights under the constitution.
The petition we should be signing is one asking the entire legislature to find ways to make the constitution more woman and child friendly. They need to stipulate age of marriage in the constitution and remove the inability of the house of assembly to make laws covering Muslim women and children, especially where under-age marriage is concerned. Also, they should change all the appearances of ‘he’ to ‘they’ to cover all genders.
PS – While it means there’s one less occurrence of woman in the constitution, I like that section 26(2)(a) has been amended to allow women married to non-Nigerians to grant them citizenship by registration – a simpler means of becoming a Nigerian than by through naturalization. If you know of the Niger Wives Club made up of foreign women married to Nigerian men, we may be having a Naija Husbands Club soon.