The plight of Nigerian girls recently caught the attention of the world after the kidnapping of several hundred schoolgirls in Chibok over a month ago. Another story did not garner as much attention from either local or international media: that of Wasila Umaru. Apparently forced to marry a man in his thirties, Umaru Sani, and endure the reality of being a child bride, 14-year-old Wasila Umaru took matters in her own hands 17 days after the wedding ceremony. In April, Wasila was detained by the police in Kano, accused of killing her “husband” and three of his friends by allegedly putting rat poison in food served to him. In a culture where food is often shared, Wasila’s so-called husband shared this poisoned food with his friends, leading to the death of three people; ten others were rushed to the hospital. Upon detention by the police, Umaru confessed to the crime, saying that she killed Umaru Sani because she was forced to marry him. According to her father, she is quoted to have said that she killed her husband because she did not love him, while maintaining that she did not mean to kill his friends.
Child marriages are a huge problem in West Africa, where apparently 49 per cent of girls younger than 19 years old are married. In Nigeria, it is believed that child marriages are more prevalent in Northern Nigeria and according to the UNICEF Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Nigeria, the average age of marriage in North-Western Nigeria (where Kano state is situated) is at 14.6 years old, placing Wasila near the average.
Initial local news reports stated that Wasila marriage was a forced one, but her in-laws insist on the contrary. In an interview with the Nigerian Vanguard, the father of Umaru Sani claims that Wasila was “courted” by his son for twelve months, and that his son “spent a fortune” on her. According to him, the marriage was not a forced one, and reports to the contrary are misinformed. Putting aside the power dynamic of a 35-year-old man thinking he can court a 14-year-old girl, it gets worse as the general feeling in the impoverished community was one of anger towards Wasila and her family, leading to tensions within the community and between Wasila’s family and the families of her victims.
It did not take long for the Nigerian media to dub Wasila “the killer child bride” in sensational reports. Not surprisingly, this news made it to the Islamophobic parts of the internet, where it has been used as proof of how Islam enables child marriage and puts young girls in situations where they feel the only option is murder. Yet it is widely argued that one of the most important driving forces behind the practice is economic rather than religious. From my own second-hand experiences, I am inclined to agree. A few years ago, a family member agreed to take part in an initiative at our local mosque that involved financially sponsoring girls through school; however, after about a year, two of the girls she was sponsoring were taken out of school by their mother. One was 11 years old, and the other was about 9. Their mother had married them off, saying that this marriage was better for them than spending time in school. For families living in poverty, giving away a girl child to marriage is one less mouth to feed and offers the possibility of gaining money from richer in-laws.
Although a lot of the focus on Wasila was sensational, her case generated a bit of discussion on her rights within the law. Apparently there is a possibility that Wasila could be charged as an adult following the Sharia law adopted by Kano, which sets the age of criminal responsibility as the age of puberty. Nigeria as a whole adopts civil, customary (or traditional) and Sharia courts; adding to this, there is not a lot of alignment between laws on a federal and state level. As such, even though the country passed the Child Rights Act in 2003, which raises the minimum age of marriage to 18 and makes provisions regarding juveniles in conflict with the law, Kano state has yet to pass this law. This despite the Child Rights Act being supported by the Sharia Penal Code.
As can be expected when news of child marriage breaks in the mainstream Nigerian media, there has been some discussion on the dangers of child marriage, as well as a brief mention of the “Wasila Umaru option” in which other children in marriages could consider murder as a means to be rid of a relationship they do not want. The fact that a young teenager saw no way out of a marriage that she did not want outside of murder has the potential to launch a nationwide debate on the state of child brides in Nigeria that would lead to actual policy changes. However, Wasila’s case very much remains contained within Kano. Efforts at raising awareness for her with a #SaveWasila hashtag have not been successful; a quick search of the hashtag on twitter shows up only one tweet.
It will take a huge amount of work to stop child marriage in Nigeria. Poverty will have to be tackled head on, and parents and communities will have to involved in the fight against child marriage. Currently, Wasila is being supported by the Federation of Women Lawyers in Nigeria, which has taken charge of her upkeep and defence. Wasila, having been charged with culpable homicide and waiting to appear in court through April and May, will be facing a trial judge June 16. Hoping that she gets justice and is freed may seem callous due to the fact that she did kill four men; however, I pray that there will be consideration of her age and circumstances.