During Ramadan, a great uproar took place in Nigeria over actions by the government that were interpreted as trying to legalise child marriage. During a constitutional review, Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima argued that a subsection of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution should not be removed as it affects the rights of Muslim women. Section 29 of the Nigerian constitution allows Nigerian citizens aged 18 and above to give up their citizenship. Section 29, 4(b) goes on further to elaborate that any married woman is deemed an adult regardless of her age, and should thus be allowed to forsake her citizenship as well. A large number of the lawmakers reviewing this section wanted to delete this clause; had subsection 4(b) been removed, it would be taken to mean that girls who are married before they are 18 years old are no longer deemed adults according to the Nigerian constitution while they are underage.
Senator Yerima objected to the removal of this section, claiming not only that it was un-Islamic but also that removal of this subsection would affect the rights of Muslim women. Three years ago, Senator Yerima married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl as his fourth wife, causing uproar among Nigerians, so we know that he has no problem with child marriages. His actions, and those of the senators who backed him up, came to be read as supporting child marriage and attempting to legalise it through the Nigerian constitution. This lead to massive uproar among Nigerians online: the hashtag #ChildNotBride was trending on Nigerian Twitter at that time; open letters and press statements were written; and there were petitions organised offline.
Regardless of whether the larger issue was about the citizenship rights of Nigerian women, the senator’s appeal, using Islam and Muslim women’s rights, became problematic in a country that is religiously and ethnically polarised. You would not know that child marriage does not uniquely affect Muslim girls and women in Nigeria from the way Nigerians have reacted to Senator Yerima. According to UNICEF, early marriage for girls is particularly common in Northern Nigeria, and in Nigeria as a whole the median age at marriage for women was 17 years old in 2005. Child marriages continue to be an issue in Nigeria, even though the country adopted the Child Rights Act in 2003; this act prohibits marriage under the age of 18 and was passed at the federal level. [Read more...]