I had the pleasure of interviewing Armstrong Ukwuoma Esq. on child marriage in Nigeria. This is the first of a three part interview.
Who is Armstrong Ukwuoma?
I am a Legal Practitioner in Nigeria. I hold LL.B (Bachelor –of – Laws) degree of the University of Nigeria. I was called to the Nigerian Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2007.
Besides litigation and engagement in general Legal Practice, I am also involved in research, publication and advocacy for the promotion, protection and enforcement of human rights and public accountability in Public Finance Management. A very passionate area in my human rights work is on the rights of children and women. Currently, I am the Principal Solicitor, Rights-Watch Legal Practitioners and Consultants in Nigeria and the Senior Legal Officer, International Centre for Development and Budget Advocacy, a Non-Governmental Organization in Nigeria.
Please explain in your own words what is child marriage?
In my own words, child marriage is the practice of leading a person into marriage at an age when such person is not physically mature for marriage and is also psychological/mentally immature to understand the nature of a marriage union as to give free, full and informed consent to it. As a result of the immaturity of the victims of this marriage, they are led into the marriage by means of deception, scheming, force, duress, undue parental pressure, or coercion or by any other means whatsoever; but definitely not with the free, full and informed consent of the victims. Speaking specifically in terms of age, I see such persons as persons below 18 years of age.
Girls are predominantly the victims of this practice. Most times, they are given out in marriage to men much older than the girls and with a very wide generational gap.
I am aware that some opinions seek to differentiate between child marriage on one hand, by reason of the fact one or both parties is/are less than 18 years but could give consent to the marriage and forced marriage on the hand, on the reason of absence of consent irrespective of the age.
To me and sincerely speaking, every marriage involving a person of less than 18 years is either procured by deception, scheming, force, duress, coercion, pressure, misrepresentation as to the nature of the union. It is therefore not and should be deemed not to be a product of free, full, informed consent. Child/forced marriage are therefore the same concepts, useable interchangeably because of the absence of free, full and informed consent of the underage party to the marriage.
Why do you think child marriage is still happening in Nigeria?
The awareness of the continued practice of child marriage in Nigeria is not in doubt. It happens among the people. Most protested incidences of child marriage celebration in Nigeria are also reported in the country as they occur. Very recently, the heated controversies that heated up the polity in Nigeria arising from the opposition mounted by some Senators of the National Assembly of Nigeria against the proposal to delete a Section of the Nigerian Constitution perceived to be capable of deeming the fact of marriage by any female of any age as qualification for renunciation of citizenship, reverberates the fact that the practice of child marriage is still with us in Nigeria.
A number of reasons are responsible for the continued practice of child marriage in Nigeria:
- Ignorance: Many who are still into the practice are yet to know why the practice should stop. Pitiably and ironically, this is in spite of the dilapidating, degenerating and counter-productive outcomes of the practice around them.
- Insincerity, selfishness and exploitative tendencies of some elites: Some elites among the people that practice child marriage seem to derive much pleasure and benefits from the practice to the detriment of the victims and the nation at large. Most patrons of the practice of child marriage in Nigeria see their victims as very accessible and least resisting prey for sexual gratification and exploitation; sources of cheap labour and readily available objects for other selfish and heinous ends, while they use child marriage as a smokescreen.
Thus, in order to sustain their stock in trade, they discourage the children and their naive parents from craving for education. Instead of selflessly using their “wealth” to help out the poor among them to acquire education, skills or other vocations as decent means of poverty alleviation, they give the mentally poor and gullible parents among them, the impression that the only way out of poverty is by giving out their underage girls into marriage to any available “rich man”.
They make the people believe that child marriage is a sacred religious practice that should not be condemned even when they know that the practice is not a commandment of any religion in Nigeria. Instead of impressing it on their people to build the moral standing of their children in their early years, they rather brainwash them to believe that early marriage is the only way to protect their girls from sexual immorality. They close the eyes of the people from the fact that child marriage has, instead of being the ultimate shield from sexual immorality, has remained one of the major factors contributing to high incidences of extra judicial divorce, abandonment of young mothers with children, street begging, resort to brothels and prostitution, child labour and neglect, poverty, poor infant and maternal health, denial of education, degeneration and underdevelopment among them. They oppose teachings, laws and best practices capable of awakening the consciousness of their people to resist child marriage. Most unfortunately and to compound issues, some enlightened ones among the people in places where child marriage is highly practiced are meant to believe that advocacy against child marriage is “a no go area” for them.
- Patriarchy. Our patriarchal cultural orientation in Nigeria is yet to be properly enlightened to the see the value and destiny of the girl-child beyond being a full house wife.
- Enslaving attitude towards poverty: Admittedly, poverty has been seen as one of the major factors sustaining the continued practice of child marriage. However, a very critical look at the issue shows that the problem is not poverty per se, the real problem is that our people are yet to come to the realization that any form of education for the child especially at early age is a better poverty alleviation alternative than child marriage. They are yet to know that even where formal education is not readily affordable, equipping the girl-child with skills acquisition, trade, or any vocation is a strategic poverty alleviation technique than rushing the girls into marriage. The failure, refusal or neglect of our people to adopt very decent poverty alleviation alternatives push them to sell the girls into marriage, thereby enslaving themselves more to poverty.
- Weak political will to enforce existing laws: It is observed that our leaders are not exhibiting the needed political will to implement laws and policies that could help to end child marriage in Nigeria. We see more of reactive approaches to the problem than proactive measures. We see more emotional reactions to the harmful practice of child marriage than strategic and consistent approaches in addressing the problem. This is so, even among government institutions and civil society groups expected to tackle the problem.
Coming up next week Mr. Ukwuoma discusses the dangers of child marriage, what needs to happen in Nigeria to end this practice and the positive changes that are happening towards ending child marriage.