Sunday, 11 August 2013

How Section 29 Subsection 4b Became the Emblem of Underage Marriage in Nigeria

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Sometime in July this year, some bizarre events were underscored by mass broadcasting on social media and citizen journalism portals. They included comments about the political saga and ensuing showdown of statesmen in Rivers State, unwarranted inter-meddling of the national and state powers that be and realisation of the allowance for underage marriage in the Nigerian constitution.

Many silent Nigerians were displeased by these events. But majority of them really unleashed their displeasure when the idea that nine to thirteen year-old girls were legally marriageable under law hit them. Though some of these people did not even understand the clause that led to the media’s original broadcast, the humane part of them joined the electronic mob of human right activists to save the future of helpless and voiceless children.

However, it was when the members of Nigeria’s house of assembly voted to amend or overlook the clause and the number of senators disapproving the underage subsection proved insufficient that the media propagated this information. A certain Nigerian Senator who took a thirteen year-old girl as his wife two years ago was said to have lobbied some other senators to vote in favour of the retainment of the clause. Though the total number of senators that were against the underage subsection was truly more than the sum of those that were for it, the overall margin was insufficient and this favoured the desire of the minority.
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When I consulted the copy of the national constitution which I purchased in 2011, I observed that the subsection concerned was left untouched even after the 2011 amendments were made. My copy of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Fundamental Rights (with 2011 Amendments) states in Chapter Three (page LL32) under section 29 that:

Notice the section 29(4b) in bold below

(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 this 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.

From the above, it can be deduced that a Nigerian is legally identified to be of full age when he or she clocks eighteen (18) years old. However, in the event that a female Nigerian legally becomes a wife even before she clocks eighteen years, she shall be regarded as one who is eighteen years old. The secondary and combined implication of these statements is that females aged one to seventeen years old have been exposed to the possibility of getting married even before they spend up to eighteen years (plus nine months in the womb) of existence. Though born into a country where problems currently seem more pronounced than blessings, they are vulnerable to getting legitimately espoused.

Many questions have been asked by compassionate Nigerians but just a few are reiterated here. Why should a girl that is yet to have her psyche fully developed be allowed to get married? Even if she is confirmed to be precocious, shouldn’t true religion make provision for her to clock 18 years first? Isn’t this a self-seeking basis for considering someone who has already been judged as too young to vote or be voted for as an adult? Since I am not a senator, I have no answers.

If there were no provisions for child abuse under the law, I would have considered this a tremendously immoral situation. However, I think the law has granted publicly parents more power and diminished the freedom of the girl child. In other words, whether or not the parents of a female child are in the position to make the best of decisions, they absolutely call the shots on the subject of matrimony. Therefore, the onus is now entirely on parents and guardians to protect the future of their wards and strive to give them a life that is worth living.

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