The child marriage brouhaha

One of the most exciting and thought-provoking definitions of the media is the one offered by Littlejohn and Foss in their book, “Theories of Human Communication” (2005) in which they offer eight metaphors to deconstruct the concept.

According to them, “Media are windows that enable us to see beyond our immediate surroundings, interpreters that help us make sense of experience, platforms or carriers that convey information, interactive communication that includes audience feedback, signposts that provide us with instructions and directions, filters that screen out parts of experience and focus on others, mirrors that reflect ourselves back to us, and barriers that block the truth.”

I think the authors ended the definition with “barriers that block the truth” to draw attention to the predilection of the media, on many occasions, to stand between their audience and the truth of matters arising. Perhaps, nothing demonstrates this barrier perspective recently in Nigeria better than the brouhaha of the highest order that has greeted the child marriage discourse and coverage.

It all started on Tuesday, 16 July 2013 when the Senate voted to delete Section 29 (4) (b) of the Nigerian Constitution which considers a married woman to be of full age with the rights to renounce her citizenship. Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima then raised a constitutional order against the vote while invoking Item 611 of Part I Second Schedule (Exclusive Legislative List) which empowers the National Assembly to legislate on “the formation, annulment and dissolution of marriages other than marriages under Islamic law and Customary law including matrimonial causes relating thereto”. It was a simple legislative process.

However, the reportage of this ordinary development was slant and the Nigerian Feminists Forum, without digesting the issue at stake, issued a statement to the effect that it “was greatly concerned about the resolution of 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.”

Now, when I checked my mobile edition of the Constitution, I found that Section 29 (of Chapter 3 – Citizenship) addresses the issue of “renunciation of citizenship”. Then, Sub-section 4 (a) provides that “‘full age’ means the age of eighteen years and above” and 4 (b) provides that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”. It is therefore glaring that the Nigerian Feminist Forum misconstrued the Constitution and the Senate. The subject matter originally is on the renunciation of citizenship, not child marriage.

However, as Thakeray once observed, “a lie once set agoing, having the breath of life breathed into it by the father of lying, and ordered to run its diabolical little course, lives with a prodigious vitality,” the old and the new media soon became awash with diabolical analyses and pontifications.

Based on classical “groupthink”, religious hatred and plain mischief, many people, including those that should be informed and respectable, began to exert themselves calling Yerima all sorts of names, as if he wrote the Constitution, making false generalizations, peddling half-truths and flooding the media and blogosphere with arguments that generate more heat than light.

In the wake of the ruckus and attacks on his personality, Sani Yarima issued a statement that should be food for thought for all right-thinking Nigerians. According to the vilified Senator, whose “crime” was delivering to his people his electoral promise of Shariah in 1999, “Nigeria has many uncountable problems and none of them is early marriage….So what can anyone tell me? I live in a city where young girls at the age of 12 have already become serial fornicators and cannot count the number of men they’ve had sex with. I live in a city where primary school children disvirgin (sic) themselves behind toilets on Valentine’s Day. I live in a city where young girls flood the street at night looking for men that would give them N500 to have sex with them. I live in a city where parents send their daughters out overseas to prostitute and send dollars down. I live in a city where Government officials pick undergraduates from University car parks with Coastal buses to will sex parties. I live in a city where abortion is so common that even a Chemist store owner can perform abortion with just N2,500. These are your daughters and this should worry you and not Yerima’s private matters.”

Nevertheless, the facts of the matter are clear. There are many myths surrounding child marriage just as there are myths surrounding HIV/AIDS. One of them is that 18 is the minimum age of marriage. This is not true culturally and biologically. Culturally, attaining puberty is the determinant of “coming of age” in many cultures and a Professor of Child Health and Pediatrics at the University of Ilorin, Olugbenga Mokuolu, said recently on a radio programme that the average age of puberty, medically, is 12 years, though he differentiated between maturity and puberty.

In the United States, as the insightful contribution of Dr Peregrino Brimah shows, there is actually no legal minimum age of marriage in many states while some set as minimum as 13 or 14 years. None of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the last two of which several millions of Nigerians claim to practise, prescribes 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for girls. If the United Nations stipulates 18 as the age of maturity (i.e. a child is “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child…”) it is not a divine injunction and the UN itself even adds a caveat, which means it is not absolute.

Another myth is that early marriage causes Vesico-Vaginal Fistulae (VVF). If this were to be true, the United States would have been a world leader in VVF with about half a million annual teen pregnancies and over 4,000 pregnancies yearly at age 12. However, this is not the case in the U.S. as it is poor nutrition and poor medical facilities that account for the prevalence of VVF in Africa.

It is also a myth that early marriage impedes education. Contrary to what our “hacktivists” would like to force down our throats, two of the factors that impede education are unwanted pregnancies and poverty. If their claim were to be true, many celebrities here and elsewhere that we all know would not have been educated. I see many pregnant women on our campuses.

No one is advocating child marriage as it is not compulsory. The point is that we need to get our facts right to get our bearing right in politics and public discourse, instead of “overheating the polity”, to use the popular Nigerian phrase, with emotions based on sheer arrogance and stark ignorance. Fellow Nigerians, facts are sacred; comments are free; missiles are welcome!

Dr Adedimeji is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ilorin, Ilorin.