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Agonies of teenage girls married off to men old enough to be their fathers

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By Chioma Obinna

For decades, despite laws against child marriage, the practice remains widespread in Nigeria. According to the 2017 States of the Children’s Health, globally, one in every five girls is married before her 18th birthday.  

But in a patriarchal society like Nigeria, traditions and cultures in some parts of the country are fuelling child marriage.

In the North for instance, the number is as high as 40 per cent of girls being married before age 18 while 18.5 per cent of girls marry before they turn 15. Many of these girls forced into marriages often become pregnant as adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth.

Today, these complications, which include conditions such as Obstetric Fistula, are the leading causes of death among adolescent girls.

Not surprisingly, child marriage has continued to promote inequalities in Nigeria, making it extremely difficult for girls to acquire secondary or tertiary education.

To the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, child marriage is a grave threat to the lives and prospects of young girls, violates their rights, denies them of their childhood, disrupts their education, jeopardizes their health and limits their opportunities.

Although the Nigerian government, in 2003, outlawed child marriage the 2018/2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, MICS, shows that over 18.5 per cent of girls in the country still marry before age 15. Sunday Vanguard examines the frustrations, pains of these girls and reports that their health in some cases is permanently ruined while some die in the process.

Terribly wrong

Waiting helplessly at the VVF Ward of the Hajiya Gambo Sabawa General Hospital, Zaria, Kaduna State was Hafisat Abubakar. At first sight, you need not be a soothsayer to deduce that something is terribly wrong with the young mother.

The sight of a urinary bag and offensive odour emanating from her corner is enough to draw tears from the eyes of anyone in the ward. A further interaction with Hafisat revealed that she was down with one of the deadliest forms of birth complications, Obstetric Fistula, popularly known as VVF, no thanks to child marriage.

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At 13, Hafisat was forced into marriage with a man old enough to be her father.

Apparently despondent, her only hope for relief is to be repaired of her birth injury. Today, she leaks urine and faeces from her genitals.

With tears running down her cheeks, she said: “I prefer they remove my uterus. I was brought here three months ago after a protracted labour for five days.

“Sadly, the obstructed labour left me with a prolapsed uterus and obstetric fistula”.

According to medical experts, an abnormal communication may happen between the urinary bladder and the genital tract or the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in the Vesico Vaginal Fistula, VVF, or Rectovaginal Fistula, RF, one of the major complications from prolonged obstructed labour.

Hafisat is one out of the 200, 000 cases of Fistula that occurs each year in Nigeria and also one of the 65 percent of all cases of Obstetric Fistula occur in girls under the age of 18, according to the report of international female rights advocacy platform, Girls not Brides.

In the case of Amina Garuba, she almost committed suicide after her husband repeatedly had sexual intercourse with her, describing the encounters as “very very painful”.

Amina had been given out in marriage at the age of 10 by her uncle who took over her welfare after the cold hands of death snatched away her parents at the age of 5.   Initially, she was full of hopes as her uncle promised to fulfil her dreams of becoming a medical doctor upon graduation from high school. Little did she know that the so-called promise was mere falsehood to appease her then.   But her world came crashing when her uncle one fateful morning summoned her to the sitting room where she was told that a man was asking for her hands in marriage.

“I felt like dying. I could not understand why my uncle wanted me to marry while his own girls were there. He told me he could no longer cope with feeding me and the other kids”, Amina said.

“I have no one apart from him. So I was forced to marry an old man. Several times, the man would tie my legs and hands to have sex with me.”

Following the unbearable but unending sexual encounters, Amina came down with depression that made her attempted suicide.

Shadow of themselves

Today, Hafisat, Amina and millions of other Nigerian teenage girls are a shadow of themselves. Their dreams are truncated and their health jeopardized despite the fact that many international agreements, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, outlaw child marriage.

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In a report tagged: ‘Too Young to Marry’, United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, admonishes decision makers, parents, communities and the world to end child marriage. According to the report, by 2020, some 142 million girls will be married by their 18th birthday if current trends continue. “If present trends continue, the number of child marriages each year will be over 14 per cent higher by 2030, nearly 15.1 million,” the report notes.

Findings by the UN body show that an average of tens of thousands of girls every single day are married off in different parts of the world for reasons ranging from poverty to culture and religion.

Further findings by Sunday Vanguard in Nigeria are no different.   Child marriage has cultural, religious and economic ties. In some parts of the country, many believe that girls who marry after the age of 18 can become promiscuous while some families also give out their daughters in marriage due to poverty.

Although, in the past, child marriage was associated with illiteracy, today even the elites participate very actively in the inhuman act.

The problem in Nigeria is widespread.   A case in point was that of a senator who made headlines in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

His action, health watchers believed at the time, made a mess of the Child Rights Act and other international conventions signed by the Federal Government.

However, the prevalence of child marriage in Nigeria varies from region to region, with figures as high as 76 per cent in the North-West and as low as 10 percent in the South-East.

According to the 2016/2017 MICS, 44 percent of Nigerian girls are married off before their 18th birthday while 18.5 per cent are married before age 15.

Specifically, the MICS reveals that for girls married off before age 15, the North-West tops the list with 32.5 percent, followed by the North-East 23.4 while the South-East ranks lowest with 4.1 percent.

Also, data from the 2017 UNICEF State of the World’s Children report obtained on the website of ‘Girls Not Brides’, Nigeria, with 3,538,000, ranks third among 20 countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriage globally. The country also ranks 11th among 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage at 44 percent.

The 2017 State of the World’s Children report also reveals that over 650 million women alive today were married as children.

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Sadly, despite the fact that Section 23 of the 1999 Constitution states that “a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage and, if such a marriage takes place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect”, the act has continued unabated.

Health implications

Medical experts say child marriage has grievous health implications on victims.

According to them, most of the victims are unduly exposed to complications such as VVF, anaemia, high blood pressure in pregnancy also known as eclampsia, premature birth, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and postpartum depression which can lead to suicide.

According to the National President of the Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria, SOGON, Prof. Oluwarotimi Ireti Akinola, child marriage is complete slavery as the child has no say even in issues that concern her.

Akinola regretted that the act has continued to threaten the health of the victims and their well-being.

Akinola said: “Children, basically, have an age to which are regarded as physically matured but not mentally stable and not mentally capable. Although they go through some stages of maturity from physical perspectives, they are not yet emotionally equipped”.

Stating that pregnancy usually followed marriage, the SOGON President said children under the age of 18 are not yet physically or mentally ready for such a serious business.

“So if a girl gets married at a tender age, she is being made to grow into an adult suddenly by force”, he said.

He explained that these children are not only affected medically but emotionally.

“For instance, when the child is still growing and sexually immature, if she gets pregnant, her attitude, her everything would be odd even to seek medical attention becomes a problem”, Akinola explained.

“At the end of the day, it leads to an increase in mobility and mortality if they are not properly attended to. And when labour is delayed, they develop all those prolonged labour complications, injury, and then, if they get help, they will end up being operated which also affects their future obstetric career.

“A child marriage is like slavery marriage sometimes because the victims are not allowed to contribute even in the taking of the decisions that concern them”.

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Proffering solution to the problem of child marriage, the SOGON President identified education as one of the major factors that can put an end to it.

On ideal age for a woman to get married, he said: “The books are clear on that. The age of maturity is 18 years; anything from 18 years is fine. I am not in support of child marriage; it is time our government takes a stand on it”.

Mental Health and Child Marriage

Speaking on the implications of child marriage on the mental health of victims, a Consultant Psychiatrist, Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Dr Stephen Olamide Oluwaniyi, told Sunday Vanguard that child marriage can lead to depression and other mental health disorders including suicide, saying a human being’s brain does not get fully developed until the age of 25.

Oluwaniyi, who noted that children are not developed mentally, said marriage is not a child’s play as it requires a lot of responsibility and a child being pushed into that responsibility was a lot of stress to the developing body.

“We are not even talking about the education of that child and, when most of them no longer have any means of livelihood, they are going to be abused because, if the girl does not have a say in the whole process, that is not the way the female composition is made”, the psychiatrist said.

“Girls are supposed to have a say on whether they want that marriage; and a combination of so many factors, including stress, will definitely affect negatively their mental health especially because their brains are not fully developed.

“I don’t even want to talk about the physical implications of this because such individuals having sexual intercourse when the bodies are not fully formed makes them prone to some medical conditions.

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“Victims of child marriage go through a lot of mental disorders like depression, anxiety, abuse, etc.

“Mental health entails a state whereby an individual realizes his or her full potential and you cannot say this can be the fate of a child who was forced into marriage at a very tender age, because of the stress that she will be exposed to and suicidal thoughts cannot be ruled out”.

Just like in a report by the Association for Reproductive and Family Health, AFRH, insisting that every girl has a right to education and choice of life, health watchers are calling for the review of the Constitution with a view to criminalising child marriage.   They are also of the view that every Nigerian child should be protected from violent and forced marriage.

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