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Tackling underage marriage, GBV; the WACOL, Enugu monarchs’ initiative

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Underage girl-child marriage, gender-based-violence (GBV), benign scorn, discrimination (even outright rejection) and other actions against girl-children and widows remain public health and development issues of concern in Nigeria of today.

This is so despite series of awareness/advocacy campaigns and policy initiatives in all three tiers of governance here. The trend is worsened by the primeval attachment to some of these practices in many parts of the country. This, thus results in gender-based discrimination in social, cultural activities and other discrete appurtenances of human existence getting so entrenched that they are now taken for granted, rather tolerated (if not wholly accepted) as societal norms.

Given the force of this entrenchment, it is obvious that Nigeria of today direly needs help in its bid to overcome and rid the populace of the archaic practices which, indeed, do not accord with social justice, healthy living or even morality. This force reinforces the primordially macho-bent fancy for female genital mutilation, underage girl-child marriage, male-child preference, wife battery, wife inheritance, widowhood disinheritance as seen practised in the various ethnic segments of Nigeria. All of these, seen as the people’s culture and tradition, obviously hamper the adaptation of the womenfolk to 21st century life and stunt the application of their potentials to national development and politics, particularly in the rural communities.

According to available statistics, 18.5 per cent of Nigerian women married before age 15 and 44 percent of those aged 20-49 years, married before age 18. Also, Nigeria has the highest number of child-brides in Africa, with more than 23 million girls married as children, most of them from poor and rural communities. Going by the current population growth figures, this child-bride figure is projected to exceed one million by 2030, and double by 2050, if the trend is not curbed now.

Reports from The Lagos State Bureau of Statistics reveal that spousal abuse has become a scourge such that 50 per cent of women have been battered by their husbands at one time or the other and, unbelievably, that about 65 per cent of these are among the educated women as compared with their less educated counterparts.

Furthermore, there was a 2013 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey on 7,804 girls, aged 15-19 years. Categorised into five ethnic segments – northern ethnic majority, northern ethnic minorities, southern ethnic majorities and southern ethnic minorities – and sampled on the prevalence of underage marriage, it showed that scourge was higher (54.8 per cent) for the northern majority ethnic group, relative their two major southern ethnic groups (3.0–3.6%) and the aggregated northern ethnic minorities (25.7%) and Southern minorities (5.9%).

The urgent need for intervention over those practices is a goal the United Nations Organisation has pursued since its June 21, 1946 establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women via its Economic and Social Council Resolution 11(II), its Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action (1995). These, in addition to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, emphasise women’s human rights in law and practice for gender equality, peace and development, providing the platform for non-state-actor participation.

It is heartening that some of such non-state actors, like WomenAid Collective (WACOL), Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) and a crucial institution, rooted in the rural communities, the Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers, have taken up the gauntlet in the advocacy. Rural communities, being the epicentre of those disconcerting practices, the royal fathers’ involvement is cheery news. The actors had held a strategic conference recently (August 11, 2021) where participants openly condemned and, indeed, categorically outlawed, all such practices, with the full backing of the traditional rulers, known to be the custodians of customs and traditions in our communities. The conference was reported to have also got the crucial funding support from Ford Foundation.

With the breadth and depth of collaboration in that conference, there is no doubt that, starting with Enugu state, we might soon witness an end to the obnoxious practices around us. If WACOL, founded by law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, as reported, has recorded 4,139 cases of women and children’s rights abuses, it might just be poised for greater success, sooner than later. This is so particularly now that it is buoyed by this increased awareness and buy-in by traditional rulers whose resolution at the conference, itself a major milestone, was signed by Igwe (Amb) Lawrence Agubuzu, chairman of the council, and effectively abolished the practices.

The breakthrough, we observe, has driven WACOL to support the formation of support groups to help in the rehabilitation of victims/survivors of GBV and the other practices and the identification of male allies for collaborative work towards their total abolition.

As the call to end those forms of violence against women and girls intensifies, we, as a media organisation, join this noble advocacy and call on fellow countrymen and women to consciously and determinedly stop whatever aspects of our past that do not conduce with the realities of today’s world. It is time to accept the obvious folly in holding on to aspects of our culture that may have served our forebears in their time but which modern science and social realities find unavailing for justice and fairness, healthy living and human dignity.

The same thinking and spirit with which our society, albeit influenced externally, accepted the absurdity in the culture of wasting our twins in the past, needs to be applied in dealing with gender-based violence, underage girl-child marriage, contempt for the girl-child, denial of widowhood rights, among other absurdities, if we must be reckoned with among the civilised comity of nations.

As we alert the citizenry to recognise the well-known dynamism of people’s culture, it is important for all tiers of government to actively, financially align with and support the efforts of non-state actors like WACOL in Nigeria. This is crucial.

Also, the governments need to enforce such existing laws in our statutes which protect the citizenry against harmful, discriminatory practices. The Child Rights Act and other extant laws protecting children need to be teethed and made functional. This is even as the landmark August 2020 Supreme Court judgement against girl-child disinheritance, which the court ruled as breaching Section 42 (1) and (2) of the Nigerian constitution, comes in handy.

This country definitely has laws, in its statutes, and enough judicial precedence, to aid abolition of some of these practices. This needs to be done today.

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