Nigeria’s civil intentions to defend the rights of the girl child, in relation to marriage, has always threatened relationships and other lines of affiliation, especially when its dictates appears to favour one side in a country with a tripartite legal systems (civil, customary and Islamic laws).
A few days ago, Sheikh Yakubu Hassan, speaking on behalf of the Katsina State branch of ‘Jama’atu Izalatil Bidah wa Iqamatis Sunnah’ (JIBWIS) corrected the widely believed but mistaken impression that the 14-year-old girl, Miss Habiba Isiyaku, who was allegedly forcefully converted to Islam is married to the Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Abdulmumuni Usman. He announced to the world that, contrary to what was reported, the juvenile was married to “a young man called Jamilu Lawal”, and that the “Emir only endorsed the marriage”.
Sheikh Yakubu also stated that JIBWIS is in possession of data that puts the teenager’s date of birth as July 20, 1999, as against the extensively recounted date of May 15, 2001, given by her parents. That makes her seventeen years old.
The mistake JIBWIS has made, from my standpoint, is not in making a resolute effort to protect the Emir and the exalted Emirship position from being rubbished by people who have been misinformed. It is in its affirmation that a girl of that age is capable of venturing into marriage without the consent and blessings of her parents and family.
Generally, marriage has to meet certain requirements and parental consent or permission is one of them. But then, it is clear JIBWIS’ narrative is not about Habiba’s alleged contentious marriage. It is, intrinsically, about defending the act of marriage without parental validation, even if it stomps on the right of others.
Interestingly, the Child Rights Act enacted in 2003 typifies the duties and responsibilities of parents, the government and organisations towards children.
Part III Section 22 of the Act outlaws forcing a child into marriage by maintaining that ‘No parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person’. A violation of either section 21 or section 22 draws “a fine of 500,000 Naira (about $1,578) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
But let’s face it, the right of the girl child, in relation to marriage, is not adequately protected by the constitution. Part III Section 21 of the Child Rights Act which states that ‘No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever’ remains at variance with Section 29 (4) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which reads: ‘(b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age’.
As it is, “full age” has civil, customary and religious connotations. The disparity in age in the three laws of the land means that the age of marriage, as defined by one, is either silent or subject to open interpretation in another.
Our tripartite legal systems which function contemporaneously is making it difficult for the provisions of our constitution, which we claim is supreme, to exercise any form of authority, in relation to girl child marriage.
We cannot continue to normalise the violation of our constitution and expect reasoning to prevail in our society.
It is, therefore, important to introduce a pattern of reformation that will create a benchmark anchored within a harmonious legalistic framework.
Thankfully, the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, are upright examples of countries with success stories in this area.
In all this, we must realise that the best interest of a child should be dominant in all actions permissible in cases like Habiba’s.