The Nigerian Senate voted last week on a constitutional amendment that would have helped protect girls from underage marriage. But thanks to a filibuster by a lawmaker known for taking child brides, the clause setting the age of consent at 18 failed.
The Tuesday vote caused outrage among Nigerians, who are turning to social media and other forms of activism to get the Senate to revisit the issue.
The amendment would have made it illegal for underage girls to marry by setting “full age,” the age of consent, at 18. Although ostensibly the amendment applied to renouncing citizenship, it indirectly affected marriage laws. Sen. Sani Ahmed Yerima argued the clause contradicts Shariah law: “By Islamic law any woman that is married, she is of age, so if you now say she is not of age then it means that you are going against Islamic law.”
Yerima has a record of marrying underage girls. In 2010, he married a 14-year-old Egyptian girl whom he bought from her father for $100,000, according to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. He first had to divorce his 17-year-old wife, whom he married when she was 15, because of an Islamic law that forbids men from having more than four wives at a time.
On Monday traditional chief and former Cabinet minister Femi Fani-Kayode wrote a letter to The Vanguard newspaper exemplifying the outrage over the vote.
“Every Nigerian should bow his or her head in shame because instead of crushing the head of the lustful beast that seeks to fornicate with our children, to steal their virtues and to destroy their future, what the Senate did the other day was to compromise with and cater for the filthy appetites and godless fantasies of a bunch of child molesters and sexual predators,” he wrote.
A clash of legal systems in Nigeria is fueling part of the outrage. In 2003, Nigeria passed the Child Rights Act, a federal law that forbids girls under 18 from marrying. But few Nigerian states enforce the law, according to the United Nations Population Fund.The organization said this is due both to the fact that Nigerian states have the freedom to implement the law differently, and that civil, traditional, and Islamic laws all apply to marriages.
Because of the conflicting laws, roughly 40 percent of girls in Nigeria marry before they turn 18. In the northern, mostly Islamic region, estimates are close to 50 percent.
Many Nigerians, such as Iheoma Obibi of the Nigerian Feminist Forum, think the Child Rights Act should be upheld: “The government needs to stick with the age of consent being 18 and to work with communities in recognizing that a child is a child.”
Obibi has launched a campaign against the decision, and with other groups is promoting the Twitter hash tag #ChildNOTBride.
Others, such as Sen. Ayo Akinyelure, also regret the decision. Akinyelure voted against the new clause, but wept publicly on Monday when he spoke to constituents about his decision.
Through tears, he said he never meant to vote for child marriages: “The question before the Senate for which I voted in favor was whether a married woman is deemed to be of full age to renounce her Nigerian citizenship and not whether a woman can marry before attaining the age of 18 years.”