Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Relaxed and in a measured tone, popular Nigerian journalist Adeola Fayehun has come out and denounced her country's decision to retain the constitutional ruling that defines 'full age' as anyone over the age of 18, but in the case of women, anyone who is married. To many, this is tantamount to a de facto approval of underage marriage. "There is a paradox, a contradiction in the constitution," Fayehun says, arguing that it leaves latitude for interpretation by religious bodies, and might well be a license for child abuse and gross human-rights violations. "Obviously, the law regarding women was made to appease Muslims." She concedes, though, that in a populous and multi-ethnic, tribal and religious state such as Nigeria, resolving such a sensitive issue is arduous and even perilous. In fact, some governments have ignored vociferous calls to outlaw the practice by notable bodies, such as, Pan African Positive Women's Coalition, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices and the UN Global Coalition on Women.
As the host of 'Keeping it Real,' Fayehun is known for her satirical take on African politics. She touts her mission to "educate" Africa and its diaspora on current events, and extol the professional and academic achievements of "her people in the US and all part of the world". She can also be critical of African politicians who have failed to live up to expectations. "I hold them to account," she states. And in her homeland where 75 per cent of graduates are unemployed she has had much to discuss. "Yes, infrastructure, corruption and unemployment are inexcusable." So too is the potential danger to an untold number of Nigerian girls who might slip into the cracks, victims of underage marriage. The statistics are daunting. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020.
Nigeria is just one in a long list of African countries with high rates of child marriages.
Recalling the contemptuous mails she has received for addressing the issue on her show, Fayehun initially expressed reservation about reopening the discussion with me. But pressed by her "conscience" on a matter that can have an adverse impact on Nigeria's people and its image, she acquiesced, offering a clearer insight into the tumultuous world of religion, culture, economics and politics.
"There are three factors involved in this matter: income, education and religion. In the north of Nigeria, the practice of marrying off girls as young as 10 years is prevalent." Although she refuses to make sweeping statements, she views Sharia or Islamic law and jurisprudence as determining factors in the practice. "I may be wrong, but I am hard-pressed to imagine Christian families engaging in this kind of abuse even if challenged economically." She buttresses her argument that "it is a problem rooted in Islam," by referring to Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima who married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl after having paid a US$100,000 dowry or bride price.
That child marriage has become a thorn in the sides of Muslim fundamentalists in Africa and the Middle East is undeniable. Last month, Dr Salih bin Fawzan, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia commented on the controversy, "Uninformed interference with Sharia rulings by the press and journalists is on the increase, posing dire consequences to society, including their interference with the question of marriage to small girls who have not reached maturity, and their demand that a minimum age be set for girls to marry..."
Fayehun has been bombarded with similar statements by many Muslim viewers of her programme. However, she remains steadfast. "This is not only a religious matter, neither is it a gender matter." The ruling has seen thousands demonstrating in Lagos and other parts of the country. Both men and women are equally outraged by the implications of the senate's decision. "This is a human-rights issue. We must see to it that girls must be unencumbered teens. They must enjoy their adolescents, have an education, given the opportunity to mature and make decisions regarding their future." Impassioned, she assails what she refers to as a practice that will cause the moral and social decay of her country. "When these girls marry it is not too long after that they bear children and are imprisoned in a life of domestic servitude and even violence. It begins and continues a cycle of illiteracy and poverty. There is also the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
While Muslim apologists are supportive of the constitution and clerics are pacified, Fayehun cautions, "we have never heard from the girls who have been violated. Why don't we get to hear their story of being child brides and former child brides?"
Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org/Follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby. Dr Glenville Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council International