On Child Marriage and the Intersection of Religion and Cultural Practices – the Case of #freeEse

Strongly held beliefs are a touchy subject all over the world. The hashtag #freeEse is gaining momentum in the Nigerian social media sphere; here is the story behind it.

Ese Oruru, a 13-year-old was allegedly abducted from Bayelsa state in the heart of the Niger Delta by a man simply known as Yunusa and taken to Kano in northern Nigeria in August 2015. The young girl was subsequently renamed Aisha under the guise that she had converted to Islam and Yunusa in turn married her.

Ese’s parents after much stress were able to trace her to Kano where they were told that the girl had converted to Islam, was now married, therefore was no longer their daughter. They were informed that she is 18-years-old and capable of making decisions for herself. The palace of the Emir of Kano is believed to be providing refuge for the abducted girl. The police are involved in this matter, but so far, Ese has remained in Kano since August last year while her parents and well meaning Nigerians are trying to move heaven and earth to get her back home.

This scenario raises many issues, about religion and cultural practices, child marriage in Nigeria, the Nigerian legal perspective, obligations under international treaties, and the place of the girl child in the Nigerian society and so on.

In the first place, abduction, kidnapping or whatever fancy name it is called is a crime under Nigerian law. The freedom of movement of a child is subject to the control of the parents. This is clearly a matter for the police and it is unthinkable that the religious and the traditional leadership structure are providing protection for a criminal who has clearly run afoul of the law.

Another issue relates to the religious dimension. The young girl in question is a Christian. Child marriage although permitted under Islam is alien to Christianity. Also, under Nigerian law, only an adult can validly contract a marriage. An adult is a person 18 years of age or above. Children on the other hand are still completely subject to parental control. A very obvious contradiction is that something that is illegal under the law is being practiced openly in certain parts of Nigeria with obvious disregard for the law under the guise of religion and cultural practices. However, that is another issue altogether.

The Nigerian Constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion but these should not be exercised in a way to infringe the constitutional and fundamental rights of others. Nigeria is a party to the Convention on the Right of the Child which has thankfully been domesticated. The Nigerian Child Right Act (2003) provides for a penalty of 500,000 NGN or six months imprisonment or both for anyone who marries a child. Under the Act, no person under 18 years of age is capable of contracting a valid marriage and any marriage so contracted is deemed to be null and void. In any issue relating to a child under the law,  the ‘best interests of the child’ principle is sacrosanct. Everything should be done in the best interests of that child. The law is clear, it is not for window dressing.

Sadly, Ese’s case is not unique. There were many before her and if the situation still remains the same, there may still be many after her.

An underage girl should not be in a marriage, with her innocence forcefully taken from her.Being married cannot be in her best interests. She should be in school, on the playground, amongst her friends, developing her mind and preparing towards being a productive member of society.  Until this is the case in all parts of Nigeria, we still have a long way to go.

Image Credit: http://reaganpluscats.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Child-Bride.jpg

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