The Plight of the Girl-Child and the Child-Bride in Nigeria and Ivory Coast

Education is key to change society

Von Stella Chika Okoronkwo

According to the United Nations child fund (UNICEF), around 23 million girls and women are married out as children in Nigeria. Similarly, According to the United Nations, 27 percent of girls in Côte d’Ivoire are married before the age of 18 and 7% are married before the age of 15. They are unfortunately being stifled especially in their rights to education. This is a crime against humanity unless something is done to change the situation. What about the Sustainable Development Goals that have become a watch word today? Is the girl-child or the child bride included?

Education is key to change society

Photo  by Doug Linstedt on Unsplash

 

In 2018, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that 30% of Nigerian girls aged between 15 and 19 who should be still in school were already married (Thisdaylive.com). According to this organization, only 14 percent of these girls completed primary education. 50 percent of women in Côte d’Ivoire’s poorest households were married as children, compared to only 14 percent in the richest households (Thisdaylive.com). Child marriage is often used as a survival tactic, especially when families cannot afford to send girls to school. Some girls fall into street life or sex work in order to pay for their education. In remote villages of South-east of Nigeria where I come from, I know of a family that used a girl child as a guarantee for a badly needed loan to solve certain problems facing the family. She eventually became a wife to the first son of that family. Today she is involved in politics and business with great support from her husband.

In Cote d’Ivoire, just like in several other West African nations, instead of treating marriage as a specific issue within government policy, child marriage is included under the umbrella of gender-based violence and under the Ministry of family and the child.

 

Factors Associated with Child Marriage

Many factors are responsible for the plight of child-bride such as cultural, religious, social pressures and poverty.  In some traditions, like in a place called Nsukka in Enugu state of Nigeria where I once lived, their culture demands that as soon as a baby girl is born, a willing suitor can go and ask to marry that child. If the parents accept, they pay some money as part of the bride price for the future marriage.  The age of this so-called suitor does not really matter. The age can range from 30years to 80 years. The parents of the baby will proudly begin to see the man as the husband of their baby girl. He will be sending money for the upbringing of his future wife every month. When the girl child is old enough, the man will be required to come and take the child any time from the age of nine to eleven years old. Some well thinking men will put the girl in school until they are mature enough to be a wife then they will consummate the marriage. The girls, while in primary school used to boast about their “husbands,” especially when someone molested or threatened them. They will immediately warn that their husbands will come to retaliate whoever is in their bad books. Some of the grooms who marry these child brides are of the same ages as the fathers of these girls.  The men are made to believe that the younger their wives are, the longer they will live...

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

 

Some religions believe that it is a waste of time and money to put a girl-child in school. The reason according to them is that the girl-child belongs to another family because sooner or later, she will be married off into another family. The girls themselves have been brain-washed to believe this lie. 

I once overheard a close male relative saying that his sisters were strangers in their house.  I asked him what he meant and he said it was because they were destined to be married off and leave the home any time.  I told him I did not agree with that because I believe that every child has a right to stay in their parents’ home as long as they want because their father’s home is theirs too.  Whenever they feel ready to get married or move to another house, they are sent off with parental blessings. But I could not believe my ears a few days later when I heard one of the girls in question re-echoing the same thing her brother said. She said she didn’t give a damn whether things went wrong in that family because she was a stranger. I was embarrassed and disappointed. I realized that she had been brainwashed from childhood to believe that girls belong to another home - their husbands’ home. Today, she is still single and hovering around her parents’ home still feeling like a “stranger”. Unfortunately, she did not go to school and therefore can barely support herself. I could not imagine myself being regarded as a stranger in my parents’ home. (Source: Chika Goes to School –Chika Va a l’Ecole)

Furthermore, illiteracy could also be another culprit. Parents who did not go to school do not know the value and beauty of education and cannot wish it for their girls. An adage says that the taste of the pudding is in eating it. Unfortunately, many parents too were deprived of this wonderful gift called education.  However, the few parents that “tasted” education,  did everything to put their children into school against all odds. My parents belonged to these few and I owe everything I am today to them.

But the worst culprit that victimized the girl-child is poverty. This monster has eaten into the fabrics of rural communities. In Africa for example, after the experience of slave trade, colonization and civil wars for decades, provoked by the scramble for Africa’s mineral resources, many families are still trying to stand on their feet. Undoubtedly, many are already firm on their feet through their own relentless hard work. Many parents still struggle to provide basic needs for the family through different types of farming. They cannot accept that their girl-child be given the privilege to go to school all day while they themselves work and sweat in the field. They insist that they need extra hands in the farm.

 

Child Marriage is a Crime Against Humanity

Aside from being a crime against humanity, conferring adult responsibility to children is as good as undermining the child’s future. The child can never have a normal growth cycle. Some of them suffer complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Others suffer from fistula due to the pressure on the tender bladder during delivery leading to constant urine leakage. Due to the unpleasant smells of a fistula patient, the community tends to ostracize them and do not welcome them in their homes. Some of the husbands who no longer stand them  because of the bad smell, may choose another wife to escape from the embarrassment. Other possible complications include HIV infection, premature births, domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse. The risk of premature death cannot be ruled out. Child marriage affects the normal development and mental health of the girls and some may either run away, commit suicide or kill their husbands to gain their freedom. What is the society doing about this?

 

Girls-Brides are Stripped of Basic Human Rights

A child bride is not only denied the right to education but also the right to use her creativity because of the many restrictions she will face. There is also the risk of early widowhood given that many of the husbands were already over 40 years of age before marriage. There are numerous economic and social challenges with regards to the girl-child and the child-bride. Without support from their families, the girl child is forced to have sex even before the age of nine, even before the organs are fully developed. Some are bombarded by sexual harassments by peers and older men and some are forced into street life or become sex-workers. Some mothers even encourage their girl child to go look for male friends who can give them money in exchange for sex.

Photo by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash

 

In search of solutions

Several Non-Governmental Organizations in Cote d’Ivoire and other countries have taken it upon themselves to assist the government in search of durable solutions to this plague against humanity. But their major challenge has been the lack of funds. But even with the available meager resources and technical know-how, hundreds of children have benefitted thanks to having access to education and healthcare. NGOs like Women with a Mission for Development  or Les Femmes en Mission pour le Developpement (FEMDEV)  in Cote d’Ivoire are sensitizing  communities to send the girl child to school. FEMDEV encourages vocational training, counseling, and literacy/computer programs for girls and women to empower them to stand on their own feet. This is because a large percentage of girls were born out of wedlock and both parents may have remarried or died during the armed conflict. They are left behind to fend for themselves and are at risk of living on the streets or facing unwanted pregnancies.

During one of NGO FEMDEV’s sensitization program in a place called Grand Lahou, a mother told us blatantly,

 “My 12 year old daughter has to stay at home to assist me around the house. She cannot go to school I am sorry to tell you this.”

“Madam, your daughter has a right to education. You have to let her go to school. It is her passport to becoming whatever she wants to be in future,” we explained to her.

We took time to explain to her about the value and beauty of education. We succeeded in convincing some of the parents to enroll their girls in school but others insisted that they do not have extra money to pay fees for their girls given the poverty level in the area and in the country. Today, the success story is that schools have been established in those remote villages.

 

Chika Goes to School – my own story

The villagers in this small village in Grand Lahou in Cote d’Ivoire were mesmerized by the story from the book, Chika Goes to School, a book that I wrote to narrate how from a very young age, I began to value education so much  because of the importance my parents attached to it. The book talks about how my parents were able to put five daughters and four sons through school with their meager resources in an era when most parents refused to send their girls to school for reasons cited above. Today, the story has changed in that village in Nigeria. Now every parent sends every girl and boy to school because of the success of this exemplary family. Now the communities in remote villages in Grand Lahou that we sensitized have unanimously agreed that kindergartens be established in their villages and that the little girls be enrolled in the schools. One of the schools have already enrolled over 150 children who are very excited about acquiring education though their parent, mostly farmers, find it very difficult to pay their school fees. Some were unfortunately sent home after not being able to pay some small fees for one academic year.

Book by Okoronkwo S.C. Chika Va a l’Ecole , Edilis, Abidjan 2005

 

Education is undeniable

I believe that education is the starting point in solving this problem of child brides. Giving scholarship to the girl child, giving her school supplies and paying her canteen fees are ways to support the girls and help them enjoy their school experience. Even for the girl brides, we need to sensitize their husbands to understand the needs of their brides. They can be encouraged to allow their brides do evening school or vocational training, which can help them pursue their dreams later in life. Awarding them some little loans can help them start small income generating activities so they can have their own accounts and do creative things that they love to do. The loans can be paid back over a period of years. The sky can never be the limit to what can be done to assist these young victims of poverty, gender violence, culture, tradition and ignorance if everyone in the community puts their hands on deck. It is not too late to start now.

 

References

  • Okoronkwo S.C. Chika Va a l’Ecole , Edilis, Abidjan 2005

 

Stella Chika Okoronkwo

Stella Chika Okoronkwo, Lecturer, author, trainer, development agent. Founder of the NGO Les Femmes en Mission pour le Developpement (FEMDEV) a member of Girlsnotbrides. Member of Afro-European Medical Research and network and board member of WAMO (Women with a Mission for Development) and NGM.

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