Child marriage is a human rights violation with many facets and consequences; it is a practice that disproportionately affects girls, stripping them of their agency to make decisions, inhibiting their education, and exposing them to violence and abuse. Countries have long recognized the threat child marriage poses to girls’ lives and have ratified numerous international agreements outlawing the practice, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – “the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.” But, despite near-universal pledges to abolish child marriage, “19 percent of girls are married before age 18.”

Among all world regions, the prevalence of girl-child marriage is the highest in Africa. Although most of these countries have civil laws outlawing the practice, it persists primarily because of traditional and religious practices and laws . In fact, “many African countries have plural legal systems, where civil, religious and customary laws often contradict one another.” For example, in Eritrea the country’s Civil Code sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, and the Logo Chwa Code of Customary Law dictates that girls can get married at 15. And, in many communities where such customary and religious laws premit girl-child marriage, they often supersede national law.

This challenging interplay of laws is the main impediment to abolishing girl-child marriage in Nigeria’s plural and multi-religious society. Although the government outlawed child marriage at the federal level nearly two decades ago, by enacting the Child’s Right Act of 2003 (CRA), it remains an unabated issue. This is because differing views of childhood, across the religious North-South divides of the country, make consensus in terms of child rights legislation difficult. Specifically, in the largely Muslim north where majority of the states adhere to Sharia as the primary source of law, “interpretations of scriptures,” which make no mention of a fixed age of marriage for girls, are used to legitimize the practice and justify rejection of the CRA. 

Consequently, the rights of girls in Northern Nigeria, in relation to marriage, are not adequately or uniformly protected and they face lifelong health and developmental issues as a result of child marriage. Only 26 states have adopted the CRA and almost all of the country’s 22 million child brides are concentrated in the 10 states northern states that have refused to adopt the CRA on account of its strict prohibition on child marriage, and ensuing conflict with Sharia law. These states have the highest rates of girl-child marriages in the country – with 48 percent of girls in the region being married by the age of 15, and about 78 percent by the age of 18.

The Child’s Right Act

The most comprehensive of Nigeria’s federal child protection laws is the CRA, which was enacted to give legal effect to the UNCRC and mainstream its provisions into national law and practice. The CRA specifies that the “best interests of the child” should be central to all actions, and it defines a child as a person under the age of 18. Most importantly, it provides that children are to be protected from violent and exploitative practices, and specifically includes child marriage among the prohibited practices. However, despite its well-intended purpose, the Nigerian government has struggled with implementing the CRA in all of the country’s 36 states.

The Struggle for National Implementation

At the forefront of this struggle is Nigeria’s federal structure of government. Because the Federal Constitution (the Constitution) commands that legislative jurisdiction on children’s issues belongs exclusively to the individual states, each state legislature must domesticate the CRA for it to be enforceable within its territory. A detailed review of the periodic reports submitted by Nigeria to the UN Committee on Rights of Child in 2010 notes that the Federal Government has taken appropriate steps toward achieving national implementation of the CRA. Among other measures, the government has instituted a National Child Health Policy, which translates the CRA into specific goals, targets, and objectives for states. However, progress has been slow and the CRA is yet to gain widespread acceptance.

This is because at the core of the struggle for national implementation is Sharia– the basic source of law for most of the states in Northern Nigeria, including the 10 states that have yet to domesticate the CRA. These states consider the CRA to be incompatible with “Islamic values, traditions and culture,” and take issue primarily with its general prohibition on child marriage; they assert that Part III, Section 21, which proclaims that “no person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage,” challenges long-established Islamic practices. This is because the Quran, which informs Sharia law, does not specify the age of marriage and instead upholds that puberty is the determining factor when assessing a girl’s readiness for marriage. As such, an age restriction contravenes Sharia law

Due to this, legislators in these Sharia implementing states have rejected the CRA and often cite “Islam’s lack of age requirement” as justification for girl-child marriage. Many of these states have even gone on to pass competing child protection laws that omit the CRA’s age restriction altogether. Jigawa, for example, recently introduced a new bill that does not place any restriction on the age of marriage because doing so would be ​​“controversial and alien to [the] predominant religion and culture” of the Muslim Hausa-Fulani tribe – among whom child marraige is common and often happens by the betrothal of girls to adult males.

What Are The Effects?

As compared with the largely Christian south, where the CRA has been adopted, girls in the north face higher rates of maternal mortality and health complications, like vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) and rectum vagina fistula (RVF), as a consequence of early pregnancy. And, they are more at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS as studies have shown that there is a close link between child marriage and the spread of the infection in Northern Nigeria

Furthermore, because many girls who marry as children often drop out of school and are deprived of an education, there is a higher level of illiteracy among women in the north than in any other part of the country. The most recent National Demographic and Health survey shows that roughly 60 percent of women in the North-East and 64 percent of women in the North-West have no formal education and that there is a positive correlation between girl-child marriage and illeteracy in Northern Nigeria.

Looking Forward /Conclusion

The push for national adoption of the CRA continues as prominent leaders continue to speak out on its importance. However, the outlook is grim. Girl-child marriage is concentrated and prevalent in the Sharia implementing states of Northern Nigeria where deep-rooted customary practices and interpretations of scripture, which make no mention of a minimum age for marriage, continue to perpetuate and legitimize the practice. Thus, if the Federal Government is to abolish child marriage and ensure the rights of all girls, in relation to marriage, it must attempt to reconcile Sharia based laws with the CRA because the divergent perspectives between the two pose the main impediment to ending the practice in all 36 states.  


Author Biography: Gabriella Igboko is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a B.S. in Business Administration with a minor in Economics from Fordham University.