Basira (surname withheld), 15, sat on the ground in front of her mud house to breastfeed her nine-month-old baby.
She lives with her husband in Yamawa, a village filled with mud houses in Kano State. Basira was barely 12 years old when her parents married her off to her husband, whom she said is in his late 40s.
“I have been living with the man for the past three years. My parents brought me to my husband’s house when I was only 12,” Basira said in Hausa.
While many other girls of her age would be under their parents’ watch, go to school regularly and are properly cared for, Basira is already breastfeeding a child.
She said she stopped going to school when she was in Primary 3. “I dropped out of school when I was in Primary 3 and ever since then, I have not gone back to any school,” she said.
Early marriage is a clear illustration of how thousands of children are marginalised due to severe deprivation. This deprivation negatively impacts on other breakthroughs, including child survival and development.
Part III Section 21 of the Nigeria Child Rights Act states that “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.”
Also, Part III Section 22, which prohibits the betrothal of children, says, “no parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.”
A contravention of either Section 21 or Section 22, attracts a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years or both.
According to a UNICEF report, Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, with 23 million girls and women who were married in childhood. This means that about 49 per cent of Nigerian women marry under the age of 18.
Though the prevalence of child marriage varies widely across Nigeria, the practice is said to be most common in the northern region.
A report by Save the Children, shows that the prevalence is highest in the North-west with 76 per cent and lowest in the South-east with 10 per cent.
However, if severe measures are not taken to stop this, the number of child brides in Nigeria will double by 2050, a 2014 UNICEF shows.
Soft-spoken 10-year-old Rabiu Umar, sells groundnut on the busy streets of Kano to support his parents.
According to the principles contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child of Rabiu’s age should be in school and not on the street.
But due to Rabiu’s poor background, there is little or nothing he can do about his situation.
Rabiu is not alone. At the time children of his age were in school, Ahmad Mohammed, a 12-year-old boy, hawked sachet water from the market through the popular woman Buku street, in Kubwa, a suburb in the FCT.
Instead of sitting in a classroom, Ahmad is on the street selling water to provide food for himself and his relative. He said his mother is in Sokoto state and he only came to Abuja with a relative of his father.
Speaking in Hausa, he said, “My parents are in Sokoto, where I was born. I was brought to Abuja last year by my father’s family.
“He (his father) works as a security man in a house in Gbazango, that is where I live,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad and Rabiu are part of the estimated 13.2 million out-of-school children in Nigeria.
According to the 2019 Global Childhood Report , one in every four children is being denied the right to a an ideal childhood – a time of life that should be safe for growing, learning and playing.
Going by the Child Right Act, the developmental rights of Ahmad and Rabiu as children are being trampled upon.
These rights enables children to reach their fullest potential like education, play and leisure, cultural activities, access to information and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Child Rights Act
The Convention says childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until 18. It is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.
The principles enshrined were adopted in Nigeria as the Child’s Rights Act (CRA) in 2003.
Despite the passage of the Act, not every child gets such rights in Nigeria.
Article 3 of CRC states that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.
However, Basira’s interest as a child was not put into consideration as marriage deprived her of the childhood development.
Why CRA must domesticated in all states – Experts
Following the adoption of the Child Right Act, child marriage became illegal and the minimum age of marriage increased to 18.
Though the legislation was put in place by the federal government, states are meant to adopt and pass the Act.
However, according to the the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 11 northern states in Nigeria are yet to pass the Child Right Act.
The states include Bauchi, Yobe, Sokoto, Adamawa, Borno, Zamfara, Gombe, Katsina, Kebbi, Jigawa and Kano, where Basira, the child bride, and Rabiu, the street-hawker, are from.
Speaking at a two-day media dialogue on CRC held in Lagos, Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF, Sharon Oladiji, said lack of access to the developmental need of the children is detrimental to their rights
“We must promote all opportunities that will help sound development in children. Lack of access to developmental need is detrimental to the rights of children,” she said.
She stated that investing in a child was paramount for Nigeria and Africa to realise the rights of the increasing young population.
“A healthy development of a child is crucial to the future well-being of any nation. Special attention is required for Nigeria, which is the country with the largest increase in absolute numbers of both birth and child population. It is time we acknowledge our shared responsibility and address this issue,” she said.
The Head of Child Rights information Bureau, Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Olumide Osanyinpeju, said there is need for the government to take deliberate and decisive action in formulating polices on the CRA.
He said the implementation by states yet to adopt and domesticate it into law, will enhance the rights and well-being of the Nigerian child. The chief of communication, UNICEF, Eliana Drakopoulos, also weighs in.
“The Convention on the rights of the child must be made known to everyone in order to ensure full protection and adoption of the CRC act.
“The need to ensure that children are empowered all round to take their pride of place in our society and the world at large. This is a realisation that all children have a right to better life, an opportunity to survive, develop and reach their full potentials,” she added.
Until the nation gets it right at the implementation level, children such as Ahmad and Rabiu will daily plod the streets in search of sustenance.