04/12/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2014

The Practice of Child Marriage in Nigeria

The practice of child marriage in Nigeria is prevalent. This can partly be explained because Nigeria is very much divided on religious grounds. The South is mainly Christian and the North is principally Islam. So, even though the country as a whole is 'bound' by Federal Law and the Nigerian Constitution -- and I use the word bound very loosely -- some Northern states in Nigeria subscribe to Sharia law, at least their own version of it. In Nigeria, the federal law prohibits the marriage of persons that are below eighteen. However, the states in Nigeria that implements Sharia law do not prohibit child marriage. This tends to create a clash of laws and principles, but not to the point where the federal government feels the need to intervene. Child marriage is simply a traditional convention that has been allowed to subsist within Nigeria.

Wasila Umaru is a 14-year-old girl that was forced to marry a 35-year-old man in Nigeria. She made the news this week for poisoning and killing her 'husband' and two of his friends. I am not in any way excusing what she did. I am not of the belief that two 'wrongs' make a right. However, I think that the issue is a little bit more complicated than a 14-year-old girl killing her 'husband.' In order to understand the situation that Wasila Umaru found herself in, it is important to explore the practice of child marriage in Nigeria, a bit more deeply.

Autonomy and Consent are two key elements, amongst others, that are necessary when one is entering into a marital contract with someone else. These two key elements are lacking in a situation where a child is forced to marry an adult. On the one hand, they are not given the choice to say no. But, on the other hand, children are not capable of consent. In order to consent to something, you have to be fully aware of and have the capacity to understand what you are consenting to. Children do not have this ability. This is not to say that children are incapable of reason. But, they are not fully capable of always understanding the costs of their choices. This is why, when children do something horrid, we tend to judge them as children, and we do not hold them to the same standard as we hold adults.

If one is to concede to the argument that autonomy and consent is key to a valid marital contract, then it is not hard to see why Wasila's marriage was both void and wrong. However, it is always easy to condemn the Sharia law, and rightly so, for allowing the practice of child marriage to exist within the context of the Nigerian society. However, I think that the issue is deeper than that. If we look at the people most affected by child marriage, they tend to be girls who are from poor homes. This consistent demographic, with respect to child marriage is something that cannot be ignored.

There is an antiquated practice of collecting 'bride price' in Nigeria. When a girl is getting married in Nigeria, her groom is expected to pay a certain price for her. This practice can be traced back to the belief that a girl is the property of her family, her father to be more specific. In order to marry her, you have to pay a price for her. The practice has become customary in Nigeria, but it also provides a very huge motive for why child marriage as a practice has continued to persist. It further explains why girls from poor families are the most vulnerable to this practice. The children are married off to older men, in order to both get the bride price that is paid on her behalf, but also because that is one less mouth to feed for her family.

There are other complex factors that have led to the continual and persistent subsistence of the practice of child marriage in Nigeria. However, poverty, and the fact that the female child is seen, almost as, dispensable property are one of the main reasons why child marriage is predominant in Nigeria. The question becomes, how do we target the issue of child marriage in Nigeria. This is a very hard question, because on the one hand, it involves targeting many people's core beliefs that there is nothing wrong with child marriage. But, on an institutional level, education seems to be the only plausible way to target this issue. Educated families are more likely to practice family planning, and thus avoid the issue of having more children than they could care for. Educated parents are more likely to want education for their children as well. However, we as society must also work to target the issues of poverty and the way women are viewed in our society.

We as a society must start to realize that the practice of child marriage must cease to persist, for the sake of the future of these girls that are married to early. Child marriage is a cultural issue, but it is also a social justice issue and a national health issue in Nigeria. We need to work as a society to figure out ways to give the most vulnerable in our society a positive control over their future. It is a national health issue in Nigeria, because these children are subject to continual sexual abuse, and possible physical violence by their supposed spouses. There are also numerous issues that arouse from child-teen pregnancy, both physical and psychological.

This is what Wasila's family subjected her too and, no matter how much we might condemn her for killing her husband, one could easily see why Wasila, herself, was situated in an impossible and unbearable situation. There are many Wasila's that exist in Nigeria, and it is time that we do what we can as a country to end child marriage and the plights, costs and consequences that accompany the practice.