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Age of consent

The former Governor of Nigeria’s Zamfara State, Senator Sani Yerima, recently married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl – after paying her family $100,000 for her. The ‘marriage’ is being discussed in the media but no charges of rape or forced marriage are being pursued. Two other men, Harrison Eze and Ademola Arogboto, have both been charged with rape – though for some reason the papers seem shy of using this word. Instead they use the phrase ‘alleged forceful carnal knowledge of a minor’ and ‘abuse of underage girls’. It is evident that the law is being applied on the basis of class/status and religion. Child marriage takes place in countries across the world, from South America to Africa and Asia. It also tends to take place in rural areas and amongst the poor. In Nigeria 20 to 40 per cent of young girls are forced into marriage and the majority of those take place amongst Northern Muslims under sharia law. As a result of the early marriages, cases of vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) – usually caused by a prolonged and obstructed labour – are very high amongst young girls. Though there are some organizations providing surgical repair and rehabilitation, together with education on reproductive rights and economic empowerment, the majority of those living with VVF have very little medical help.

It’s no coincidence that during his Governorship of Zamfara, Sani Yerima – who has a habit of marrying underage girls – instigated and championed the implementation of sharia law in his state, where marrying girls as young as 11 is commonplace. Why is a Senator who is a serial rapist and child trafficker walking around as if nothing has happened? Why is he not being called to account in the Senate as well as being charged with rape? Because like elsewhere in the world but more so in Nigeria, the rich are above the law – particularly if they are also politicians – and because there is still a culture of protecting paedophiles and blaming the children.

Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA) is demanding that the Federal Government arrest and prosecute Yerima for trafficking, but not for forced marriage and rape. Why? Because Yerima married the young girl under sharia law and the age of consent in Northern Nigeria remains 13. This is so typical on all levels. No one has the guts to come out name the man and his crimes and challenge a law, religious or otherwise, which violates the rights of children as agreed by all international and African human rights legislation, including Nigeria’s Child Rights Act 2003. However, although the Act is enforceable at Federal level, only 16 of the 36 states have passed the Act, leaving millions of Nigerian children without any protection.

Nigeria has been unable to deal with several issues hindering the protection of children’s rights, such as children living on the streets, children affected by communal conflict, drug abuse, human trafficking and the weaknesses of the juvenile justice system, amongst others.

In 2005, The Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria (SCSN) made an official protest against adopting the Child Rights Act, and again in 2008 the Kano House of Assembly said the Act was against the religion and culture [of the north].

Whilst I have no time for Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and believe he should shut up and stop interfering in Nigeria’s internal politics, maybe he did have a point after all in calling for Nigeria to be split in two since the sharia states have a law onto their own and refuse to accept international, African and Nigerian human rights laws or acknowledge the Federal penal code.

The WELA and other human rights organizations should be campaigning for an open discussion on the age of consent, which should be raised to 16, and for forced marriages to be made a criminal offence. Civil society and pro-democracy groups are too focused on party politics and corruption, whilst religious groups are busy moralizing and ranting against homosexuality. The two issues at stake here are the rights of children and the fact that at this moment there are two Nigerias – the northern sharia states and the rest of the country. The former is increasingly removing itself from the Federal structure and picking and choosing which Federal and international laws to uphold and which to ignore.

Women’s groups, activists and academics presented a petition to the National Assembly on 28 April to remove Yerima from office: Will Yerima end up in jail? The petition was also referred to the Committee on Ethics and that of Petitions, with a mandate to incorporate any other relevant Committee to address the issues raised. Female members of the Senate have also taken up the case, with a view to using their influence to remove Senator Yerima.

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