Islamic Sharia Law Cited as Obstacle to Eradicating Child Marriage in Nigeria

By Lauretta Brown | August 7, 2014 | 3:07 PM EDT

(United Nations Population Fund)

( –  A lawyer and women’s rights advocate from Nigeria cited “the conflict between the Nigerian constitution and [Islamic] sharia law” as an obstacle to ending child marriage in the African nation.

Oyindamola Oluwaseun Fagbenle said sharia law was one of the barriers to the implementation of Nigeria’s Child Rights Act, which was enacted in 2003 and prohibits the “betrothal and marriage of children” under the age of 18.

“I think that effective implementation of these laws and policies are very, very key,” said Fagbenle, a panelist at the United Nations Foundation’s “Lead for Girls: U.S. and African Leaders Must End Child Marriage to Empower the Next Generation" discussion in Washington on Tuesday.

“A major issue that is contributing to this inefficiency is the conflict between the Nigerian constitution and sharia law. I mean there is a big, there’s a huge conflict. The law, you know we have the Child Rights Act as well, which sets the age [of marriage] at 18, but the sharia law is saying something else,” she said.

“Child marriage is not specifically, you know, just from the Islamic part of the country. It’s something that happens in some other places,” Fagbenle later told “But the predominant place is in the north and [there] the religion, the practice and the law is mostly Islam. When you have issues like that and then you have the sharia law that supports a child marriage, there is a conflict.”

In April, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl admitted to poisoning the 35-year-old man she was forced to marry and three of his friends.

The event was held to raise awareness of the problem of child marriage in Africa during the three-day U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington. It was hosted by The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Girls Not Brides USA, Human Rights Watch and the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC).

Shannon Kowalski, IWHC’s director of advocacy and policy, opened the discussion by citing UNICEF statistics on child marriage. “Every year 14 million girls are married before they’re ready,” she said. “That’s one every three seconds.”

According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), which calls child marriage “a violation of human rights because it denies girls the right to decide when and with whom to marry,” “one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will probably be married before they are 18. One out of nine girls will be married before their 15th birthday.”

UNICEF data shows that in Nigeria, “39 percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday” and “16 percent are married before they turn 15.”

Although “the prevalence of child marriage varies widely from one region to another,” the percentage of child brides is “as high as 76 percent in the North West region” of Nigeria, a country which is 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) “World Factbook.”

“When you have a situation especially in Africa or in Nigeria where people feel that their culture and their religion is superior, there is a problem,” Fagbenle said, pointing out the economic difficulties that perpetuate child marriage.

"You’re telling a father ‘don’t marry your child off,’ and he knows he’s going to get some benefits marrying his child off at a particular age,” she explained.“You’re telling a father ‘send this child to school’ and you’re asking him to bring money. Really?”

“He’ll tell you ‘I don’t have the money, so I would rather take the child to a place where she can be fed rather than take her to school, where I have to pay money’,” she said. “So we need, we cannot overemphasize the investment in education. It can never be too much.”

Child marriage is particularly hard to eradicate in Muslim areas governed by sharia law, she added.

“When you go to them they tell you you’ve been influenced by the Western culture and all of that, so they are listening, but they are really not listening,” Fagbenle explained.

“So we felt that a very, very good strategy is actually going through the local chiefs, the imams, the clerics, the people that the community can actually easily have access to these people.”

“I feel that the key people that we need are the community leader people who are in charge, because [when] you talk to a woman, a woman will tell you, ‘My husband is the head of the home, so I cannot make a decision without him.’ So where do we go from here?”

Panelist Dorothy Aken’Ova, executive director of the International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights in Nigeria, also talked about the importance of getting religious leaders and imams to be “the people who speak on our behalf.”

“Working with Muslim communities, that’s a tough one,” Aken’Ova agreed. “We’ve been struggling with this for decades. One thing I know that has worked effectively is bringing out people from within the community that are known by the community and that belong to the community.”

“The other point is that we have a very strong national women’s Muslim women’s group, FOMWAN (The Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria),” she added. “It’s a very big tool for making entry especially if we want to see change in the ending [child] marriage area. The FOMWAN group is very essential to work with, they have a national structure.”

Behailu T. Weldeyohannes, a professor of law at Jimma University in Ethiopia, also emphasized the importance of investing in education, saying, “Africa right now is considered as a poor continent, but potentially it is not poor. If we address gender-based violence and if we provide education, if we provide health, if we provide other services to women—that by itself can increase the GDP [Gross Domestic Product].”

According to a 2011 World Bank study, Nigeria’s GDP would increase 3.5 percent if young Nigerian women and men participated in the job market in equal numbers.

During the question-and-answer session following the panel discussion, Fagbenle said she would tell the African heads of state gathered at the summit that “we need to do something. It’s not just talking and talking and talking. Let’s have a plan, an action plan and a committed government that will follow through with it.”

”And this action plan will include clarifying the issue that we have now, especially the sharia law, especially taking care of the conflict that we have between the constitution and sharia law.”