There are about 1.1 billion girls today around the globe. This is, according to the United Nations Women publication. The issue of girl child marriage dominates this year’s discuss on the girl and from the emphasis on the issue, it is assumed to be the singular most important factor militating against progress of the girl child; it provides recipe for intimate violence that includes psychological abuse that recycles on and on, generation after generation. This is most pronounced among the very poor of the society. It creates an attitude that binds the victim to continual abuse and sometimes results in mental degeneration. Yes early marriage is a problem! And one that unfortunately has multiple impacts on both sexes. This is one aspect generally ignored for many obvious reasons and has been allowed to fester out of control.
Early marriage for the boy also perpetuates poverty and curtails self-development. The difference only lies in the fact that the boy has slightly easier access to escape routes. Otherwise the impact on self and society is detrimental to growth and development.
The question of the girl child must be viewed within the context of different socio-economic settings of communities and societies in which the girl finds herself. The make-up of the society, which includes traditional beliefs and practices, religious and faith biases, and economic environment determine the extent of progress or lack of progress of the girl. In societies where early marriage of both sexes is rampant, the cycle of poverty and absence of development or any meaningful talent, innovation, creativity, and acquisition of skills, is just obviously on a wild swirl. Even where the girl marries an older man, the fact remains that she is not likely to be able break away from that cycle of poverty.
Threat to talent and creativity is even more threatened when married to an older, wealthy man because then, beyond the loss of innocence is the undue launch into the world of materialism. One then wonders what the worse option is because here, now, is that dicey situation of choice between poverty and growing frivolity. Either does not offer much option and society is the worse for it.
Every year, the international community rallies to celebrate the International of the Day of the girl with different organisations and countries streaming a uniform theme. What I find disheartening in all of it is the absence in many countries, especially my dear country, Nigeria, of structures to enforce resolutions and policies. Even the domestication of UN Laws that have been ratified by the country at the international scene is froth with challenges and seemingly impossible barriers. Worse situation is that in the predominantly Muslim north, religion is evoked to curtail or mitigate the conditions of the girl. The political will to do the needful is deliberately on sabbatical when it comes to this issue, and this suits the opinion leaders, religious leaders, and the traditional rulers who happen to be custodians of cultural values and tradition just fine.
But is it an impossible situation? I mean the case of the girl child. Hmm, I personally do not think so. What in my opinion is missing is the right and appropriate agency to drive the process of th,e required shift or complete attitudinal change. By agency here, I am referring to institutions and structures including human resources that are necessary to effect that attitudinal change. Unarguably, the circumstance of the girl child impacts very much on the entire society because she provides the foundation for the infant who becomes the child, who then becomes the adult, who eventually takes over the leadership of the community or society. Now this is where the real danger lies.
I think, concerning the question of the girl and early marriage, we need to start thinking outside the box. Those programmes that target the girl child need to start giving serious consideration to incorporating existing socio-economic factors that influence the environment. Because if we desire impact, then I suggest that we step away from the one-off bit palliative kind of programs and design ones that are all encompassing and inclusive. Programs that want to treat girl related issues in isolation must be prepared to contend with barriers, practical or otherwise, aimed to thwart their efforts.
I think it is time we began to undertake programmes that are steep in knowledge and data. For Nigeria, we must confront the truth about our society and ourselves. We cannot continue on the path of “me too”, we must undertake an analytical evaluation or assessment of our political economy and social environment with all boldness and political will.
We must go beyond the celebrations and avalanche of salutes to slice into the very core of the issues. Early marriage is not peculiar to just the Muslim north, as a matter of fact, it cuts across all communities and societies in Nigeria. The difference is really in the degree of occurrence. What makes it so conspicuous in the Muslim north is the rate and frequency, which are also fallouts from prevalence of poverty in the society