The Senate moved Tuesday to douse tension over the raging storm that its adoption of a provision of the constitution amendment report, that tend to encourage marriage of underage girls, has attracted.
It said contrary to public perception, it did not at any time try to fix the age that females could marry and there was no fixed marital age for women in the 1999 Constitution, adding that it would never support child marriage.
Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, at a press briefing in Abuja, said the public misconstrued the intention of the Senate on Section 29 (4)(b) of the 1999 Constitution, adding that the section does not spell out any marital age for women as the public now believes.
But notwithstanding the clarification, the Senate came under more fire yesterday as the Society for Gynaecology of Nigeria (SOGON), the Society for Family Health and the National Republican Convention (NRC) presidential candidate in the annulled June 12, 1993 election, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, criticised any attempt that would legalise marriage of underage girls.
According to Ekweremadu, section 29 of the constitution “is specifically and unambiguously for the purposes of renunciation of citizenship and not marriage”.
He added: “On the issue of section 29, I want to appeal to Nigerians to please show understanding, to possibly read this section and understand that the issue has nothing to do with early marriage.
“It has nothing to do with Islam. Essentially, it has to do with the renunciation of citizenship. So, you have to give it a proper perspective. I want to assure them that in the future, we are ready to revisit it if Nigerians feel strongly about it.
“We have no bill to approve early marriage. We are not sponsoring any bill against Islam. This particular provision has been in our constitution since 1979. Ours was an attempt to remove that aspect so that men and women would have equal footing regarding the issue of renunciation of citizenship. And we will never support early marriage.”
Ekweremadu explained that the Senate expects the House to pass its own version of the amendment this week so that both chambers of the National Assembly could harmonise their differences through a conference committee.
Also speaking on the alleged approval of child marriage yesterday, Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, said the constitution did not make any provision for relationship.
According to him, the provision on marriage could only be contained in a subsidiary law such as the Child Right Act, which he said provides clearly that anyone who wants to get married must attain the age of 18.
He also echoed Ekweremadu’s assertion that section 29 4(b) of the constitution had nothing to do with marriage but renunciation of citizenship.
He explained that whereas the constitution stipulates that a female foreigner married to a Nigerian can renounce her citizenship and obtain Nigerian citizenship, it does not provide the same opportunity for the renunciation of citizenship for a male foreigner who married a Nigerian woman.
He therefore said it was this ambiguity that the review committee sought to correct by its recommendation, which did not sail through. “The committee felt this was discriminatory because it was referring only to a married woman and not man,” he added.
However, the controversy over whether or not underage girls could marry raged on yesterday as SOGON President, Dr. Fred Achem, and Obi Oluigbo of Society for Family Health accused the senators of technically encouraging child marriage by failing to muster the needed two-thirds majority to amend the relevant section of the constitution.
They spoke in Abuja at a symposium of the Fistula Care Project following the conclusion of a seven-year intervention in the vesico-vagina fistula (VVF) situation in Nigeria by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
According to the SOGON president, the decision of the Senate to throw out the amendment was regrettable and was taking the country to the dark ages when people gave out girls aged between six and nine years in marriage.
He said: “It’s putting the cart before the horse. You have to be a woman to be fully married. So if you are not a woman, and a woman is defined as an adult responsible female – that is a female that can be legally held responsible for her actions – you cannot marry.
“My worry is that within the Senate, we cannot muster two-thirds majority to throw this kind of obnoxious amendment out. The people that suffer it are the children, the girls.
“For individuals that want to marry their daughters out at whatever age, there was no problem.”
He however pointed out that it was wrong to drag the entire country back to the dark ages because the examples being cited by proponents of the marriage of female children were of people of many centuries ago.
On his part, Oluigbo called on all individuals and groups to stop the legislators from having a law that could be exploited at the expense of the girl-child.
The Mission Director, USAID Nigeria, Dana Mansuri, said over 10,000 surgeries had been performed on women suffering from VVF with the sponsorship of her organisation in collaboration with the Nigerian government.
According to Country Project Manager, USAID Fistula Care Project, Iyeme Efem, with two million women worldwide afflicted with VVF, his organisation had performed and supported 30,000 surgeries in Nigeria as part of measures towards a fistula-free generation.
Also condemning any attempt to legalise child marriage, Tofa, in a statement yesterday from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, said it was wrong to marry off young girls.
He said: “Some ignorant people, or shall I say mischievous people, will always use religion for their personal and political ends. They hardly even care that they are dragging the image of ‘their’ religion into the mud. As long as they can satisfy their desires, for them any statement is justified. It is very sad when people of meagre knowledge about a matter do disseminate nonsense to an ignorant public, and most people who should know better keep mute about it.
“What perplexes me even more is from which section of the Shari’ah they are quoting when they say a matter is Islamic? Marrying off innocent young girls has nothing to do with religion. It is a bad and cruel social and cultural practice that in these days and times must be rid of by whatever feasible means. It is a practice by people who are backward, and who do not care about the progress of their communities or the society at large.”
He urged the National Assembly to be brave enough to enact a law that would prohibit the marrying off of girls that are below the age of 18 just as he urged the federal and state governments to give free education to all indigent boys and girls to discourage child marriage.