Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Playing God With The Rights Of The Girl Child

Almost two decades after the passage of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and six years after its domestication in Nigeria, some of the federating states especially the northern states are still reluctant to pass the Convention into law. In the north of Nigeria where the Convention received the stiffest opposition on the grounds of religion, the atmosphere is still looking gloomy for the future of the children especially for the girl child. Nigeria is a federation of 30 states and one Federal Capital Territory and by the provisions of the terms of the federation the states are allowed to review the Convention and adapt it to their cultural and religious milieu or to reject it entirely. The Nigerian population is basically divided along two lines of the north and south. The north is predominately Islam hence the huge success of the boycott called by the Council of Ulamas there against the legalisation of the Convention in the region. The reason behind this is religious. Recently some Council of Ulamas-Muslim scholars well versed in Islam and Sharia legal system-in the north asked their governments to boycott the Convention citing some provisions that they claimed ran contrary to Islamic faith and the Sharia legal system as their reason.

Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or interferes with the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. Contrary to these provisions, children in the north are engaged in works that are exploitative and hazardous. It is estimated that about 8 million Nigerian children are trapped in child labour and child trafficking. This situation has worsened as poverty continues to deepen. Lately the Nigerian government committed huge human and financial resources on education and awareness programme to persuade the states to pass the Convention into law to safeguard the future and the welfare of the children. The efforts made so far proved abortive and the more the campaign gathers momentum, the more it is opposed.

One of the specific provisions in the Convention responsible for this huge negative reaction is that which prohibits the marriage of girls below the age of 18, a trend very common in the north that girls as young as 13 are forced in the name of religion to marry men old enough to be their fathers. Amongst some of the northern Muslims, it is erroneously believed that if a girl does not marry earlier than 18, she will not be able to have more than two children. They also hold the view that those girls who marry after the age of 18 are certain to reach their menopause early. The only safeguard against this early menopause is early marriage. This view is contrary to recent medical studies and findings that put the menopausal age on the average from 45 and above and with recent developments in the field of gynaecology, the claim is unfounded. Those who hold this belief also conjecture that it is a ploy to introduce western standards with the ultimate aim of reducing the Muslim population.

Due to high rate poverty and illiteracy, it is very easy for beliefs like these to sink deeply into the bone marrows of the unsuspecting people. Families are usually poor and an early marriage could be a step out of poverty and the north being a patriarchal and Muslim stronghold, the girl child has no stake in her future. She is expected to obey the dictates of the parents especially that of the father. Compounding the whole problem is the fact that sex education is a taboo not only in the north but also in the whole country. Nigeria does not allow the teaching of sex education in the schools. Beside the ban on sex education, the religious dimension of the drama is also complicating the issue the more. In Islam, the Koran is considered an active word of God; consequently the interpretations of the Koran and injunctions of the Muslim theologians like the Ulamas must be obeyed. There is no room for reasoning the Koran. It must be swallowed hook, line and sinker. Against this backdrop, the ongoing boycott of the passage of the Convention in the north, encouraged by the Council of Ulamas are viewed from a theological angle, considered very strong and fanatically obeyed.

Part of the reason why the prohibition of early marriage was introduced in the Convention and supported by the version domesticated in Nigeria is because of series of surveys that linked the high rate of Vesico-vagina Fistulae (VVF) and Recto-vagina Fistulae to early marriage and teenage pregnancy. Approximately 80% of fistulae cases reported in Nigeria are due to unrelieved obstructed labour during childbirth. Most of these cases are in the north. Obstructed labour is directly related to the custom of early marriage predominant amongst the Muslim north. These marriages as noted earlier usually take place before the age of 18 and sometimes before the onset of menstruation, as early as 11 years old. Early marriage invariably leads to early sexual contact and subsequent pregnancy at a time when a young girl is not adequately physically developed to permit the passage of a baby with relative ease. This can lead to a prolonged and obstructed labour and damage leading to the misery of fistulae.

Early marriage can also disrupt the education of the girl child which is the leading factor responsible for the high rate of poverty and illiteracy in the north. With early marriage there is a likelihood of passing on poverty to a child and since the mother herself is not literate, she is not likely to send her children to school having not known the value of education herself. This is a major contributor to the endless cycle of poverty and illiteracy predominant in the north. In the 10 years between the drafting of the domesticated version of the Convention and its enactment in 2003, it was subjected to several reviews by the Muslim Ulamas and Christian leaders. This was done to ensure not only a level playing ground but to guard against any part of the Convention violating any religious belief. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights-civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18, often need special care and protection that adults do not. They also wanted to make sure that the world is aware that children have human rights too.

The Convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care, education, legal, civil and social services.

By agreeing to accept the obligations of the Convention by ratifying it, national governments committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. State parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.

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