A CLOSER look at the last laws the previous National Assembly passed in its final sitting reveals a trap – one of the most applauded laws, the stiff sentences against rape and sexual abuse, supports child marriages. It is a legal assault on our future. The National Assembly began its steep declivity to an indeterminate marriage age in 2013. After public protests against making the age of marriage vacuous, it stealthy made a law contrary to the Constitution.
Section 29 (4) (a) of the 1999 Constitution, states, “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above; (b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” How do we deal with a National Assembly that makes illegal laws? The Constitution is superior to our laws. According to Section 1 (3), “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”
The bill that is awaiting presidential assent provides life imprisonment for rape convicts or for sexual intercourse with children under 11 years. Other provisions are 10 years imprisonment or a fine of N2m for incest, and child pornography, and 14 years for sexual abuse. The bill appropriates Section 29 (4) of the Constitution but excludes item (a) that defines “full age” as 18 years. Once married, the bill says, a child attains “full age”.
One of the consequences of early marriage is fistula, a condition that leaves the woman incontinent; she smells from inability to manage her bowel. Her husband abandons her in search of his next victim. Nigeria has more than 800,000 fistula cases, the highest in the world, all from child marriages.
The proposed law circumscribes the rights of women, from birth. Our Constitution in Section 42 forbids discrimination on basis of origin, belief, or sex. At what age would a girl child retrieve her abrogated rights? Can she, by “full age”, be eligible to vote, even if she is not 18, or sign legal documents? How would a society of fistula-ravaged women, divorced, abandoned, in their teens, raise its new members?
Did we learn from Wasila Umar, the 13-year-old of Gaya Local Government Area of Kano, who, last year, poisoned her 35-year-old husband and his friends, 17 days into her forced marriage? A court has just freed her. The Child’s Rights Act of 2003, Section 21, also states that any marriage contracted by anyone under 18 years is invalid.
President Muhammadu Buhari should not sign the bill. We cannot trade our future for the pleasure of paedophiles, no matter how lowly or highly placed they are.