Friday, August 2, 2013

Child not Bride and Allied Matters

While the controversy over child marriage may be simmering down, there is a much broader conversation that we must have about the fate of Nigerian children in the context of Nigeria’s federal architecture. That debate should revolve around the Child Rights Act. Passed in 2003 by the National Assembly, it is yet to be domesticated in ten states of the federation, most of which are in Northern Nigeria.

The unremarked subtext of the child marriage debate is the fact that a number of our national developmental objectives now fall within the brief of states rather than the federal government. The military era’s unitary command and control governance is gone and along with it any possibility of uniform national development. For this reason, much of the ire directed at the Senate recently in the name of the Nigerian child was misdirected. Whether a girl in Zamfara or Yobe goes to school or winds up prematurely as a wife is entirely up to the states involved.

It is significant that even as the debate has raged in recent weeks, five Northern governors whose states possess some of the most atrocious social indices with regard to children were traversing the country parleying with former heads of state and President Goodluck Jonathan in an effort to resolve the strife in the ruling party. Unofficially, the jaunt is part of the maneuvering for the 2015 elections. It is sadly often the case that governance is at the mercy of politics.

This raises the issue of the dereliction of duty by governors who are rarely found within their states attending to the affairs of their people. The media itself abets gubernatorial truancy by disproportionately focusing on the presidency and the federal government and virtually ignoring what goes on in the states where governors rule in absolutist fashion. Indeed, the presidency though constitutionally powerful, is constrained by the legislature, the media’s relentless scrutiny and even the governors themselves; whereas, the selfsame governors administer their states like private estates with the media uninterested in their deeds and misdeeds. If this were not the case, civil society would have taken the errant governors to task for not having domesticated the Child Rights Act but as things stand all attention is obsessively focused on the federal government. This is an important point because by 2015, a number of governors will be vying for the presidency. We should judge them not by their declared intentions for the presidency but by their gubernatorial records.  

The undue focus on the central government is also a vestige of the imprint made by overbearing military dictatorships in the national consciousness. But since 1999, federal democracy has slowly become more tangible and governors have grown more assertive. The fact is that many of the issues that directly affect Nigerians fall under the purview of state and local governments. The media and civil society have been slow to correspondingly adopt a “federal mentality.”

The key to addressing issues like early marriage is education. The pervasiveness of early marriage is consistent with low school enrolment among females. A high incidence of poverty is also consonant with high female illiteracy which prevents women from being able to function as autonomous economic actors. States that wish to lower the incidence of early marriage should consider enacting compulsory primary and secondary education which would equip girls (and boys) with the tools to be productive citizens. Secondary education should be the baseline for educational attainment.

The preponderance of girl-child education in an area is a fairly accurate predictor of the sustainability of early marriage. A number of the polemicists who argued in favour of early marriage defended it as an institution that protects feminine virtue from social immorality. Some of these arguments were rife with male chauvinism, misogyny and the patriarchal objectification of women. These quibbles aside, it is worth noting that the practice of early marriage is itself increasingly linked to rising divorce rates in Northern Nigeria.

In keeping with the general African view of marriage as a class statement, men in Northern Nigeria tend to see a new bride as a status symbol. According to research findings in 2010 by Dr Ismaila Zango, a sociologist at the Bayero University Kano (BUK), one out of two marriages in Kano ends in divorce. Similar patterns of matrimonial and family failure subsist in Sokoto and Katsina states. Vesico-vaginal fistula, a condition that arises from early pregnancy, is rampant. Over two hundred thousand women nationwide, the majority of them Northerners, suffer from the disease. Paradoxically, sufferers of VVF are likely to be divorced by their husbands and thrown out of their homes. Legions of women divorced for the slightest infraction can be found on the streets of Kano. With no means of economic empowerment these women either succumb to destitution or take to prostitution, thus fuelling the onslaught of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted plagues. It is a vicious cycle in every sense. In this instance, far from being a guarantor of feminine morality, early marriage only leaves females as vulnerable as ever while not imposing any regulatory discipline on males.

The point of female education is to empower young women to sustain themselves regardless of their marital status. Educating girls would render them less vulnerable to the depredations of male patriarchy and empower them to survive the desperate economic circumstances of divorce.       

It is important to note too that despite the religious colouration given to the debate over child marriage, this is not a religious matter. Child marriage is not a pillar of Islam. The persistence of this cultural practice has less to do with the resilience of Islam than with the low penetration of the North by modernity. In other parts of Nigeria, it is the march of female education rather than any socio-cultural epiphany that has drastically reduced the incidence of early marriage; after all, the betrothal of girls is not unknown to other cultures.  

The early marriage of girls is a vestige of the agrarian social economy which defined early Islamic societies. Economic activity in agrarian economies being labour-intensive was uniquely suited for brawny males who as the main economic actors were enjoined to spread an umbrella of socio-economic protection over the “weaker” womenfolk. Modernization, industrialization and the knowledge economy which favour brains over brawn have been characterized by the increasing education of women and their emergence as competent economic actors. They no longer need the protective umbrella of the men in the same way as it was during the agrarian age. This dynamic has yet to fully penetrate the largely rural agrarian reality of Northern Nigeria where female literacy remains low.

This trend is also reinforced by socio-cultural institutions. It is often the case that male patriarchy thrives by using its dominance of instruments like organized religion to control and manipulate the vulnerable, among them, women and children, whether through early (and forced) marriages or the institutionalized destitution of children known as almajiri. It is therefore important that we reject the use of faith to mask or justify the perpetration of crimes or the perpetuation of retrogression. It is significant that female literacy is far higher among Muslim communities in Southern Nigeria than in the North. Iran is a conservative Islamic theocracy and yet 70 percent of its science and engineering students are women. Across the Middle East, the taboos against educating women are receding as is the notion that Islam is a divine license for female subjugation. One need not be a “feminist” or a “westernized liberal” to appreciate this point. Both Uthman Dan Fodio who advocated the education of women and his daughter, Nana Asmau, who was an accomplished intellectual stand out as irresistible examples of progressive enlightenment.

The objections to the Child Rights Act in the states yet to domesticate it are also about much more than early marriage. There is the matter of the Act’s intolerance of child labour, for instance. Street hawking is something the Act frowns at and yet it remains a fixture of urban life in much of Nigeria not just in the North. The Child Rights Act is at the mercy of the tension between legislation and custom. Politics rarely leaps ahead of culture. When trying to change practices rooted in tradition and culture, the levers of change have to be localized. This is why ideally, driving education and ending early marriage are ultimately matters for state and local governments. It takes agencies of change embedded in the socio-cultural environment in question to effect transformation from within. There is only so much that can be accomplished by proclamations in Abuja. The fate of a young girl in Dirin Daji or Talata Mafara will be shaped less by remote proclamations in Abuja than by transformative actors in her own community and municipality. The economics and politics of developmental transformation are local.

Primary education, in particular, falls under the ambit of state and local authorities. Yet local governments have been reduced by governors to being mere lifeless appendages of state governments thereby crippling their administrative potential. Ironically, the Senate voted against the proposal for local government autonomy (although it was approved by the House of Representatives) that would have unshackled municipalities from the oppressive grip of states and empowered them to drive development from the bottom up. The Senate’s vote demonstrated a refusal to recognize that only empowered communities can efficiently generate and distribute developmental deliverables. The centralized and dysfunctional bureaucracy headquartered in Abuja simply cannot remotely manage the aspirations of over 160 million people.  

The alternative to this is to give the federal government sweeping powers to enforce the Child Rights Act across the board. Any serious enforcement effort would surely involve the establishment of a federal child welfare bureaucracy that sanctions errant families and takes custodianship of victimized children as wards of the state. This would be a vast and costly undertaking that would meet with socio-cultural and political obstruction and likely require authoritarian measures to force through. To avoid unnecessary conflict and confrontation with federal authorities, this challenge is probably best managed by states and local governments. In any case, this administration certainly lacks the enthusiasm, political will and capacity to embark on such social engineering. It also does not seem likely that we will witness the federalization of primary and secondary education in the North to force the issue.     

Under the current federal arrangements, the question of development will be answered mostly by how competently states are run. Given the lackluster performances of several governors and the disparate social indices of states, it is clear that divergence in developmental outcomes will continue to be a facet of our national life. Already, a child born in Northeastern Nigeria will likely encounter a substantially lower quality of life that a contemporary born in the Southwest. These disparities pose a serious challenge to efforts to construct a common citizenship.

How vibrant states are in this new era of greater responsibility and diminishing oil revenues will be determined by the vigour of civil society in those states and a new willingness by the media to interrogate what actually goes on in those states by way of development.

These developmental divergences will either become the basis for a continuation of the slothful politics of entitlement that focuses on revenue allocation, more oil money from the centre, and lazy populist demagoguery or it could lead to the emergence of visionary politics that focuses on transformative governance, wealth creation, entrepreneurship, social and economic justice and the obliteration of retrogressive institutions that entrench poverty.

(All images sourced online)

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