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LOUD WHISPERS: Where no Man is Oppressed

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Saturday, June 1st, 2024
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A few weeks ago, an alarm was raised over a declaration that was made by Speaker of the Niger State House of Assembly, Hon Abdumalik Sarkin-Daji. The Speaker said he was planning to pay for the weddings of 100 orphaned girls who were survivors of insecurity and banditry in Maruga Local Government of Niger State. According to him, facilitating the marriages of these young girls was a way of empowering them, since the unions would serve to protect them from hunger and poverty. This sparked a huge row that involved the Minister for Women Affairs, Barrister Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, observers, and women, led by Womanifesto, the well-known coalition of women’s rights groups drawn from across the country.

The Minister for Women Affairs was concerned that these orphans were underage girls who were going to be led from the frying pan into a fire. How does a girl who is underage consent to marriage, regardless of the intentions? The Womanifesto Coalition issued a detailed statement on the matter, drawing attention to the appalling child-bride statistics in Nigeria, mostly linked to interpretations of religion and culture. When Speaker Sarkin-Daji felt the heat, whatever proposed list of ‘orphans’ he had was quickly revised and miraculously became a compilation of eligible young women well above the age of consent, willing and ready to be married to prospective husbands and appreciative of whatever support the Speaker could offer as they started out on their marital journey. Minister Uju’s fiery defense of the rights of underage girls therefore became a ‘non-issue’ as the new list did not have any evidence of damsels in distress. With powerful religious and political forces lined up against her, the Minister backtracked and said she only wanted to be sure that none of the potential brides was a minor and since this was not the case, she was willing to let the matter go and even support the cohort of new brides with resources from her office.

The Womanifesto Coalition (full disclosure, I am a member) is however not satisfied with this and will keep raising concerns about the matter to avoid a reoccurrence. Part of the Womanifesto Statement on the issue reads, ‘We implore the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to urgently carry out a national intervention. It is important to conduct a needs assessment to comprehend the dimension of vulnerabilities that Nigerian women and girls are exposed to, whether as orphans, widows, internally displaced persons and/or People Living with Disabilities. We also call on the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Women Affairs to be more proactive in designing plans to tackle girls’ illiteracy, the impact of insecurity on women and girls, social and gender inequality, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), improve access to opportunities as well as enhance women’s capacity in decision-making and leadership’.

Some analysts have argued that since the brides are not minors (this is based on the list that became public after the alarm was raised) it is a non-issue. With all due respect, it is not a non-issue, it is a BIG issue. Marriage is not a sustainable poverty alleviation strategy. Women and girls are not commodities or pawns to be moved back and forth in games shrouded under the guise of religion, culture or political expediency.  The options of an education, skills, capital or employment could have been considered as worthwhile investments in their long-term interests, with the goal of making them productive citizens in their own right. Marriage, most likely to men incapable of caring for them and the children that will be produced, might not protect them from poverty and hunger. An education, skills or opportunities for development will give families a fighting chance and help them escape a predictable cycle of generational poverty.

Legislators at State and Federal level are expected to make laws that will ensure a better quality of life for the citizens who voted them into office. If any legislator wants to truly empower women and girls in their constituency, marriage should not be on their list of priorities. In this day and age, any parent or leader in any part of the country who is still telling young girls that marriage will keep them fed, clothed and sheltered is doing them a disservice. Many young men cannot feed, clothe or shelter themselves not to talk of someone’s daughter. When you raise your daughter to believe that her education and skills are not necessary and all she has to do is find herself safely ensconced in the arms of a ‘wealthy’ man somewhere, you are setting her up for a life of misery. As more girls get educated and do well in school and public life, a narrative keeps being pushed about the ultimate goal being to serve the interests of ‘the brotherhood’. The purpose of marriage is partnership, mutual love and respect, shared values and goals, each party complementing the other and raising a family together. Marriage is not a rehabilitation center, prison, baby factory or slave camp. It is no surprise that young girls are now pushing back with rather disturbing narratives of their own.

Recently, there have been discussions about young men being billed money for the ‘talking stage’ of a relationship. Some young women now expect men to cough up money for their hair, clothes and make-up before they decide whether or not they will date them. This bizarre attitude not only smacks of greed and stupidity, it is also dangerous because it will make many girls vulnerable to violence. Parents, relatives, leaders, please stop fueling negative gender stereotypes and encouraging discriminatory behavior. Young women, study hard if you are in school, learn a skill, find a means of livelihood and focus on it. There are many young women doing amazing things to make a living such as trading, farming, selling meat, driving, carpentry, and so on. These are skills that are sustainable.

Young men, the world has changed, change along with it or get left behind. Talking about being left behind, we now have a new (and old) national anthem. Let us set aside the fact that we now all have to stand ‘in brotherhood’, we need to keep having those debates about whether the line in the third stanza where no man is oppressed’ actually means ‘where no one is oppressed’. Some of the ‘brotherhood’ who should have paid attention to this small (yet huge detail) were probably busy planning the next mass wedding for the young ‘sisterhood’ in their constituencies. At least we are still in ‘The Motherland’, let us be thankful for small mercies.

 Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Policy Advocate and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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