Rights are defined as “the aggregate capacities, powers, liberties and privileges by which a claim is secured.” Rights are critical to the happiness and enjoyment of human beings worldwide. The protection of rights forms the basis of organized societies and limited governments. Mutual respect for every individual’s rights and societal approval of such rights are recognized and protected by law. Rights define what actions are ill and proper; they structure our government and the content of our laws.
Nigeria is a signatory to a number of international and regional treaties, protocols and charters that support for the application and enforcement of human rights which includes the rights of the girl-child in addition to the fundamental human rights provisions in the Constitution of 1999. The girl-child in Nigeria has globally recognized and acknowledged absolute rights as a member of the human family. Nonetheless, these rights have been and are still being violated by different persons and organizations for different reasons although the nature and extent of violations differ from place to place.
The root of all kinds of discrimination and biases towards the girl-child stems from customs, traditions and the mindset of the society which considers the girl-child as inferior beings.
Various individuals and groups have called upon the government and international organizations to eradicate patriarchal tools that are used to hinder the girl-child to assume her rightful place in society.
It is true that all over the world there is not one country that can boast of complete compliance with international standards and laws concerning the rights of persons within its jurisdiction. However, the issue in Nigeria attracts closer examination as rights long acknowledged and respected as fundamental and inherent to persons elsewhere are still subjects of debate in our legislative fronts. To give a clearer understanding of the lack of implementation will in Nigeria for the rights of the girl-child, international and regional treaties Nigeria is signatory to are presented below.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
Nigeria signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on the 26th of January 1990. Nigeria ratified this international treaty on the 19th of April, 1991.
The UNCRC ensures the recognizable and inherent rights of the girl-child. Article 1 of the Convention states that “a child means every human being below the age of 18 years”. Article 2 highlights non-discrimination as it states that, “the Convention applies to every child without discrimination, whatever their ethnicity, sex, religion, language, abilities or any other status, whatever they think or say, whatever their family background”.
The UNCRC declares that States are to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” The child also has freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion. The Convention recognizes the child’s right to protection of privacy and the right to education, rest, leisure and cultural activities.
It is unfortunate that Nigeria has not lived up to its legal obligations to implement the declarations of this treaty it has signed and ratified.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC)
Nigeria signed this regional charter on the 13th of July 1999 and ratified it 2 years later on the 23rd of July 2001.
This charter is based on the International Law on Human Rights in accordance to United Nations’ standards and African traditions and values.
The ACRWC states that a child is defined as every human being below the age of 18 years.
This Charter states that “any custom, tradition, cultural or religious practices that is inconsistent with the right, duties, and obligations contained in the present Charter shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be discouraged.”
The ACRWC declares for all children the right to education, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion etc.
Nigeria signed this regional charter yet the government has not upheld or implemented the standards of the ACRWC.
Laws and the Implementation of Girl-Child Rights in Nigeria
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides the fundamental rights of the girl-child in Chapter 4. This chapter comprehensively presents and declares the rights of individuals. These rights include the right to life, right to freedom of discrimination, right to survival and equality, right to freedom of expression, right to healthcare, right to education, right to protection from abuse, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, etc.
From this very Chapter, the Child Rights Act of 2003 was established.
The Child Rights Act 2003 is a legal document that adopted all the fundamental human rights set out in Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution. This Act was passed into law in the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) and defines a child as a person who has not attained the age of 18. The Child Rights Act provides some specific rights for the protection of children such as the right to a name, right to free compulsory and universal primary education, right to freedom from discrimination, right to parental care, right not to be imprisoned with mother, right to protection against abuse and torture, etc. These rights have been categorized into 4 groups: survival, development, protection, and participation rights to be involved in matters concerning her/him.
Alas, due to customary laws and various other reasons, this Act has not been properly implemented in Nigeria.
The Child Rights Act that was passed by the National Assembly enjoins the different state legislative houses to enact the laws as state law as such matters fall within the residual list in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution. However, there are some states especially in Northern Nigeria that have not adopted the Child Rights Act as state law. An explanation given over the non-application of the Child Rights Act in some states is that the laws are incompatible with the tenets of Islamic religion which permits child marriages; that is to a girl-child under 18 years which is illegal under the Act.
Before the Child Rights Act was enacted in 2003, a domestic legislation known as the Nigerian Children and Young Person’s Act ensured the protection of the rights of the girl-child [Section 2 of this Act of 1993 that was revised in 2001 defines a “child” as a person under the age of 14 years, and “young person” is defined as a person who is over the age of 14 and under the age of 17]. Nevertheless, there exists no weighted provision of national force that truly protects [girl] children against abusive conditions. In many states [girl] child protection activities in Nigeria are still the concern of mainly non-governmental organizations. Implementing laws to protect the girl-child has been challenging within states due to the diverse range of ethnic groups, cultures and customs.
Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and the government signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention in 2000 and ratified it in 2004. This Convention obligates signatories to condemn discrimination against women in all forms and to adopt all appropriate means, policies and strategies to eliminate discrimination against women including the repealing of laws which constitute discrimination. Yet we see many discriminatory practices against the girl-child and her future thrive under our customary and domestic laws such as:
The Nigerian Criminal Code Section 55 (1)(d)
“Nothing is an offence…which is done by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife.”
The Nigerian Criminal Code Section 229
“Any woman obtaining a miscarriage purposefully is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for up to 7 years.”
The Nigerian Criminal Code Section 353
“Any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults a male person is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for up to 3 years.”
The Nigerian Criminal Code 357 does not include the prohibition of rape involving a
husband and a wife or vice versa.
The Nigerian Criminal Code Section 360
“Any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults a woman or girl is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for up to 2 years.”
The Nigerian Police Act Section 127
“An unmarried woman police officer who becomes pregnant shall be discharged from the force.”
Early child marriages, female genital mutilations and girl-child disinheritance are still existing practices under customary law across Nigeria and no federal law has been put in place to criminalize such acts. However, recently the Supreme Court in a ground-breaking decision, has upheld the right of the girl-child to inherit properties of her parents. This decision has led to the voiding of the Igbo archaic law and custom with forbids female children from inheriting wealth from their parents. This very tradition conflicts with Section 42 (1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution which states the following:
“(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:
- be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religious or political opinions are not made subject.
(2) No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.”
This ruling has been met with mixed reactions from Igbo people. Nonetheless it is a step towards progress. The implementation of this ruling is left in the hands of families as there are no laws established to criminalize persons that rob female children of their rights to family inheritance.
[Girl] Child labor and exploitation are still practiced in many parts of Nigeria despite the provisions of the Convention on the Right of the Child which obligates member states “to protect children from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
The girl-child by the provisions of the various domestic, regional and international treaties and laws has an acknowledged “right to rest and leisure; right to basic education, and the right to be protected from neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation…”
It is unfortunate that the girl-child is subjected to all forms of domestic servitude in the homes of relations and non-relations alike where she is exposed to exploitative child labor which robs her of her right to rest, leisure and education.
To ensure the liberty of the girl child is fundamentally achieved in Nigeria, numerous questions arise regarding how to safeguard her rights; which law should apply to such a person? Is it their tradition or the Constitution? Should the family member faced with a complaint from the girl-child apply the tradition or directly complain to state powers? Who will compel traditional rulers to follow the overriding provisions of the Constitution when she/he is the ‘law’ in the given area? Who will enforce the constitutional provisions in the local communities where persons are primarily answerable to customary and traditional procedures?
The provisions of the 1999 Constitution implicate the establishment of Customary and Sharia Courts of Appeal in each state of the Federation where they are relevant and in the Federal Capital Territory. The Constitution recognizes the place of customary and sharia laws as regulatory of the behavior of persons who acknowledge them and to those they apply to. This constitutional recognition often times expose citizens to conflicts of traditional law and federal law. The implementation of the rights of the girl-child faces the major challenge of which law is to be applied. Is it the customary law which is ‘closest’ to the people or the Constitution? The Constitution is supreme and any other law that is inconsistent with its provisions is void. Is this declaration from the Constitution actualized? Not always. There is a wide gap between the Constitution and its application in many communities in Nigeria. It is unfortunate that people in rural regions are not aware of the provisions of the Constitution that would protect them from violations condoned by customary and traditional practices.
Another impediment to the actualization of the rights of the girl-child is the lengthy time it takes to report violations. This is due to the difficult terrain is some parts of the southern regions and the security challenges in the northern regions of the country. Research shows that discrimination against the girl child would have taken place over a long period of time before reports would be made. The cost to pursue justice is another obstacle many families encounter when seeking justice for the girl-child. Establishing relevant proof of violations especially those linked to cultural practices and identifying particular offenders and violators may become problematic as sentiments such as the need to avoid confrontations and conflicts between families and the community by and large; one’s personal desire for justice gets overridden which perpetuates culturally biased violations.
[Girl] Child rights in Nigeria faces the challenge of law. The issue is harnessing different provisions on the same subject matter cohesively. For instance, on the issue of the legally approved marriageable age, a 17 year old girl from Akwa Ibom state is of the legal age of marriage according her state law which defines a child as a person under the age of 16. On the other hand, Child Rights Act 2003, the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child, and he United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child regards such a marriage as illegal as their definition of a child as a person under the age of 18 years.
The inconsistencies regarding who a child is and the age of lawful marriage in the provisions of the Child Rights Laws of states that have adopted the provisions of the Child Rights Act are not uniform or clear as to the purpose and effectiveness of the legislation.
Establishing who is legally a child is still open to debates in Nigeria. Therefore, who can be described as a girl-child has no objective legal interpretation. It is worrisome that the supreme law of the land has created a void as the Constitution itself does not contain a definition of who a child is. The domestic Labour Act defines the child as “a young person under the age of 12 years;” and the Children and Young Person’s Act gives a different definition of a child as a person “under the age of 14 years.” There is no agreement in the different laws dealing with the child and this makes enforcing of rights and establishing violations such as early forced marriages difficult and subjective. There is thus a major challenge in harmonizing the different customary laws on the marriageable age of the girl-child and the provisions of the Constitution, the Child Right Act, the Convention on Child Rights and the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child.
The discrepancies of the laws create more problems when it comes to enforcing the rights of the girl-child. Who will enforce these rights on behalf of the girl-child where she is unable to do so? Has the state really enacted the relevant laws? By the provisions of the law, where these rights are denied, the girl-child has a right to seek for justice in the Family Court provided by the 2003 Child Right Act. This court is to be established in every state in Nigeria but unfortunately such a court is functioning only in Lagos state out of the 36 states of the
Federal Republic of Nigeria. A major challenge to apply the rights of the girl-child in Nigeria is the continued failure and or refusal of the nation to implement some of the vital international legislation and protocols which have already been ratified to give them the necessary force of law to ensure implementation.
Towards the Future of the Girl Child
The lack of uniformity of important laws affects the girl-child more than we can imagine. Ascertaining the appropriate law to be implemented in given situations is still a challenge where numerous customary laws are inconsistent to the laws of the Constitution. Although customary laws acknowledge some social, political and economic rights of the girl-child, they only protect and maintain the subordinate and inferior role of the female to the male which remains a violation of the rights of the girl-child.
The girl-child’s right to political leadership is not recognized in most parts of the country. Her economic right to extend her full potentials in accordance with the principles and rights declared under domestic, regional, and international instruments – permitted under customary law as the extent of her career and economic pursuits are by custom, under the control and direction of the male. Additionally, her social rights such as freedom of speech and movement granted under the Constitution, are censored and restrained by customary law. It is a jeopardizing situation the girl-child has found herself in in Nigeria where law which should be applied to end further violations still constitute a challenge in broadening her horizon. To overcome such challenges, a lot of work has to stem from the very foundation of Nigeria.
- The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 is overdue for amendment and needs to provide the definition of who a child is in Nigeria to ensure cohesiveness as to the age of a child in the country in order to eradicate the possibility of different states adopting different ages.
- There needs to be a legislative review of all domestic laws discriminating against women.
- The Child Rights Act needs to be implemented by all states in Nigeria.
- Gender equality and parity should form the basis of government policies and jurisdictions. The enactment of gender based laws by the National Assembly is necessary to reduce the incidences of discriminations against the girl-child.
- Women’s rights issues and gender education needs to be integrated into the junior and secondary schools curriculum to ensure optimal socialization.
- Campaigns on constitutional rights by the Nigerian Orientation Agency (NOA) as well as advocacy by individuals, civil society groups and the government is necessary and recommended to change the minds of people about opinions and values long acquired and practiced.
Ally, do not be afraid to confront what you have known to be true which is in reality harmful and detrimental to the future of the girl-child. We are only human and we ought to live, unlearn, and learn! The girl-child ought to take her place in our society. Make room for her in all capacities. Be kind and support her today and every day!
Created by Ugonna Onwukeme.