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Can a girl dream if she’s not given a chance to live?

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By Lillian Okenwa

Her death was as harrowing as it was brutal. An eight-year-old child bride. Not only was she forced to have sexual relations but with a man five times her age. It was their wedding night and the experience left her with internal bleeding. She bled to death.Little Rawan passed a couple of days ago in the tribal area of Hardh in north-western Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia. She was recently married off to a 40-year-old man. Arwa Othman, head of Yemen House of Folklore and a leading rights campaigner, said authorities had not taken any action against the girl’s family or her husband.To Loretta Ahuokpeme, a Nigerian Feminist, Peace Advocate and Executive Director, Our Lady of Perpetual Help initiative (OLPHI), a civil society organisation: “We should actually be applauding Yemen and her citizens for getting rid of a girl that has so much potential to showcase but instead meets her untimely death in the hands of a Paedophile. This is of course a human rights issue but who is listening? No one except me and you.”In Nigeria, where countless underage girls are subjected to increased risk of obstructed labour leading to vesico vaginal fistula (VVF) and maternal mortality, the story is only slightly different. Accessible evidence also suggests that children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die in the first year of life (the mothers too have slim chances of survival) than those born to mothers older than 19. Moreover, families of child brides are usually poor. Undeniably, child marriage remains prevalent in Nigeria because the federal and state governments have not adequately enforced laws to prevent it.According to Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s rates of child marriage are some of the highest on the African continent and although the Child Rights Act (CRA, 2003) prohibits marriage below age 18, the Nigerian constitution contains provisions that appear to conflict with this position. States with Islamic legal systems have also failed to adopt both the federal law and 18 as the age of majority for marriage. Some southern states which have adopted this position have failed to take adequate steps to carry it out.Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said: “It is disturbing that almost two decades after the Child Rights Act was passed, Nigerian girls are still being forced into child marriages. Nigerian states should urgently act to adopt, implement, and align existing laws with the provisions of the Child Rights Act, which criminalizes marriage before the age of 18 and protects girls’ rights.”In August and September 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 married girls between the ages of 14 and 19, and representatives at eight civil society organizations working to end child marriage and gender-based violence in Imo and Kano states. Human Rights Watch selected those states because of their different legal, traditional, and demographic situations that are representative of other states in their regions. However, an interview request the organisation sent to the Kano State Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development, and the Imo State Ministry of Women Affairs and Vulnerable Groups received no response.Child marriages aside, unfolding events indicate that the Nigerian female child has become an endangered species. The case of 14-year- old Karen-Happuch Akpagher, a student of Premiere Academy, Lugbe, Abuja, who died after a used condom was found in her private parts is yet to be resolved. How a used condom found its way into the secret place of a girl who was kept under the care of an educational institution is still a mystery waiting to be unravelled.

The rape and murder trial of Andrew Ogbuja and his son, Victor, who were guardians of 13-year-old Ochanya Ogbanje at a Federal High Court in Makurdi, Benue State, is still ambling. Ogbuja, Ochanya’s uncle-in-law, and his son allegedly abused the 13-year-old serially. Complications from the act led to her death on October 17, 2018. Ogbuja was a senior lecturer in the Department of Catering and Hotel Management, Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, while his son, Victor, who is now at large, was a final year student at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi. Ochanya until her dreams were extinguished was a student of Federal Government Girls College Gboko.

Indisputably, when a female child is treated as a human being, she blooms. Take Ifeyinwa Nasiah Okoye for instance. In an interview with BBC Pidgin delivered with wit and vivacity, she told the story of how her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day and later told people he couldn’t marry a physically challenged woman. Notwithstanding her crutches, this mother of three who said she’d always wanted to be a voice for the physically challenged and many others is presently a Senior Magistrate in Anambra State. She could have been Ochanya, Karen, or other vulnerable females that were cut short.

Truly, Okoye’s testimony validates the words of Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes, JSC (rtd): “[G]ive a girl education, she would achieve enviable heights.” Even so, can a girl dare to dream if she’s not given a chance to live?

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