For as long as I can remember, delusion, self-interest and greed have motivated not only the Nigerian government but the Nigerian people who often respond to the calculating, preying actions of their leaders not with outrage, but with the cunning of those who will profit by supporting what we all know to be wrong.
However, today I am proud of the outpouring of reactions following the passage of the Senate’s Bill making the age of consent in Nigeria 13 (in most European countries it is 16 and even in Spain, where it is still 13, activists, public figures, fight tirelessly to have it raised).
Child marriage has been legalised in Nigeria, everything our mothers and grand mothers have fought for, to guarantee us a right to education, a right to determine and decide for ourselves our path in life, has been swiftly destroyed. One question remains: Where are the female members of the Senate?
Nigerian women need to know they deserve better. When a female House of Representatives member is interviewed, she is often happy to answer banal questions on her favourite colour, the number of Chanel bags she owns, her favourite holiday spot.
Even film stars are more intellectually challenged by the media. Mothers, sisters, daughters in every walk of life, we all need to recognise that we deserve better, that we should be valued more than the amount we can fetch by being sold at the altar, that we are more than our fashion choices, no matter how elaborate, that we are more than the incredible pressure society puts on women to seek existence and outright fulfilment in marriage.
Our lives as women are worth something. It might seem like a moot point. But believe me when I say that there are women, even powerful women in Nigeria and Africa today, who need to realise this because they are the only ones who can truly champion the rights of the girl-child. I ask the female members of both Houses today, how many of their daughters marry at 13.
I ask the wealthy, carefree politicians in Abuja today, how many have given away their precious brood to men three or four times their age who would be free to use them as they see fit. Most host lavish weddings which fill the society pages of our magazines and the pictures tell an interesting story: one of political and business marriages to secure benefits and further hoard economic opportunities by concentrating them in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
It is the daughters of the poor and the uneducated that we expect to marry at 13 because they have no voice and more so because their families are in desperate need of money. So their innocence, their right to dream is butchered on the altar of some of our lawmaker’s perversities, who seek out poor young girls and turn them into playthings.
We hide behind religion to excuse horrific deeds. Both Christians and Muslims are guilty of this in the Nigeria of today. The legalisation of child brides will open the road towards abusers marrying their victims and therefore being excused. In fact, we are tacitly changing the very definition of rape or of any kind of abuse in a society where the rights of women and children are already so difficult to uphold.
On whose side is our government? Whose will are our legislators serving? If their goal is to tear this country apart then they are doing a fine job by giving Islam a bad name. Christians, this is not Islam. Nor is it another attempt at the islamisation of Nigeria, unlike what I have heard.
Nor is this symptomatic of the North’s refusal to modernise or due to the unhealthy influence of Boko Haram on Muslim communities. Simply put, it is yet another example of government’s blatant attempt to legalise gluttony, self-indulgence and covetousness under every and any form. It is right to steal pensions.
It is right to treat those without a rich father or a Mercedes Benz like second class citizens, to deny them a voice because they are unable to buy votes or pay for the hard earned right to preach hate, divisive falsehoods and general misunderstanding between ethnic groups and religious communities. It is right and acceptable to rob children of their innocence.
Child brides are not Muslim culture. Nor are they an inherent part of Hausa culture. Rather, the perpetuation of this practice is based on debatable interpretations of the Quran. History shows that sex with pre-pubescent girls pre-dates Islam and can thus not be considered typical of Islamic belief. As such, we must recognise, due to the availability of modern science and technology, the health implications of children becoming pregnant, which your average Nigerian who might be in favour of child marriages, might not fully understand.
Then, it is the duty of the Senate to educate its constituents rather than to pass controversial, misogynistic bills, which criminals will see as a path to the legalisation of sexual slavery and paedophilia across the board. Our lawmakers never seem to consider the possible unintended consequences of their actions. Child trafficking, rape, the brutality many young girls face in Nigeria today, are sore topics many would rather not address.
Every day life in Nigeria devalues women. In offices, crude, extremely lewd jokes are made about women who also laugh at them like it means nothing.
We suffer unwanted advances, which are difficult to report. Female heads of human resources tell interns it is their provocative dressing which attracts men and that they must pray for guidance. So, to those Southerners who will see this as an opportunity for more Northern bashing, look long and hard at yourselves. Women in Nigeria are commodities, property. No more than cattle in fancy clothing.
The Quran condemns non-consensual marriages. How many of us believe that it is a 13-year- old’s dream to be married to an old man? Men and women in Islam have equal status before God. Ironically, in practice, men who are greedy for money and power turn the writings upside down and excuse behaviour whose sole intent is to keep women down.
I am a Christian, a Southerner and many I am sure will say I don’t know or understand Islam. One thing I do know is that I believe in one Nigeria and I feel akin to every young girl up North (and who is to say it won’t happen down South now that it is legal) who will be sold to an old man to settle debts or simply given as a gift. Let us all remember the little girls we once were, picture our daughters, our nieces, our sisters and our friends when we think of the nameless, faceless young girls who are being robbed of their childhood.
I am writing this because I want the world to know our Senate’s shame, especially that of our female Senators, with their expensive salaries (let us remember that the members of our upper and lower chambers earn more than the US president), their diamonds and properties purchased with the blood and tears of Nigerian children.
But we the youth of Nigeria will never cease to believe in progress and progressive religion. We will never cease to believe in one Nigeria, we are bigger than our differences and stronger than our disagreements. We are a country destined for greatness, inspite of our leaders who choose not to allow it. I am every Nigerian the government chooses to sacrifice.
I am every child who goes to bed hungry. I am every jobless graduate. I am every young person who dies in a plane crash due to negligence. I am every person who dies on our bad roads or in our poorly equipped hospitals. I am every Nigerian who despite all this believes in change. It’s called the Audacity of Hope.
By TABIA PRINCEWILL