The contradictions and loopholes in our laws and customs around consent, marriage and child rights are making life miserable and dangerous for too many of our girls. In my view, nothing will change without purposeful and determined leadership – which would start from updating our legislation in line with current knowledge about what is healthy and safe for the girl-child…


Adolescent girls in Nigeria are not protected from early marriage and sexual abuse by the law and are suffering real mental and physical harm. As a starting point for making them safe, our lawmakers need to update the law.

When Nigerian celebrity photographer Busola Dakolo publicly accused a well-known church pastor of sexual abusing her when she was 16, the whole country paid attention. The fact that she received public support from her husband, singer-songwriter Timi Dakolo, was also important – breaking taboos and showing that men and women can talk about these issues without shame. Intentionally or not, Busola and Timi have opened a space for us all as Nigerians to talk about the harm being suffered by girls across our society and our collective failure to protect them.

In my work as a doctor, I often see evidence of the damage done to girls by early marriage, early pregnancy and sexual abuse. That harm is both physical and mental, and it leaves lasting scars, yet too many families refuse to talk about or acknowledge these realities.

One case that still stays with me is that of Asabe* – a 12-year-old girl who had just had her second baby. Asabe had come to seek treatment for a fistula following the birth. From a poor rural family, she was leaking urine and had been ostracised by her husband (a man of 40+ years with several wives) and her family. Her older child had been taken away and she was living alone in a shed with her new baby. A friend, who was a street trader, was the only person who offered to help her by telling her about getting surgery for fistula, and then providing the token fee of N200, so she could attend the primary care clinic.

I could see that Asabe had probably been a cheeky and lively child, but the 12-year-old before me then was weighed down by her circumstances. She had no money at all, could neither read her own language nor English, had no idea what her rights were and was frightened that her husband and family would stop her from having corrective surgery if by any chance they found out what she was doing.

Eventually, her mother came and gave consent for the procedure to correct the fistula, which was provided at no cost. I was struck by the rather stark irony that this young girl was deemed old enough by her community to be a mother and wife, but not old enough to consent to life-saving treatment for injuries she sustained in childbirth.

The first and most important step required would be to initiate an update of our laws on marriage and consent at both national and state levels to reflect current knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, safe pregnancy and children’s rights.


The contradictions and loopholes in our laws and customs around consent, marriage and child rights are making life miserable and dangerous for too many of our girls. In my view, nothing will change without purposeful and determined leadership – which would start from updating our legislation in line with current knowledge about what is healthy and safe for the girl-child and, indeed, women in general.

To delve into the subject, we may well give some thought to basic rights. Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as “any human being under the age of 18”. Nigeria has also ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which categorically states in Article 21 that, “Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory.” Section 23 of the 2003 Nigerian Child Right’s Act states that “a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage. If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect.”

One of the problems is that there are several states where sub-national laws are at variance with national laws, and this means girls in such instances are not protected from early marriage, early pregnancy and sexual abuse. In some situations, age of consent for girls is as low as 11. Matters are further confounded by the Section 29(4b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which states that, “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”

The first and most important step required would be to initiate an update of our laws on marriage and consent at both national and state levels to reflect current knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, safe pregnancy and children’s rights. Furthermore, there is the need to educate communities about the serious risks associated with early pregnancy and the benefits of delaying marriage and keeping girls in school.

However, this is not only a legal and social issue, as our health system is also seen to be failing girls. The lack of skilled birth attendants is a major risk for Nigerian women of all ages. And we are too reliant on private, out of pocket payments for health care. We cannot continue to dismiss the needs of poor rural girls and women who are at the highest risk of injury and death from pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Sadly, Asabe’s case is not unusual, especially in certain parts of the country. According to UNICEF, Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, with over 22 million girls and women who were married in childhood. This, according to the World Bank, costs the country over US$7.6 billion in lost earnings and productivity every year. It is deeply concerning that, in fear of upsetting traditions, the society stands by in silence to the detriment of the health and wellbeing of a large percentage of our population and the country’s economic productivity.

Nigeria’s elected leadership at all levels must now step up to the plate and take absolute responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of all citizens, including and especially the girl-child, who is too often invisible, powerless and vulnerable.


We cannot dismiss or ignore the suffering of children in the face of harmful traditional practices. Traditions are important in our lives, but the society also has a responsibility to change practices and laws, as it becomes clear that these traditions are damaging and not beneficial.

On July 16, the Mozambican parliament voted unanimously to criminalise child marriage. The new law applies to anyone who marries a child under 18, but also to parents, guardians, officials and religious figures who facilitate child marriages.

Nigeria’s elected leadership at all levels must now step up to the plate and take absolute responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of all citizens, including and especially the girl-child, who is too often invisible, powerless and vulnerable.

Three young Nigerian girls taking matters into their own hands through their non-profit called “It’s Never Your Fault” have started an online petition calling for an increase in the age of consent and a ban on child marriage in Nigeria. This petition has apparently been signed by over two hundred thousand petitioners and has been featured on CNN and BBC and has even been endorsed by Plan International (a global child rights group). As a people and a society, we must raise our voices and join them in calling on our state and federal legislatures to address this issue with the importance it deserves by enacting appropriate legislation.

The lives, hopes and dreams of millions of Nigerian girls are dependent on securing their rights to a safe and healthy future.

Adaeze Oreh, a family physician and public health expert, is a 2019 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual.