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Meet the Teenage Activists Fighting to Raise the Age of Consent in Nigeria

It’s time the world pays attention.

Susan Ubogu, Kudirat Abiola and Temitayo Asuni are the young women behind ‘It’s Never Your Fault’. Their first project is entitled #RaiseTheAge – and it’s become a movement.

These three teenage activists are fighting to raise the age of consent in Nigeria from 11 to 18. We take a deep dive into the world of these activists and look at their journey so far, their role models, and the harrowing reality of child marriage.

How old were you when you started this organisation?

Susan Ubogu was 16, Kudirat Abiola was 15 and Temitayo Asuni was 15. We met at a career workshop for students. Our non-profit was formed in December 2018 by three teenage friends with the aims of:

  • achieving gender equality
  • empowering young girls in our society
  • eradicating the social injustice they face such as child marriage, rape and child abuse

Tell us about the name ‘It’s Never Your Fault’.

The name ‘It’s Never Your Fault’ sends a message to victims of these tragic events that, whatever happens, it’s never their fault.

It's Never Your Fault

What motivated the #RaiseTheAge movement?

When we were starting our project, we heard the story of a 15-year-old girl who was forced into marriage with a 70-year-old man in the news. This teenager is the same age as us… We were determined to do whatever we could to put an end to such injustice. Recently, a story broke about a 16-year-old girl who got married to a demented man in Anambra, and it’s stories like this that give us more motivation to fight.

 

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This story shows how much change is needed. An unnamed 15 year old got married to a 70 year old man in Niger state. This child has had her future stripped away. A lot of these things happen on a daily basis. According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the 11th highest percentage of child marriage cases in the world. A lot of times, the culprits go free and leave the victim to suffer. We can not just seat back and watch, let’s raise awareness and help stop this act! Let’s speak up for those in need and fight for what is right. We say no more to child marriage. Sign our petition to help stop these horrors: http://chng.it/ZdSWvJ9J Source: The Guardian Nigeria #raisetheage #Itsneveryourfault #childnotbride #endchildmarriage #childmarriage

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A lot of people are not aware of how often child marriage happens. We created a petition to reach more people, and influence lawmakers to amend the constitution. This is where the #RaiseTheAge campaign was born. Raise The Age is a movement to raise awareness on child marriage in Nigeria, to raise the age of consent in all Nigerian states to 18 years old, as well as to have it enforced. Nigeria’s problem is a unique one because we have to tackle the issue on two fronts, and we must change the mind-set of the people on a practice that is deeply rooted in ‘tradition and culture’. And we must amend a document that has been used for two decades.

What is the Nigerian law on this?

The problem begins with the country’s constitution. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria indirectly permits this kind of behaviour because Section 29, Subsection 4b says:

‘Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age’ – meaning that if an 11-year-old girl is married, she is deemed to be an adult.

A lot of times, when people marry girls off from a young age, they use the constitution to back it up. Therefore, we strongly believe that if it is amended to ‘Any young woman cannot be married until she reaches 18 years of age’, culprits would not be able to go scot-free as they would have no excuse. And the rate of child marriage would decrease.

Some might say Nigeria stated her national position on child marriage in 2003 with the adoption of the Child Rights Act, but unfortunately, it has not been fully enforced in some states. Article 1 subsection 3 of the 1999 Constitution says, ‘if any other law that is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void’. This means that section 21 of the Child’s Rights Act, which says ‘no person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever’, is of no effect because it contradicts the constitution.

What are the effects of the current age of consent in Nigeria?

Child Marriage, Abuse and Mental Disorders

The low age of consent results in child marriage and immediate effects of it such as school dropouts, withdrawal and anti-social behaviour, mental disorders, depression, sadness, low self-esteem, trauma, and emotional, physical and mental abuse.

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Diseases

The girl child has to live with diseases such as VVF (vesicovaginal fistula), cervical cancer and STDs. The stench that VVF produces due to uncontrolled and continuous leakage of urine into the vaginal vault causes the victims of VVF to be outcast by society. Some of these diseases are life-long diseases.

The Economy

The Nigerian economy also suffers due to the effects of child marriage. The reason being that child marriage takes away the ability of millions of young girls to become educated and to work, be productive and contribute to society. Imagine if the Nigerian labour force grew by this number – think about how much better our economy would be.

Gender Inequality

It also increases the infant and maternal mortality rate in our country, as well as illiteracy rates for girls who are forced to drop out of school. It widens the gap of gender inequality because it reinforces the mentality that women are nothing but possessions for men and that the development of a woman doesn’t matter. It also encourages patriarchy and beliefs such as women belong in the kitchen.

What’s been the response to the #RaiseTheAge petition so far?

The response to the #RaiseTheAge petition has been amazing, and not what we expected at all. We started this project on 20 December 2018. When it was created, for the first few days, we had just three signatures, which were ours. We set a target to get at least 25 000 signatures by December 2019, and surprisingly, we reached this target in less than two weeks! We currently have more than 116 000 signatures and a lot of retweets and posts on social media. Seeing how people are interested in fixing one of our society’s injustices was a response we did not expect, but one we are overjoyed about.

What are your future plans as an organisation?

We plan to host seminars where women can come and speak to young girls on topics or issues they find challenging in the 21st century (self-esteem, finding their passion, how to prevent sexual abuse, and standing up for yourself). We would like to rehabilitate victims who have suffered from child marriage, abuse or rape. We need to teach girls that they can be more than what society expects them to be, and teach boys to respect girls and give them an equal footing. No-one should be left behind.

As young activists, who are your role models?

Susan Ubogu:

  • Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling and Tosin Durotoye

Kudirat Abiola:

  • My mum, Kudirat Abiola and Amne Kam-Selem(my grandmothers), Dr Joe Odumakin, Lisa Nichols, Hafsat Costello-Abiola, Tosin Durotoye, Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton, Mrs Ajibike Adetayo, Mrs Adeola Arofin, Mrs Shirley Okharedia, Shamma Al Mazrui and Christiane Amanpour

Temitayo Asuni:

  •  What inspires me is not a person but the potential a properly educated woman poses.

What’s been the highlight of your activism work so far?

The highlight of our activism work was when we got 25 000 signatures in less than two weeks! It was really surprising and we were all blown away. We are passionate about what we do, and seeing other people support our cause and help us raise awareness is a highlight as well.

What’s been the lowlight of your activism so far?

The lowlight has been the hate comments we get. We have gotten backlash from multiple angles. It is unfortunate that even when you try to do things that help your community, some people will be against it. We have gotten a lot of discouraging e-mails, as well as threats and hate comments on our social media.

We see it as people being ignorant about the law, thereby proclaiming us as liars. Some people do not see good in what we are doing. People have different cultural beliefs and it is unfortunate that some support child marriage. We have had to deal with a lot of opposition. If it is something that requires us to defend ourselves, we simply explain the cause of our project, and the importance in a polite manner because people tend to misunderstand the issues.

Do you find this work stressful/traumatic? How do you deal with it?

It is quite depressing to see what some girls our age or even younger have to go through, and this motivates us to keep pushing. The victims of this terrible crime (forced marriages) are helpless. We strongly believe that we can use our voices to fight for them. We cannot even imagine ourselves getting married at this age, and when thinking about the problems they go through, such as VVF and being deprived of their right to education, we become more determined to do all that is within our power to achieve this goal.

It is also very fulfilling to know that we can help break this cycle, help rehabilitate the victims and also help build a better future for the girl child. We feel that we cannot wait for the government to do everything. We need to be the change we would like to see in the world. Our generation has the potential to improve things, and rather than complaining about the problems in our community, we should look for solutions to them and start now! We feel that if everyone can work towards a goal they are passionate about, the world would be a much better place.

If you were standing in front of the Nigerian Senate, what would you say?

Think back to when you were 15 or younger – you were just figuring out who you are and you are trying to form an identity … to turn your dreams into goals and then into reality. All of a sudden, you are taken away from your comfortable home, pulled out of school, separated from family and friends, and thrown into the clutches of a man old enough to be your grandfather. How would you feel? Unfortunately, on a daily basis, this tragic event is what many girls of our nation must go through.

According to UNICEF, 38% of young women in sub-Saharan Africa are forced into child marriage every year and married before age 18. Imagine if we had these young girls working towards the development of our country? Child marriage does not only affect the victims but also the country. These girls are forced to drop out of school and it reduces our literacy rate. Child marriage brings about slower economic growth.

We feel that, as patriotic citizens of Nigeria, if there is any law in the constitution that could harm any citizen, it is our right and responsibility and a duty to call it to the attention of the lawmakers. Please save the lives of the girl children of Nigeria by amending section 29(4b). This is the first step we must take to eradicate child marriage in our nation. No-one should be left behind.

What can people do to help right now?

People can help us by signing the petition as well as spreading it so it can educate people. They can follow our Twitter (@neveryourfault_) or Instagram (@neveryourfault) accounts and use the #RaiseTheAge hashtag to raise awareness of this crime. Amending the constitution is not going to be easy at all. We need as many people as possible to back us up in this struggle. It is a cause we will not stop fighting for until we have achieved our goal, no matter how long it takes.

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