Gender based violence (GBV) against women crosses cultures and religious affiliation and is acknowledged as a real and on-going issue. In Nigeria sadly it occurs simply because women are viewed as unequal to men and as property to be acquired and controlled. Typically the discourse around GBV worldwide relates to sexual assault in the form of rape and battery and forced treatments including the exploitation and commercialization of women’s bodies. Child marriage falls within the latter scope of forced treatments and is garnering its own area of specific interest through accelerated research and advocacy.
A United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) report reveals that more than 15 million girls around the world get married before the age of 18 and in Nigeria 76 % of girls between the ages of 20 to 24 are reported as having married before the age of 18 and 26% before the age of 15. It is a proven fact that girls in early marriages are consequently prone to abuse of a physical, emotional and sexually violent nature. The idea of a child getting married against her wishes or without the full understanding of the expectations and autonomy that marriage requires, by its very nature lends itself to violence. Child marriage affects girls’ opportunity for curiosity, self-awareness and assuredness, traits that should be part of growing up. In its place educational and economic opportunities are stunted, creating a cycle of associated negative ripple effects throughout society.
In Nigeria GBV is particularly exacerbated because family, community and societal protections are unavailable, weakened or destroyed. Instead young girls are left vulnerable by the immediate fabric of protection that should provide a safe space to feel secure and enabled to achieve their dreams. Effective community engagement therefore is at the heart of protecting vulnerable and at risk girls from early marriages. A community that values and safeguards the rights of its own young girls, provides a first and crucial base level protection. Further, where there are laws affording legal protections and where awareness is created around these laws, additional primary protections are afforded.
In May 2015 the Nigerian Senate passed the violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill (VAPP) which seeks to prohibit multiple forms of gender-based violence. The bill does not specifically call child marriage by its name but there is a general understanding of progress from a starting position of zero to the possibility that the Bill will become Law giving child marriage real legal recognition. Yet while legislative measures are important, in a country like Nigeria legal protections alone will not end child marriage. The evidence based solutions lie in practical “bottom up” approaches of effectively engaging with culture and patriarchal perspectives and finding creative ways of delaying the instance of marriage.
Imara Foundation is a not for profit organization that identifies vulnerable and at risk girls within its immediate communities and identifies creative opportunities to keep them actively engaged until the age of 18 years. At 18 years having received a level of exposure these girls are able to make informed choices that affect their lives and can access the help that they need. The organization defines “at risk girls” as girls between the ages of 12 to 15 who have been prematurely pulled out of school or have not received any formal education at all. Imara Foundation’s philosophy is that when girls are not in school, or in a vocational programme, they are more easily identified as barter items when their families find themselves in dire economic situations. By keeping girls engaged in some kind of enabling activity up to the age of 18 years, Imara takes a vital practical step to delay early marriage within urban communities.
Imara Foundation’s approach is evidence based as recent research from international organizations such as the Population Council shows that when girls are in formal or semi-formal education programmes they stand a better chance of delaying marriage and by extension their risk of violence. Imara’s methodology is practical and replicable. Following an initial assessment, programmes are designed around each girl’s needs which usually consist of basic reading, writing, math and one or two vocational courses that include beading, tailoring, hair dressing, catering and computer literacy. The literacy courses are based on a primary and junior secondary school curriculum and are accelerated for up to a maximum of 3 years. Each of the vocational courses run from six months to a year and the girls are kept in programmes for at least 2 years after which apprenticeship opportunities are sought for an additional year. Girls who enter the programme at 15 usually join the literacy and vocational track, while younger girls are started on the literacy track following which they are absorbed back into formal public school or started on the occupational route. At the backend of the approach and perhaps why it has worked so far is Imara’s engagement with the parents and guardians of the girls. The Foundation obtains commitments from parents to allow them to fully participate and complete their programmes, with the understanding that the costs of programmes would be fully borne by the Foundation. The approach to engagement is the idea that families as a whole would be better off allowing their daughters to complete their programmes because, on completion of these, they would be in positions to provide meaningful support to the families against the short-lived gratification of a dowry.
Still being a young initiative, the Foundation is taking decisive steps to delay the incidence of child marriage, but it does however face challenges. Currently the programme is run as a day programme with the mentees returning to their homes in the evenings. Home life while providing balance and life in context can often create distractions and conflicts for mentees. For instance incidences of absenteeism when family requirements demand that the girls stay home to look after a sick sibling or assist with a competing domestic task. Therefore, while on the one hand the Foundation secures a commitment to complete the program, there may be delays to completion which create a risk.
Long term Imara’s vision is for residence based programmes which would reduce the foundation’s cost of transporting the girls to school and in turn provide periodic safe distraction free environments. Short term the Foundation is making an impact one girl at a time and continues to press forward on its collaborative vision with other organizations involved in the movement to end child marriage in one generation.
I am abhorred at the idea of violence against any human being whatever their gender because it serves no purpose. I am passionate about a violence and conflict free world.