Nigeria's rates of child marriage are some of the highest on the African continent and around the world. In fact, according to global nonprofit Girls Not Brides, an estimated 43% of girls in Nigeria are married before the age of 18, and 16% by the age of 15.
In the north of Nigeria, the issue is even more severe — with around 78% of girls being married before the age of 18, and 48% of girls by the age of 15, according to a 2021 report from Save the Children.
From their health to their education, and their bodily autonomy to their career prospects, child marriage has deep and lasting impacts on these girls and women, which can continue throughout their lives and the lives of their children too.
Child marriage is a direct violation of the human rights of the girls impacted — going against the Nigerian constitution (although there are reportedly conflicting provisions within it), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes the age of consent as 18, and guarantees a child's right to be free from coercion and violence, as well as their right to receive health care and education.
There are many reasons why child marriage is still so common in Nigeria. In Kano State, for example, in northern Nigeria, Human Rights Watch has identified traditional practices and family poverty as key factors. Across other states, child marriage is largely a result of gender inequality, a patriarchal society, religious and traditional practices, poverty, stigma around teenage pregnancy, and a lack of enforcement of legal protections.
But while progress in the fight against child marriage is under threat from the impacts of COVID-19, climate change, conflict, and poverty, all hope is not lost — there are many activists and advocates around the world who are dedicating their lives to ensuring the rights and safety of girls and women.
Here are five organisations every Global Citizen should know about, that are fighting for women's and girls' rights and working to end child marriage in Nigeria and beyond.
1. Sage Foundation
Sage Foundation is an nonprofit organisation founded by humanitarian Naza Alakija in 2019, and it’s dedicated to finding, funding, elevating, and nurturing grassroots organisations that offer local solutions to the issues that keep women, girls, and our planet from thriving.
The foundation identifies the most effective and creative partners to work with, and brings attention and funding to their work through advocacy and awareness campaigns. In 2020, Sage Foundation channelled its focus onto the issue of child marriage, as it was and continues to be one of the most pressing and severe issues holding women and girls back, limiting their potential for an equitable future.
“An often-overlooked reality of child marriage is that this harrowing practice exists in many developing countries as a societal norm," Alakija wrote in an op-ed for Global Citizen. "To combat what is an enormously complex problem — and one that is heightened in the face of environmental emergencies — our greatest asset for changing the future of young women and girls at risk, is through education."
“The role of grassroots organisations within this approach is crucial, as they provide nuanced insight into the culture and customs on the ground," she continued. "Promoting education around the danger of child marriage to not only young women and girls, but also their families and wider society, is the only way we will be able to make truly long-term change."
2. Bella Foundation
Bella Foundation for Maternal and Child Care is a local, community-focused grassroots organisation based in Imude, Ojo, in Lagos State. The foundation has reported that 4 in every 10 girls in its neighbourhood were married before they turned 17, and that over half of the women who visited the community antenatal clinic for delivery and postpartum problems were girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
“Bella Foundation decided to focus our work on ending child marriage in Ojo Local Government, because it is one of the places in Lagos State with the highest number of cases," founder Bella Akhagba told Global Citizen. "One of the most powerful solutions to child marriage is the education and empowerment of young women. That’s why we trained 10 girls as advocates against child marriage, who speak to their peers in the community and act as advocates for policy and decision makers."
"I also trained the girls in various skills so they are empowered to generate income for themselves and their families, since poverty is one of the greatest causes of child marriage in South West," she added.
The Foundation is also seeing the impact of its work — thanks to eight advocacy visits to influencers and policy makers, the Ojo Local Government Council has drafted a by-law against child marriage. It is awaiting passage into law.
The communication officer facilitating a session on 'Rape' to mark the international day on Violence against women. On the 25th of November, 2019. pic.twitter.com/59bDpqZg49— Bella Foundation for Child and Maternal Care (@BEFCAMC2015) December 16, 2019
“Through mentorship meetings with the girls of Ojo, we have been able to change their mindsets and attitude," Akhagba added. "Once girls are given the opportunity to rise, they can fulfil their potential and break the cycle."
3. UNICEF Nigeria
UNICEF Nigeria has created an action plan to make sure that eradicating child marriage is a national, regional, and continental priority because it recognises that child marriage in West and Central Africa is one of the most significant concerns in the region.
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in 2021. "Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage."
UNICEF gathers its important network to conduct research, gather and analyse data, and understand the issue's patterns and projections. According to the organisation, funding girls' education is one of the most effective strategies to stop child marriage.
Women at Risk Foundation (WARIF), is a nonprofit founded by Dr. Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, in response to the rising number of rape cases, instances of sexual violence, and human trafficking of girls across Nigeria. A shocking 1 in 4 Nigerian girls under the age of 18 have been subjected to sexual violence, but only 5% of cases are reported.
To tackle such a serious issue, Dr. DaSilva-Ibru knew that she had to get to the very root of the problem: gender inequality. Her organisation’s vision is to build a society free of rape and sexual violence.
“It is our primary social responsibility to ensure that all young girls and women live in a society free of rape and sexual violence,” she told Global Citizen.
Alongside Sage Foundation, WARIF started a school initiative that instructs students and raises awareness of gender-based violence in schools in Lagos State. Here, they instruct girls on how to speak up, respect one another, respect themselves, and protect themselves in real-world situations. Crucially, WARIF educates boys as well as girls, so boys and men can learn to treat girls as their equals.
5. It’s Never Your Fault
It’s Never Your Fault is a nonprofit organisation started by a group of friends who were teenagers at the time for one simple reason: because they felt compelled to take action against child marriage.
Susan Ubogu, Kurdirat Abiola, and Temitayo Asuni are campaigning to ban child marriage in all 36 states across Nigeria by advocating for change in legislation. Currently, a clause in the constitution serves as a loophole, and just a few words allow millions of young girls to be married every year — some as young as 11. Through their campaign #BanChildMarriageNigeria, It’s Never Your Fault are rallying to change the law via a petition with Change.org.
Now you know these incredible organisations, you can join us in supporting their work. You can do this by signing up as a Global Citizen and downloading the Global Citizen app or heading here to take action to join the movement of millions of Global Citizens around the world calling on world leaders to empower girls NOW.