In this article, the author explores the case of a child bride charged with murder, as the result of her desperate efforts to end her own pain. Concluding that not only the husband and father, but her society failed the girl, this case demonstrated the harm that early marriage and the deprivation of girls’ rights inflicts, not only upon the individual, but upon the broader community as well.
Maryam Uwais (nee Isa Wali) is a practicing lawyer based in the capital city of Abuja, Nigeria and the founder the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI), a non-governmental organization that aims to enhance the conditions of women and children in the spheres of education, health and empowerment, in the Kano State of Nigeria.
Wasila was born around 14 years ago in a remote village called Unguwar ‘Yansoro of Gaya Local Government of Kano State of Nigeria. I say ‘around’ because her parents differ as to their recollection of her actual age. From her mother’s account, Wasila was born 12 years before the incident, while her father says she was 13 years old at the time the alleged offence was committed. Her birth was never recorded as her parents are very poor, stark illiterate and unaware of the need for birth registration. Her father appears to be in his 50’s and is a subsistence farmer, while her mother is a housewife, about 10 years younger than her husband.
Wasila can neither read nor write as the nearest school to Unguwar ‘Yarsoro is two kilometres away. Her education is limited to the makeshift madrasa very near her home, although she had learnt from her mother how to weave raffia baskets, traditionally placed on the backs of donkeys for carrying sand.
As happens in rural communities, 35 year old Umar Sani (a married man with 3 children from another village) approached Wasila with marriage. Wasila was compelled to marry Umar by her father, after she wavered on if to accept the offer. Wasila thereafter married Umar and relocated to a new village; a community where she knew no one. Because she could not cook, the first wife would prepare the meals for her, until she could learn how.
As far as Wasila was concerned, sexual intercourse happens only between the wayward. The agony she endured both times Umar forcefully had sexual relations with her compelled her to begin reflecting on how to stop Umar from hurting her ever again. She surmised that if Umar had a really bad stomach ache he would divorce her, thereby releasing her to go back home to her family, and the familiar community she had grown up in. Wasila then sent a child to buy rat poison, determined that Umar would never again be strong enough to inflict so much pain on her. When Umar’s senior wife prepared the meal on her behalf, she allegedly laced the meal with poison and sent the dishes with the food in it to Umar, who unknown to her, intended to share the meal with 3 of his friends. All 4 men died subsequently, and the police swung into action.
Being the person that had prepared the meal, Umar’s first wife was initially arrested by the police as the prime suspect. Wasila ran after the police officers, protesting that she was the culprit. Wasila was then detained in the remand home in Kano, pending trial. She has since been charged with culpable homicide punishable with death on 4 counts, and the trial has commenced in the Kano State High Court.
Kano State in Nigeria is yet to enact the Child Rights Law, which would have enabled the trial of Wasila under more compassionate protections. That fact notwithstanding, the Children & Young Persons Law, which is the law that covers the arrest, detention, and trials of children in conflict with the law, provides some measure of cover, albeit without the same clarity in terms of age and penalties for offences committed. As the law stands, therefore, Wasila can be tried for the offence of culpable homicide punishable with death at the Kano State High Court, but as a child below the age of 17, even if the prosecution is able to prove all the ingredients of the offence, she cannot be sentenced to death, although she can be detained in lawful custody at the pleasure of the Governor. Paradoxically, because Wasila has been afforded legal protection, we remain hopeful that despite her tragic circumstances, Wasila may finally be able to acquire an education after the trial, thereby attaining possibilities that her mates, who remain married and uneducated, are hopelessly mired in. It is also planned that with sufficient pertinent support, she would be able to put her past behind her, ultimately.
Notwithstanding the four deaths that have ensued from her purported acts, Wasila’s current challenges have evoked the sympathy of the public. She has become a living symbol of the needless tragedy that can ensue from child marriage. Even under the Sharia, a child cannot be held liable for crimes committed, basically because liability only arises if intent exists. A child is perceived as immature and therefore incapable of appreciating the gravity of the crime in contention. At Wasila’s age and in the cultural context of Kano State, however, marriage to minors is commonplace.
Child marriage, in itself, wreaks untold hardship on the girl child. Deprived of an education, skills and the productivity (including legitimate income) that may result therefrom, the child bride suffers manifold health hazards, including risks relating to malnutrition, maternal and child mortality, vasico vaginal fistulae, psycho-social and emotional repercussions such as depression, arising from the exclusion that would naturally follow being removed from familiar surroundings. At such a tender age, still in her formative years, the little girl is relocated, upon marriage, to an entirely new environment, without friends and more likely than not, to a man much older than she is. With such wide age disparities between her and the new husband and possibly hostile co-wives, compounded with the overwhelming responsibilities of marriage and motherhood that she is ill-prepared for, it is no wonder that child marriages often end in divorce.
The incidence of (multiple) divorce (under Islamic personal law) is prevalent in Kano State, with concomitant issues to the women such as commercial sex work, having to leave her children behind (with their welfare compromised), the rising drug and substance abuse, the hordes of uneducated and illiterate boys that are ready fodder for violence and even terrorism, and the general dysfunction in the family and society. The girl lives a life of diminished opportunities, without the hope of ever becoming self-reliant, or armed with the self-esteem or confidence to negotiate critical decisions relating to her own life, on her own terms. All of these sundry challenges merely serve to entrench and exacerbate poverty, as the woman is unable to rise above her abject circumstances. Indeed, not being in a position to appreciate the value of education, the chances of her own children improving themselves through formal structures, are even slimmer. So the cycle repeats itself. What greater violence against the girl and the society can there be, than child marriage?
Undoubtedly, Kano State, law enforcement, Wasila’s father, and our society have failed her woefully. If a minimum age for marriage had been incorporated into our laws and implemented effectively thereafter, Wasila’s father would not have had the legitimate authority to compel her into such an unwanted union, with the attendant consequences. Wasila’s case vividly demonstrates the danger endemic in thrusting a physically and mentally immature girl into an unbearable situation, compelling her to devise her own ingenious methods of escape and freedom. Surely there can be no better illustration for the campaign to delay marriage, at least until the girl is educated, mature and sufficiently prepared for such an arduous institution.
For more information on how organizations and individuals are working to address child marriage in West Africa, including Nigeria, check out this report published by the Ford Foundation.