Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Nigeria: On Child Marriage, The Perception Drives the Debate

Between numbers and mumblers
A few weeks ago, we read about a survey conducted for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London by Ipsos MORI and it pertained to how public perception differed from the reality of issues and statistics with regards to crime, benefit fraud and immigration in the UK.
What made this survey all the more pertinent was when a country is hit by economic problems combined with a right-of-centre government, it is easy to play on public perception to formulate policy thereby giving the impression that serious issues of the day are being tackled with the prospect of radical and useful change, whereas nothing could be farther from the truth.
The perils of perception
In the survey, official statistics suggested only 0.6% teenage girls got pregnant in a year, whilst the public thought it was closer to 16%, in the process, the government ministers have rolled out ideas about making it harder for the girls to find welfare support for accommodation and other needs.
Benefit fraud statistically amounts to £0.70 of every £100 but with all the coverage of that minuscule criminality, the public have be led to believe it is £24 of every £100 spent and with that the government have been able to roll out sweeping benefit changes that seem to satisfy the public view but yields very little in savings on the whole.
Formulating policy on perception
In that survey, there are 10 indices where the public perception has grossly over- or under-estimated the reality for crime, religion (this FactCheck on the UK having a Muslim majority by 2050 makes interesting reading), for voting and any other issue that allows the government to roll out lop-sided policies pandering to sentiment, perception and populism with the public being none the wiser.
It colours our views of Europe in terms of the currency, the regulations and the justice system much as an exhaustive debate cannot be had on serious policy issues once they are hijacked by statistics plucked out of the air to push a programme and sound bites that make great headlines allowing for agenda-setting platforms amongst other things.
For the politician it is useful as much as it is perilous for the public, but the fundamental is that perception begins to matter regardless of the truth of the situation and it is unlikely that the truth of the situation will gain critical mass no matter how much the knowledgeable and the influential attempt to make this known – the urban myth has more currency than the real numbers.
The reading from the reality
I have found that the issue of public perception against academic interpretation is pervasive and universal, like for instance, in the United State, the matter of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution which I cover here; the simple English reading will suggest the right to bear arms is a function of a well-regulated militia with the view of securing a free state but the debate and perception has been argued and it has radically changed to mean the individual’s right to own arms and by absurd extension, anyone can constitute a well-regulated militia of one. More on that on Wikipedia.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Perception matters
It got to a point where I jocularly suggested, someone just chose the 4-letter words in the amendment and made a constitutional law out of it.
However, the point is, people perception weighs heavily on the politics and the policies of the day that it cannot be ignored even if the reality as posited by the academics and other experts suggest otherwise, they can pooh-pooh all they like but it is perception that gets the crowd, fills the streets and excites the mob, the good knowledge, if there is anything like that will only reside with a minority and that expert cohort will do well to recognise the fundamental difference between public perception and academic interpretation giving due consideration to both.
Legalising Child Marriage
Which brings me to the #ChildNotBride Twitter hashtag that invaded the Nigerian Twitterverse recently. The Nigerian Senate were making constitutional amendments that pertained to the renunciation of citizenship, in Section 29 of the Nigerian Constitution when a muddle of senate procedures coupled with a religiously charged disavowal led by a man notorious for marrying under aged girls turned the whole focus to child marriage and basically, the rest is history.
By academic and expert interpretation and the broad spectrum of opinions covered by the links I will provide below, this section is quite particular and has no bearing on constitutionally legitimising Child Marriage in Nigeria, the subsection has been in the constitution since 1999, but with the actors, the procedures and the wording of the subsection being expunged – Section 29 (4)(b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age. – Public perception has overtaken the issue and it has become a cause that needs to be addressed.
Misguided outcry over the girl child – Egghead Odewale – The Nigerian Telegraph – Covers the extant laws covering the protections of the child.
Now That Your Ten Year Old Girl Is Of Marriageable Age | An Appraisal by Ayo Sogunro – Paints a scenario for granting rights to the married.
“Senator Yerima and Constitutional Review” By Maryam Uwais – Tackles more underlying issues to do with culture, religion and opportunity.
Still on Child Bride: The big yawn, By Cheta Nwanze – How lethargy sets in on our campaigns.
#ChildNotBride: The Real Issues. – Dr. Henry Olamiju – Why it is a cause we should all take up.
An urgent need for review
The jumble of laws, acts, codes and statutes that give and take protection to and from the Nigerian child needs to be streamlined to effectively provide universal human rights fully protected to ensure the child has every opportunity to reach their full potential rather than be sacrificed on the altar of accepted beliefs that are somewhat inimical to development.
The commentators above have done well to paint out the broadest scenarios to cover most of the interpretations this subsection might extend to unwittingly and consequentially; it is also important that we address the core issue of child marriage separate from the personalities involved, that a clear delineation be made to ensure the secularity of the state and that those with an ulterior agenda are not allowed usurp the debate with religious blackmail which in this case is what seems to have happened.
The Senate has offered to revisit the clause and hopefully it would be to refine all the related provisions exhaustively to protect the girl-child from marriage, abuse and exploitation whilst radically addressing the educational crisis that has over 10 million children of school age out of mainstream education in Nigeria.
Perception matters, Always
When I addressed this matter 3 years ago, it was evident that whilst it was morally reprehensible the said Senator had broken no laws, but his religious stance made his position untenable and it formed the basis for my argument that we need a strict and clear separation of religion from the State with the view to making civil law and the Constitution the supreme text to which all Nigerians find equality and must be answerable to such that no one ends up being or acting above the law.
In all, as I have been wont to say on Twitter, Perception matters, Always – it is immaterial if people got it right or wrong; if the public perception is that child marriage has been legalised, then anyone who has the power needs to act to rid us of that perception – it is perilous but it is not without precedence, as it stands, because of public perception, Section 29(4)(b) constitutionally legalises child marriage, fix it and address it with the utmost alacrity.

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