By Abiose Adelaja Adams
Shao town in a Kwara State is a tourist site known for its annual mass wedding festival, but little is said or known about the children among the scores of young women married off at a single event.
During a recent visit to the community, which is some 15 kilometers from Ilorin, the state capital, ICIR met the chief priest of the Awon Mass Wedding Festival, who told the tale of how a river goddess had instructed the founding fathers of the town centuries ago about requirements of marriage rites.
As the myth goes, the priest, Oloruntogun Ojetunde, popularly called Baba Alawon, said that a certain river goddess appeared to the town’s forebears and promised to bless them if they keep to her commandments.
“The Awon is a spirit from the river in Shao,” Ojetunde said in local Kwara dialect.
“But it appeared in the form of a woman in the community when the inhabitants were still few. It introduced herself as a spirit from the waters to two hunters and a certain elder that she has come to bless the people, and when she was about to disappear, she gave an order that all women in the village must be married to men in the same village, in one single day. It also blessed us that we will be fruitful and prosperous,” he further enlightened.
This age-long ritual, he toldour reporter, is responsible for the population growth of the town till date.
The priest said that the mass wedding ceremony has been conducted every year since the day the Awon goddess so instructed.
So strict is the adherence to her instruction that if there are no women to marry off in any particular year, girls from age 13, 15, even 12, are considered marriageable. This contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child which pegged marriageable age at 18.
Frail-looking, dark complexioned Ojetunde, who doesn’t know his real age but can be estimated to be in his 70s, sees absolutely nothing wrong with marrying off a 13-year old. He said it was a norm in the dark days when there was no education.
“Even today, once they are 13, we send them to their husband’s house so that they can be fruitful and multiply in the land,” he said with a tone of finality.
The uneducated man, who can neither read nor write, said his position is entirely based on the instructions of the goddess to keep the land fruitful.
Celebrated every October till date amidst pomp and fanfarethe number of brides has however dropped to about 40 in recent times.
“If it is so bad, we will wed at least 15,” said Ojetunde.
He, however, lamented that the advent of civilization and westernization has changed the hearts of the people against the tradition.
Many people have converted to Christianity or Islam. As a result of this, not all the women come to him, for wedding preparations anymore.
“Before, it was a taboo to organize your own wedding in Shao, but not so anymore,” he said gloomily.
However, he cannot change from the mandate given him. He said the government has left them to their tradition and that the Ministry of Tourism has even been supportive.
It is noteworthy that Kwara State is among the 24 Nigerian states which have signed the 2003 Child Rights Act, which prohibits betrothal and marriage of children and instructs parents or guardians to guarantee them education, training and guidance.
The ceremony holds in October, thus on the day of her visit, our reporter did not see any child bride. When asked if the reporter could speak to any of the child brides, the priest said “the child brides of yesterday are now women today. The recent ones are in their husband’s house or dispersed to various towns.”
Even then, the reporter found some of the former girl bride to talk to.
Mama Yisa, 40, is from Shao and was given away in marriage at 16. She has seven children and till date she can neither read nor write, as she never had the opportunity of attending school because of her early marriage, she said.
However, one of the brides given out in October 2014 shared how she would have married as a child but delayed it because of schooling.
Oluwabunmi Adebayo is a 25 year-old high school leaver. She was part of the women given out in a mass wedding in the last Awon festival Day in October 2014.
Her reaction was “no”, when asked whether she was forced.
“It is our culture here for all women to marry same day. We are the ones that will bring our husbands ourselves. All young girls look forward to it,” she said.
“On my own wedding day, all of us that married that day were 31 in number.”
Adebayo said that she knows15 year old girls who were given out in marriage. She too would have married earlier had she not desired to study.
A 2014 UNICEF report, ‘Ending Child Marriage, Progress and Prospects,’ shows that though child marriage in Nigeria has reduced by one per cent annually in the last 30 years, hundreds of girls are still at risk due to the country’s peculiarly large population.
The report states that of the world’s 1.1 billion under aged girls, 22 million are already married. UNICEF, in the report, is worried that if there is no reduction in child bride practices, up to 280 million girls will be married before age 18. And due to population growth, this number will increase to 320 million by 2050.
Child marriage clearly violates the Child Rights Act and has multifaceted consequences on the society.
Betty Abah, the executive director, Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection, CEE-HOPE, who works in with girls and vulnerable children in Lagos said that the practice whereby children are given out in marriage is still very common in the country.
“Child marriage is prevalent in many rural settings. And, even in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos, we have seen it practiced in some of the poor neighborhoods.”
Lagos State is one of the states that have ratified the 2003 Child Rights Act.
“I will strongly say that the three most important contributory factors are poverty, lack of awareness and government’s indifference. Many are pushed by poverty to ‘dispose’ of their children in order to duck from parental responsibilities – and you know, of course, that the rate of child birth is usually quite high in poor and excluded areas).
She continued: “Also, there are virtually no forms of social welfare system for children in existence here in Nigeria so poor parents are always at their wits end and marry off their female children as soon as possible to have some economic relief.”
According United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, Child marriage has intergenerational consequences. Girls who are married off early are not only denied of their education and childhood, but socially isolated from society and family.
They are also unable to negotiate safer sex, thus exposing them to sexually transmitted disease such as HIV.
Further lending her voice, Abah said: “Child marriage can be very traumatizing and degrading and that is exactly why we have seen instances of young girls rebelling against these inhuman systems by killing their husbands in recent times.”
Lots of medical problems can arise from child marriage, such as vesico-vagina fistula, VVF, a condition very prevalent in the northern states.
VVFarises from obstructed labour, after which a fistula (tract) is created between the bladder and vagina, thus the woman leaks urine.
“This is very common in the north where child marriage is also common. It’s a disease that damages our women. Many of the girls also die of other childbirth-related complications. It is one of the reasons for maternal mortality and also for child mortality in the country,”Abah remarked.
“Many are too young to take good care of their children as they themselves are children. And as we have seen that lack of care, that deficiency, shows in their children who are either not healthy or, like their mothers, may get little of no education and therefore face very bleak future prospects,” she added.
Adebisi Ojo, a 42 year-old man from Shao lamented that the influence of civilization is killing the culture of mass weddings.
“Its our culture, but civilization is killing it. Everybody wants to do their own (wedding),”
he observed. He and some youth association are planning a revival of the culture and plan to get government support to generate revenue for the town and solve unemployment issue.
While cultural activists are canvassing for the tradition to be treated with the same importance as the Osun Osogbo festival, Abah said the system that introduces, supports and propagates child marriage without any doubt “stabs at the heart of ‘womanity’ and is clearly inhuman, crude retrogressive and we should do all we can to fight it.”
The chairman of Moro local government area, AbdulRaheem Adisa, in a statement at the last Awon mass wedding day in October 2014, expressed the council’s readiness to support and promote the festival as it was capable of enhancing communal peace and harmony in the area. While the mass wedding may not be an infringement on human rights, Abah says this community should be given close monitoring by the state government to prevent children being out given as brides.