Aisha, the wife of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, was conspicuously absent as Africa’s First Ladies, led by Sierra Leone’s Fatima Maada Bio, brought their campaign to ban early child marriage and sexual violence against women and girls before the UN General Assembly.
The First Ladies, including Jeanette Kagame (Rwanda), Clar Weah (Liberia), Antoinette Sassou Nguesso (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Auxilla Mnangagwa (Zimbabwe), continued their passionate appeal for the world to support their “Hands Off Our Girls! Campaign.
Nigeria is one of the countries with an alarming rate of challenges women and the girl child face.
Mrs. Aisha has not attended public functions in recent weeks but she’s usually represented by her Senior Special Assistant on Administration, Dr Hajo Sani.
Why the president’s wife did not attend the UNGA event said “she was represented”.
According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1300 civil society organisations working towards ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential, 44% of girls in Nigeria are married before their 18th birthday and 18% are married before the age of 15.
It quoted a UNICEF report that “Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of child brides in the world – 3,538,000 – and the 11th highest prevalence rate of child marriage globally.
“Child marriage is most common in the North West and North East of Nigeria, where 68% and 57% of women aged 20-49 were married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage is particularly common among Nigeria’s poorest, rural households and the Hausa ethnic group.
“A 2017 World Bank study estimates that child marriage costs Nigeria USD7.6 billion in lost earnings and productivity every year.
“Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that girls are somehow inferior to boys. In Nigeria, child marriage is also driven by level of education.
“73% of Nigerian women with no formal education were married before 18, compared to only 9% who had completed higher education. Further education is almost impossible for some girls, who have little choice but to depend on their husbands for the rest of their lives.”
At the sidelines of the UNGA, Bio flanked by her husband President Julius Bio, spoke to “lift the lid of silence” taboo and stigma surrounding rape and early marriage in Sierra Leone and other parts of the continent.
Maada Bio shared her personal story of running away from an arranged marriage to an older man in her early teens.
Aided by an older sister, she took a flight out of her native Sierra Leone to the United Kingdom – without her father’s knowledge or permission. “I come from a family where girls are married at 12 years,” she recalled.
Three months later from the safety of the UK, her resolve was set. “From that moment I vowed that I would not see a child being abused,” she said.
President Bio, responding to a question on how deeply set cultural mindsets could be changed, said it would take patience and persistence. “We have to leave some aspects of culture behind. We have to establish institutions and cascade our campaigns down across the entire country.”
Speaking, Clar Weah stressed that it was time to collectively say no to abuse. “We renew our commitment to create a safe world for our girls in Africa. We entreat all presidents and heads of states to join us,” she appealed.
Ermine Erdogan, First Lady of Turkey, who made a special appearance to support the event, said the key to the empowerment of women was education.
“There is no excuse for early marriage. The place for a school-going child is school,” she declared.
In his remarks, African Development Bank (ADB) President, Akinwumi Adesina, spoke out against all forms of early marriage and said the economic empowerment of women is a critical tool to end the vicious cycle of marginalization and gender imbalance.
“That’s why the Bank is raising $3 billion to support women,” Adesina said, referring to the Bank’s Affirmative Finance Action for Women In Africa (AFAWA) initiative.
“Early marriage is not only a human rights abuse it is an economic issue,” Rachel Yates, Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, said.
Other voices in support of the First Ladies included Djereje Wordofa, UNFA Deputy Executive Director, who said protection of girls and women and preventing abuse must become a national priority.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, disclosed that it was a subject he dreaded but had to talk about. “Child marriage reinforces poverty. It is totally unacceptable. We must speak out against political, religious and social practices,” he said.