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Award Winning Writer, Chibundu Onuzo Talks About the Empowerment of the Girl Child in Her Piece – ‘When I Was Fourteen’

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Chibundu HeadshotWhen I was fourteen, I bought my first padded bra. It was a Marks and Spencer t-shirt bra with foam in the cups instead of the lace that I was used to. I went from being poorly endowed to a little less poorly endowed. In school uniform, the transformation was unnoticeable but on the weekends, wearing a T-shirt or a cotton dress, you could see the beginnings of a figure.

When I was fourteen, I’d had my period for three years. It came in a rush of blood at eleven. We’d had the sex talk at school. Then I had an even more detailed and awkward sex talk with my mother, who is a doctor. As if on cue, a few days later, the bloody period arrived. There was a gap of about six months between my first period and my second, in which time I went about announcing that I had reached menopause. I was wrong. I soon discovered that this bloodletting happened once a month and in theory, it meant that I who was a child, could also have a child.

When I was fourteen I was tall for my age. In fact, at twenty-five, and 5ft 7, I am only an inch taller than I was then. On meeting me, people always assumed I was older. I’d have people guess as old as twenty-one. But you couldn’t have a conversation with me for five minutes and retain that guess. My worries and concerns were childish: boys, pimples, exams in no particular order.

Boys, or the lack of them, was a serious worry. At fourteen, I moved to an all girls’ school in Winchester. There was an all boys’ school just fifteen minutes walk away with hundreds of boys to choose from but alas, I didn’t seem to be their type. I was not blonde or blue-eyed enough. I waited patiently for the summer holidays, when my friends from Nigeria would come and I would have eight weeks to try and secure that most wonderful of things: a boyfriend.
A boyfriend not a husband.
In case my dad is reading this, I must let you know that I didn’t succeed.

Pimples were another trauma. In my secondary school in Nigeria, a teacher touted washing your face with urine as a cure for spots. I didn’t go that far but I tried everything else. Dudu Osun, toothpaste, Robb, Pro-Active, Clearasil, Neutrogena, the list was endless.

And of course exams. When I was fourteen I was in school. My main purpose was to wake up in the morning and go to class and study and excel. Like the students sang in Sister Act 2, ‘If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.’ Exams were important. Through passing annoying things like my GCSEs and my A-levels, I could get to my dreams.

When I was fourteen, my worries were childish, but my dreams were as big as any adult’s. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to be a singer. And nobody said no to me. Nobody put any obstacles in my way. Nobody clipped the wings of my childhood by forcing a husband on me.

Ngozi's wedding 003I was shocked and incensed to read of the case of Habiba Isa who at fourteen is now the ‘wife’ of the sixty four year old Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Abdulmumuni Usman. There are allegations that she was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Her marriage was declared valid on three grounds. First, she had reached puberty, evidenced by menstruation. Secondly and thirdly, in front of a council of men, old enough to be her fathers and grandfathers, she had denied being forced to marry the Emir and being forced to convert to Islam.

Horrifying, as it seems, there are actually conditions under which the marriage of a fourteen-year-old girl can be legal in present day Nigeria. Under customary law, there is no age limit for marriage. With the consent of the child and parental consent, the marriage is valid. Under Islamic law, once a Muslim child reaches puberty and has the consent of their father or male relative, a marriage is valid. This means that if indeed, Habiba was not abducted or forcefully converted and had her father’s consent, then her marriage would be legal. The Constitution, the supreme law of the country, the only document that can supersede cultural and religious convention, is silent on what is a correct marriageable age.

The Child’s Rights Act passed in 2003 prohibited child marriage (S.21) but sadly, only 26 out of 36 states have adopted this act. Nigeria has ratified the international treaty on the Convention of the Right of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, both of which state that anyone below 18 is a child. This would imply that the country does not sanction the marriage of children but until there is a constitutional amendment and the constitution speaks unequivocally on the matter of marriageable age, anybody can decide in their house that twelve is old enough to marry.

Where are our lawmakers? Ben Murray Bruce (Bayelsa East), Dino Melaye (Kogi West), Rẹmi Tinubu (Lagos Central), Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom West), Mustapha Bukar (Katsina North), Abu Ibrahim (Katsina South), Umaru Kurfi (Katsina Central), Mallam Shehu Sani (Kaduna Central), Rose Oko (Cross River North), Gbolahan Dada (Ogun West): where are you?

A woman getting married is cause for celebration, a Bellanaija feature and an instagram hashtag. A fourteen year old girl being ‘married’ is a travesty and causes the creation of another type of hashtag. When will we stop having to use hashtags to free the girls of Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls. #FreeEse and now Habiba.

#WhenIWas14 I was a child not a bride.

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You can join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #WhenIWas14 by telling us where you were at 14.

13 Comments

  1. Wale

    October 17, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Beautiful lines though but all these lawmakers you mentioned are lootsearchers…..May God thunders all these foolish men that perpetrate this evil.

  2. Corolla

    October 17, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    #WhenIwas14 I was thinking of how much I hated math, and why it was a necessary subject. When I was 14, I was a child not a bride!

  3. toyin

    October 17, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    #when I was 14, I was a child not a bride!

  4. Aunty Anita

    October 17, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    #WhenIwas14 I was thinking of being promoted to the next class (ss2) and how much I needed to read to pass. I thought of things a child would think of, I was a child not bride!

  5. shield

    October 17, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    When I was 14, I was thinking of passing UME and gaining admission to the university. I was attending special lessons to make sure I passed the cut-off point. When I was 14, I was a child not a bride!

  6. Mz Socially Awkward...

    October 17, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Excellent feature… and particularly powerful when you consider what Chibundo Onuzo has managed to achieve, simply because someone (whether it be a parent, a mentor a teacher or any other adult) nourished her dreams and let her become.

    When she was 14… If she had been 14 in Sharia -ruled Northern Nigeria, nobody would care about her potential. If she had been 14 in certain parts of that country, instead of discovering and nurturing her talent for writing, she would be nurturing children – 1 possibly already a toddler and another likely to be planted in her womb.

    The travesty is damning on all of us as a country – not just Sharia-ruled Northern Nigeria. Look at how we destroy youth… Nigeria continues to represent itself as a nation which constantly destroys the innocence and freedom of young people. Old people with NO VISION … no hope of their own and often a very limited capacity to reason… preying on the future of young girls. Senators & lawmakers who keep quiet while Emirs and their millions of sheep-like followers continue to steal lives that haven’t yet been lived… 14. An age when so many other young girls around the world start to look forward to maximising their lives but in Northern Nigeria, your nightmare called the Sharia definition of “womanhood” has already started by then.

    • Amaa

      October 17, 2016 at 8:07 pm

      True talk the North will forever be backward until the aaddres this issue of child Marriage . When I was 14 I got my first Bra . I was so excited that I forgot that bras where under wear and not to be worn out the dormitory. I am not a child bride and my nieces ain’t

  7. mgtss.blogspot.com

    October 17, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    When i was 14, my greatest concern was how to keep enjoying my Mills and Boons/ Silhouette while retaining my position among the first BEST TEN. I had ambition and i had day-dreams, i was unafraid and i knew i had endless possibilities. When i was 14, i was a child, not a bride…

  8. jennietobbie

    October 17, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    #WhenIwas14, I was still in JSS3 prepping tonail my JSCE and get on that Honor Roll

  9. Rhoda

    October 17, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    When I was 14, I was playing with my friends, eating sweets and trying to figure out my homework Problem in maths.

  10. nnenne

    October 17, 2016 at 11:23 pm

    At 14 I was carefree , and focused on my studies.
    I was a child in every sense and definitely not a bride. So we’re my cousins and friends.
    (I have no sister )

  11. Aisha

    October 19, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    I just want to correct the belief that only the consent of the father or male relative is required under Islamic law for a marriage to be valid- in Islam the consent of the woman is important, without which a marriage cannot be contracted. A woman can reject suitors she doesn’t like. Because some Muslims decide to do whatever they like doesn’t mean it’s an Islamic thing.
    Moreover, this child marraige of a thing is practiced in other cultures too but we hardly hear of them. People should stop Islamizing anything negative.

  12. Aisha

    October 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    In addition, this does not mean I support child marriage in anyway. As a girl child, I was given all the support required to grow up like a normal child. #whenIWas14 I was in SS1, thinking of how to stop Maths being a major problem for me, I was consious of my growing body and had boys on my mind.
    I took my ideal man home at 25 and got married when I was ready with nobody forcing him on me

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