Chibundu Headshot 

When 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 003 

I 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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