Nigeria’s legal system has no provision for the harmful practice of “marry your rapist,” legal practitioners have said. But perpetrators of sexual violence make arrangements to marry their victims with blessings from families and communities. In this report, Daily Trust on Sunday looks at the harmful practice that robs girls of their childhood and rewards rapists with child-brides.
Two years ago, Raliya Hassan was married off. She was a Junior Secondary School (JSS) 3 student in Kaduna State, but her education was cut short after a 30-year-old neighbour lured her into an uncompleted building and raped her. Three weeks later, Raliya, who was only 13 years old and living with her half sister, was forced to marry her rapist. Now 15, Raliya is divorced, out of school and works as a housemaid in Dan Bushiya community in Kaduna State. She told Daily Trust on Sunday that the sexual violation and forced marriage to the man who raped her is permanently seared in her memory.
To escape prosecution, and to ‘shield’ Raliya’s family from shame and stigma, the neighbour proposed to marry her. Raliya had no say in the matter and there was no festivity during the marriage preparations.
“My mother was not happy, but my father and his brothers agreed to the marriage. Some of our neighbours said the rape was my fault, that I had wanted to marry him,” she said.
Raliya’s mother, Zakkiya, whose marriage to Raliya’s father had ended six years before, was against the marriage.
“I wept and asked my current husband to intervene because my daughter’s uncles insisted that marriage decisions were for the father’s side of the family. I wanted my husband, being a man, to fight for my daughter, but he was told he had no right over her. She was not his biological daughter,” Zakkiya said.
Raliya’s paternal side of the family had insisted that the marriage arrangement was the right thing to do as it would ‘protect’ against the “temptation of premarital sex.”
And so, with just N2,000, Raliya’s aged and bedridden father had been persuaded by the perpetrator’s family not to press charges. Just like that, the rapist, who had committed a criminal offence which carries a life sentence, had been rewarded with a child-bride.
Raliya said the abuse, which formed the foundation of her forced marriage, had continued into the union in the form of starvation and domestic violence. This was until early 2022 when her mother, with the help of Ummulkhairi Foundation, a local initiative fighting human rights violations, got a Kaduna Magistrate’s Court to annul the marriage.
While 20 countries in the world have legal provisions for the harmful practice that allows men to escape criminal prosecution if they marry the girls or women they raped, in Nigeria, all instances of rape are criminal. Sections 358 of the Criminal Code and 283 of the Penal Code used in the southern and northern parts of the country respectively provide a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for anyone convicted of rape.
However, despite the provision of the law, “an aberration such as girls being forced to marry their rapists still takes place at the family and community levels,” says Zainab Atoba, the former chairperson of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Kaduna State.
Such arrangements are traditionally meant to ‘shield’ a victim’s family from the rape scandal and ‘protect’ the victim from the ‘temptation of pre-marital sex.’ But they also violate the victim’s rights and provide opportunities for alleged criminal offenders to escape justice, says Kabir Momoh, a constitutional and administrative legal practitioner at Abdullahi Ibrahim and Co chambers in Kaduna State.
“The idea alone is an abuse because you are asking a victim to trust and live with her abuser,” said Momoh, a lawyer, adding that such arrangements only expose rape victims to further abuse.
He reiterated that the law is clear about what constitutes a crime of rape and its punishment is spelled out in sections 358 of the Criminal Code and 283 of the Penal Code.
Ibrahim Hassan has one thing on his mind: to get his friend, Dauda Mohammed, who raped his 13-year-old daughter, Halima, out of security custody on bail.
The alleged rapist was arrested by officers of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) in Nasarawa State, North Central Nigeria, on the allegation that he lured the 13-year-old in the guise of running an errand for him, and raped her. When arraigned for the alleged offence in early October 2022, Dauda Mohammed told journalists in Nasarawa State that he was willing to marry the 13-year-old.
When Daily Trust on Sunday reached out to Ibrahim Hassan over the alleged rape of his daughter, the 40-year-old hinted that he regretted reporting the matter to security agents and described his action as “too hasty and driven by anger.”
He said his resolve to prosecute a friend and religious figure in the community had waned after some elders in the community pleaded with him to drop the matter. Moreover, when the suspect pronounced his intention to marry Hassan’s 13-year-old daughter, he suddenly forgave the man who had betrayed his trust. He now wants security agents to drop all charges against the alleged rapist.
“I feel much better now that he has accepted responsibility and is willing to marry her,” Hassan told this reporter during a 15-minute telephone conversation, during which he tried to justify that the man who sexually abused his daughter should be allowed to marry her.
“I know who he is, and I can tell you that he is not a bad person. He used to lead prayers in the mosque. All I can say is that what happened was unfortunate,” he said of the alleged rapist.
Asked about the rights of his daughter, Hassan, who pulled Halima out of school to avoid stigma, insisted that parents always know what is best for their children.
Several cultures in Nigeria place a high value on virginity, and in the country’s majority Muslim northern region, a woman is expected to come into marriage without prior sexual experience. This, according to Hajiya Maryam Yahaya Sani, the head of Ummulkhairi Foundation and Khalifa Mahmud Community Development Initiative, is why parents such as Ibrahim Hassan sometimes force their daughters to marry their rapists.
Sani’s foundation facilitated the annulment of Raliya’s marriage with her alleged rapist.
“Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on a girls’ virginity and many families would rather the perpetrator marry the girl to protect the family name and eliminate any stigma she may face later in life,” she said.
“In other cases, the girl’s family may be poor, and if the rape results in pregnancy, the two families would rather cover it up and let the man marry her to avoid a scandal,” she said.
While both Ibrahim Hassan and Raliya’s parents are Muslims, a Sharia lawyer, Fausat Omowumi Abdulsalam says their actions and beliefs are not in tune with Sharia law – the Islamic religious law that governs the day-to-day lives of Muslims.
“Marrying off a girl to her rapists is repugnant to natural justice. Sharia law frowns at rape, and whoever is found guilty is dealt with under Sharia.
“Sharia law states that anyone who commits rape will be punished by stoning to death if he is married. If the convict is unmarried he will be given 100 lashes, plus one year in exile, which is now substituted with imprisonment,” the lawyer said.
Scarred for life
Child and forced marriages such as that of Raliya are human rights violations and a harmful practice that disproportionately affects women and girls globally, according to the United Nations. The negative practice robs girls of their childhood and threatens their lives, health and security, according to UNICEF, which also states that nearly 650 million women globally became brides before they turned 18, and some, even before the age of 10.
In Nigeria, while the rate of child marriage has decreased over time, close to two out of 10 girls are married off before their 15th birthday, according to the most recent demographic health survey.
Unless she is saved from her father’s beliefs, 13-year-old Halima could become part of the 12 million child brides which UNICEF estimates are married off each year.
The harmful practice is common in some parts of the world, according to a 2021 UN Population Fund report, which states that in some countries, men convicted of rape have the verdict overturned if they marry the women they have assaulted.
Nigeria, though a patriarchal society, is not among the 20 countries around the world where marriage may be considered as a legal “cure” for rape, by allowing perpetrators to marry their victims and escape criminal prosecution.
However, last October, the Sexual Offences Awareness and Response (SOAR), a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation, raised the alarm that some families were marrying off adolescent girls to their rapists.
The executive director of SOAR, Chinyere Eyoh, said rape and any other form of sexual violence against girls is a crime against the rights and dignity of a child and expressed shock that some communities and families in Benue State cover up the acts and marry off the girls to their violators.
Zainab Atoba of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) stressed that the practice had no legal backing in Nigeria.
Reinforcing Raliya’s claim of her neighbours accusing her of deliberately making herself vulnerable so she could marry her alleged rapist, Atoba said the marriage of a victim of rape to her abuser was not sustainable as it is “made to look like it was the girl’s fault.”
“Rape is a capital offence, and where the defendant is convicted, sentence is likely going to be applied. So, anyone who tries to settle is aiding and abetting the crime. It shouldn’t be seen as finding a soft landing for the perpetrator by allowing him to marry the victim,” Atoba explained.
Legal gaps that aid rapists
The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) in Nasarawa State say they are faced with several cases similar to Halima’s, where parents of sexually violated girls turn up to plead on behalf of the suspects. It is a similar situation in Ebonyi, in Nigeria’s South-East region, where in 2021, the National Human Rights Commission expressed disappointment that parents of survivors of sexual violence plead with the commission to close rape cases so that the families can settle at home.
Speaking with Daily Trust on Sunday, the public relations officer of the NSCDC in Nasarawa State, Jerry Victor, said the case of Dauda Mohammed, the alleged rapist of 13-year-old Halima, had been transferred to the state’s Ministry of Justice for investigation and prosecution. He, however, said though the offence of rape was against the state, many parents insist they want to settle informally because of stigma and shame.
When asked about Dauda Mohammed’s marriage proposal to the 13-year-old, Victor said, “What they are trying to do as parents is against the law. We are trying to protect the rights of the girl. She is underage, so whether there was a proposal or not, our job is to arrest the suspect and charge him to court. Let the court decide his fate.”
In its 2020 annual report, the National Human Rights Commission stated that it received 11, 200 reported cases of rape across the country. According to the commission, while rape remains at an epidemic level in Nigeria, “there are no accurate or consolidated statistics on rape.”
However, legal practitioners and stakeholders, including Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, attribute low conviction rate of rape cases to multiple factors, including stigma and shame, unwillingness of victims and their families to cooperate with investigations and a slow justice system.
Tallen, who spoke in late November 2022 at the Orange Ceremony and lighting of the UN House, in commemoration of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, stressed that concrete action was needed to tackle “rape crisis in Nigeria.” She said women and girls had been “failed by a system that makes it increasingly difficult for survivors to get justice, while allowing perpetrators to get away with gross human rights violations.”
Rape and child-marriage are combined human right violations that Raliya has faced and Halima could face unless the law takes its course on her alleged rapists. Even where there is no prior rape, child marriage remains prevalent in Nigeria, rooted in traditional, religious, and economic conditions.
Although the federal government enacted the Child Rights Act (2003), which prohibits marriage below the age of 18 years, the law is yet to be domesticated by at least 9 states, which are all in the northern part of the country. In states where the law has been domesticated, some northern states, including Kaduna, where Raliya was raped, accede to child marriage as long as the girl is above 14 years.
The ’Childs Welfare and Protection Law 2018 in Kaduna State nullifies any marriage contracted with a girl below 18 years. Section 24 (2) of the law states that a person, parent or guardian who marries off a child or promotes the marriage of a child commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of not less than N500,000 or imprisonment of a term of not less than five years, or both.
That section of the law, however, does not apply to Muslim girls such as Raliya. Instead, section 24 (3), which applies to Muslim girls, states that, “Notwithstanding the provisions of sub-section (1) and (2) of this section, a child who is a Muslim who has not attained the age of 18 years shall have the right to contract a marriage under Islamic Law, and the marriage so contracted shall be valid, provided that the child is 14 years or above.”
Even with 14 years, which the law assents to as age of maturity and the right to enter a marriage for Muslim girls, Raliya was only 13 when she was married off, an indication that those who forced her into marriage not only violated her rights but also broke the law. Section 24 (2d) of the law prescribes that upon conviction “a fine of not less than N500,000 or imprisonment or a term of not less than five years or both” to anyone who promotes the marriage of a child.
This penalty applies to Raliya’s parents and relatives, whom Kabir Momoh said that by their actions have encouraged or promoted the marriage of a child, and should, therefore, be held responsible for collusion and having condoned the act.
This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP), in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation.