Women’s rights activists have urged Nigeria to accelerate efforts to end child marriage after it joined an AU campaign to eliminate the practice.

Nigeria launched a nationwide drive this week to end child marriage by pushing for policies that protect girls’ rights and help the justice system to punish perpetrators. It became the 16th country to join the AU’s campaign.

The government made child marriage illegal in 2003, but only two-thirds of the country’s 36 states have implemented the law.

At least four in 10 girls in Nigeria are married off before they turn 18, while almost a fifth are wed before they reach 15, according to the UN children’s agency (Unicef).

Early marriage deprives girls of an education, increases the likelihood of sexual violence and HIV, and puts them at risk of serious injury or death during childbirth, experts say.

“These (childbirth) complications are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in countries like Nigeria this is unnecessary and unacceptable,” said Unicef’s Mohamed Fall.

Rates of child marriage vary widely across Nigeria, with figures as high as 76percent in the north-west, and as low as 10percent in the south-east, said campaign group Girls not Brides.

Women’s rights group Donor Direct Action said the campaign to end child marriage was another positive step after a law banning female genital mutilation was passed last year.

The prevalence of child marriage in Nigeria has dropped by 9percent since 2003, according to data from Unicef. “However, its decline needs to be dramatically accelerated, particularly in the north,” said Anber Raz of Donor Direct Action.

“A lot of social and cultural change needs to happen.”

Nigerian group Women’s Rights Advancement And Protection Alternative said the state also needed to address discrimination in access to education to prevent child marriage.

Campaign group Girl Rising said more than 5million girls were out of school in Nigeria. – Reuters