Married From the Womb!
Why Marrying Out Unborn Female Babies to Settle Debts Continues in Cross River Community…
Despite efforts of the European Union and United Nations (EU-UN) Spotlight Initiative and other stakeholders to end the custom of ‘money wife,’ in which even unborn female babies are sold into marriage to settle parents’ debts and without any chance of western education as practised in Becheve community of Obanliku council area of Cross River State, Nigeria, the custom is far from being scrapped. In this report, our Correspondent, JOSEPH KINGSTON, investigates why the anomaly persists
The term ‘money woman’, as practised in Becheve, northern Cross River State, Nigeria, is the literal ‘selling’ of a girl child by her parents as a wife in exchange for goats, pigs, chickens, yams or to pay a debt owed before her birth. The ‘money wife’ is perpetually under the yoke of her ‘husband,’ and even after the death of the man who ‘bought’ her, she is ‘transferred’ to the late money man’s relative as ‘wife.’
Surprisingly, even when the money-wife dies, the man is free to go back to his in-laws and pick another money-wife of his choice without any form of questioning.
The entrenched ‘money marriage’ practice is not the only dehumanizing experience of girl children in Becheve, a girl who reaches the age of menstruating is also seen as unclean and ostracized. During this period, some of the men would stop their menstruating wives from cooking for them. They are given separate seats in the house and may not interact with other people freely.
Love marriage versus money marriage
A source in the community, who preferred to be called simply Samson, explained that there are two types of marriage in Becheve -‘love marriage’ and ‘money marriage.’ Love marriage occurs when consenting adult men and women agree to live together as long as the woman or her mother/family wants.
In a love marriage, otherwise called ‘waterproof or ‘he-goat’ marriage, all the children born in the relationship belong to the family of the woman. Our source explained that it is ‘waterproof’ because the woman could walk out of the union anytime she wishes and that the man involved is not committed to the welfare of the children since he knows the children belong to the woman’s parents.
In the money marriage union, a man ‘buys’ a girl child for marriage notwithstanding the age disparity, and is not committed to her welfare as she must fend for herself and her ‘husband.’
How money marriage is consummated
Investigations revealed that in the olden days, Becheve girls were sold into ‘money marriage’ for cash as low as the equivalent of N2, 000 and even food items like tubers of yams; livestock like goats and pigs – all depending on the bargaining power of the ‘groom.’ Today money marriage is now contracted on payment of between N100,000 to N300,000.
The ‘money man’ or would-be husband are traditionally allowed to visit the girl’s parents occasionally with gift items, paying the money by instalment each time he visits, and these payments and gift he records in a traditional instrument called ‘Olambe.’
With the completion of payment, a date is fixed for the traditional marriage ceremony which is conducted by the elders and chief priests of “Ekumbo god,” after which the ‘money wife’ is handed over to the man’s ‘free woman,’ who is the senior wife, to nurture. The new wife is regarded more or less like a household property.
Money wives narrate tales of outright slavery
Dorathy Etagwa, who was given out in marriage at 5, is now 27 years old. He told our Correspondent who visited her homestead: “my husband is still alive. He should be 75 or more. I am one of the money wives.
“I am not happy at all in this forced marriage yet I cannot leave him. I cannot leave the marriage because I have now delivered five children for him. I was forced to marry him. I was not allowed to come of age to know what true love is or decide who I want to marry the man of my choice. This man is not in my age range. When I see my age mates choose their husbands I shed tears uncontrollably.
“I have never experienced love. My age mates are in schools but here I am in a forced marriage – more like slavery. I suffer to feed him and my children. The practice is that I have to work and feed the family. I have suffered so much to cultivate many farms from dawn to dusk, some for people and yet I am not allowed to use the proceeds to cater for myself.
“I am 27 but don’t I look like one in her late 40s? I am the man’s property, and whatever he likes to do with me, I can never argue. If I try to run away, which I cannot contemplate because my five children will end up the way I am, they will kill me.
“They will sell off my children, especially the female ones. But as I am here, I can never agree that my female children be taken for money marriage, except they kill me. I don’t want them to experience what I am passing through. If I run they will use spiritual means called ‘Olambe’ to arrest and kill me and my children. It has happened to many that attempted. This is why I am forced to stay in this marriage. It is very sad and traumatic that girls as young as one year are sold into marriage.
“I appeal very strongly to the government, religious organisations, groups and law enforcement agencies to intervene and stop this practice otherwise it will become more entrenched. What the chiefs have told the world that the practice has stopped is not true. However, it is not true that every woman in Becheve is a money wife.”
Another victim, Faith Ago is now 17 but was married off when she was 3 years old, but has become a widow because the husband was already old when she was married out. Fortunately for her, before she could be transferred to the man’s next of kin for the same kind of marriage, an evangelical group came to her rescue.
Ago said: “The man used to sleep with me but luckily I was not pregnant. He died two years ago. While with him, he never permitted me to go to school like his own children. I was forced to do all the farm work every day so that he and his children can feed and buy clothes.
“I was like a slave. I am grateful to Pastor Richards Akonam who came to my rescue. Now I am going to school because of his help. I want the government to stop this practice and free many girls in Becheve trapped in money marriage, to go to school.”
Exchanged for gambling/betting lost
It was heart-rending listening to another young girl who gave her name as Gift. She said “My father was a gambler. While others went out to work to feed their families, my father preferred to go gambling thinking it was the easy way to make money. He would leave home early and return very late from his gambling. One day, the game did not favour him. He was often defeated. My father was beaten three times in a row. And the winner won N4500.
“My father had borrowed more money to play on but still suffered defeats. My father did not want to surrender despite persuasions. How would he refund all the money he borrowed to play?
“He sent for me. I arrived without knowing what was at stake. He then asked me to stand beside the man who beat him and told the man. ‘She will be your wife to enable me to repay all that I borrowed.’ But other men raised objections yet my father stuck to his gun, saying I am his daughter and that he had the rights over me. Then the man turned to me and said, ‘small girl, you are now my own. Let us go. Until your father brings all my money, you will remain with me as my wife.’
“I was told that my father later defrayed the debts but the man told him that with the passage of time, feeding and accommodating me, the debts had appreciated much higher, and he cannot let me go anymore. I am still in the man’s house as one of his wives. My father had died, and the thought of ever being free is nonexistent.”
Gov Ben Ayade’s opinion
Lending his voice against the practice, Gov Ben Ayade, in a recent event, said “when customs contradict morality, contradicts common sense, contradicts civilization or is in conflict with our legal systems and constitution, then it should stop. Our laws say Nigerians, including a girl child, have the right to freedom and dignity. Applying force to deprive her of that right is criminal. The Child Rights Act which Cross River state has domesticated prohibits it.
“But it is complex dealing with issues of customs and acceptable laws of the country. As a government, we cannot wield the big stick clamping people in jail. The people need education, and enlightenment on the evils of these customs, and that is where we are focusing. The practice is barbaric. I condemn it in all totality but I would approach it cautiously.”
Efforts against the practice
The last year’s International Day of a Girl Child, celebrated globally to highlight the rights of a girl child may not have had any meaning to many girls in the Becheve community who were given out as money wives, despite efforts to end the practice.
A few months ago, the European Union and United Nations (EU-UN) Spotlight Initiative in collaboration with African Centre For Leadership, Strategy and Development, said it organized a capacity-building event in Sankwala and Becheve communities against sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices to bring to an end the practice of money woman.
In an interview, His Royal Majesty, Uchua Amos Item, Paramount ruler of Obanliku local government area, said efforts were being made by the traditional institution to end the money marriage practice.
He said “In an effort at eliminating money marriage, we started from the roots, we have gone from complex to the simplest and we are succeeding. We have referred the council legislators to enact a bylaw binding that completely”.
To Reverend Akasin Joseph, Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Obanliku, preaching against the anomaly on the pulpit could be the best bet. He said, “sometimes, I visit churches, mostly not by invitation, but to ensure the message against money marriage is hammered and an announcement on the position of the government is announced.”
Richards Akonam, a missionary with Faith Mission, who has dedicated over two decades to building strong advocacy against marriage so far, hoped Heavens would come to the rescue of the hapless and traumatized girls.
Why the practice continues – fear of death?
Investigations indicated that many are afraid to completely let go of the practice for fear of spiritual repercussions. During the consummation of the money marriage rituals, the traditional injunction is invoked, and the fear of the unseen is believed to be the reason some girls who could have escaped from bondage are unable to do so.
Investigations further indicated that as the money man becomes a potential in-law, he records all the gift items in an effigy called ‘Olambe,’ through knotting, using different knots to represent different gift items. To activate it after the man had taken possession of the young money wife, the girl’s name is mentioned seven times and the Olambe, which is like a cord, is tied. The Olambe is used to track the girl in question.
It is believed among the people that if after the tying of the Olambe, the girl refuses to yield to the man or runs away, the man could use the same Olambe to harm or kill the girl. He could insert the Olambe in an open hole in a banana tree and if he cuts it down, it is believed that the girl would die wherever she is. If he decides to punish the girl, he places the Olambe beside a fire and as it is being heated, the girl is believed to have undergone severe internal heat before her death, and he could as well throw the Olambe into a bowl of water to swell her up physically before she dies.
Money marriage as status symbol
Another reason money marriage has remained an albatross to government, organizations and groups is that it is seen as a status symbol. In a chat, our source said, “in a culture of Becheve, if you do not have a ‘money woman, you are not seen as an accomplished or a married man.”
But, as international outcry continues, it is hoped leaders and people of Becheve would see reasons why they should dump the money marriage tradition to cause girl children in the area to sing a song of freedom.