The Becheve people of Cross River still practice a tradition that allows girl-children to be used to repay loans owed by their parents or as a favour to someone that has been benevolent to the family. This report looks at the life of such girls that are turned into sex objects and why the tradition still exists despite calls for it to be criminalised.
In Cross River State, a particular archaic tradition, which has been described as a form of slavery, may never be uprooted despite outcries and campaigns against it.
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It is a tradition practised by almost all the men in most parts of Obanliku Local Government Area of the state, particularly the Becheve people. It is called the money marriage.
At least 17 communities, including Katele, Amana, Ogbakoko, Belinge, Ranch, Ikwette (old and new), Imale, Ekor, Kalumo, Yindive, Makambe, Apambu, Belegete, Kajinga, Mangbe, Mbunu and Agusor are still neck deep in this practice. Becheve land has a population of over 150,000 people.
Money marriage is a tradition where a girl-child, as young as two years old, is given out to a man who was benevolent or extended some financial goodwill or loans to her parents and they are unable to repay as agreed. The parents will decide to settle such debts by giving away their daughter to the creditor or benefactor in marriage.
It would not matter whether such a girl child is still being breastfed by her mother, who may also be a ‘money wife.’ Sometimes if a man is as old as 60 and is interested in a girl-child, he could begin to visit her parents with gifts, foodstuff and other things. All these are counted as part of dowry. And the girl-child has no power to reject the offer.
From that time, even while in the man’s house, these girls will begin to fend for themselves. They will not be sent to schools but only become sex objects for the men, as well as cater for their needs and do all the farm works.
Unlike older wives who may have been properly married through traditional ways, ‘money wives’ are like house girls subjected.
In an interview, a former principal of Obudu Ranch Secondary School, Obanliku, Mr Nandi Bette, said it was doubtful if the people of the community were ready to end the practice.
Bette, who spent over 10 years in the community said, “A Becheve man without a ‘money wife’ is not regarded as man enough to speak in a community assembly. When he dies, he is not accorded a befitting burial.
“A ‘money wife’ normally arrives as a second wife. This is when a man has already gotten older kids by the first wife. Money wives are barely educated and are regarded as family properties and baby production machines.”
Bette said it was usual for a money wife to start making babies at the age of 15 for a 50-year-old husband, who can die at 65, leaving behind an unskilled, unemployable widow of 30 with kids, whose ages may range between four and 12, and with no particular person in the family to lean on for support.
Findings by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed that at the demise of a husband, the money wife can only remarry within the family. If she is not found attractive by any of her late husband’s relatives, she could sleep around making babies who would belong to her husband’s family.
Bette said, “I remember a student of mine who was said to have been married off as a money wife to a young Becheve man who lived in the United States of America. When the girl became pregnant and I asked who was responsible, I was told that she was a “free-for-all” the boys in the family!
“Money wife is one aspect of Becheve culture that cannot stand the test of modernity. It is slavery, a relic of the primitive era that should be done away with.”
Another reason it might be difficult to end the practice is because it is seen as a status symbol for men. Sources confided in our correspondent that one of the reasons government organisations and groups have not been able to end the practice is sabotage from highly placed men who see it as a status symbol. They added that men in the community are accorded respect on the basis of the number of money wives they have.
A source in the community said, “In Becheve culture, if you do not have a money woman you are not seen as an accomplished or married man. “Before now, we did not care about what people would say about money marriage, but we are beginning to review the practice.”
The life of a money wife
In an earlier interview, a victim of money marriage, Dorathy Etagwa Philips, said she was given out in marriage when she was five. She said, “My husband is still alive. I am 27 and he should be 77 or more. I am one of his money wives. I am not happy at all in this forced marriage, yet I cannot leave him because I have delivered five children for him. I was forced to marry him. I was not allowed to come of age to know what true love was or decide who I wanted to marry. I have never experienced love but slavery.”
She noted that her age mates were graduates making a living for themselves, but she is made to produce children and care for them.
“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, yet I am not allowed to use the proceeds to cater for myself. I am the man’s property, and whatever he likes to do with me, I can never argue. If I try to run away, my children will end up the way I am.
“They will sell off my children, especially the female ones. But as I am here I can never agree that my daughters should 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 to run away. 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,” she lamented.
The fear of olambe
A voodoo called olambe is believed to be able to trace defaulting money wives and torture them by subjecting them to sickness, striking or killing them.
An indigene of the community who resides in Calabar, Wilberforce Etun said, “The way the traditional potion works is that the husband would have secretly rubbed it on the wife’s body or inserted it into her body or even charmed her. She can, therefore, not be able to abscond. She will always return.”
To activate the olambe after the man has taken possession of the young money wife, it was learnt that the girl’s name is usually mentioned seven times, and the olambe, which is like a cord, is tied. It is believed among the people that after tying the object, if the girl refuses to yield to the man or runs away, he could use it to harm or kill her.
“He could insert the olambe in an open hole in a banana tree, and if he cuts down the tree, it is believed that the girl would die wherever she is. To punish further her, he will place the olambe beside a fire, and as it is being heated, the girl is believed to undergo severe internal heat before her death. He could as well throw the olambe into a bowl of water to swell her up physically before she dies,” an indigene of the community, Utuame Linus said.
Hostilities towards anti-money marriage campaigners
The men of Becheve are unhappy over the media attention the issue of money marriage has attracted. And so, hostility seems to have set in. But on the face value, key stakeholders pretend to agree with the government and civil society efforts to persuade them to end it.
A pastor and activist from Delta State who has lived in the community for nearly 27 years who championed public campaigns against the slavish practice, begged that his name and that of his church should not be mentioned any further in media reports.
Due to hostilities targeted at him, he sent a text message to our correspondent, declining to guide him round the community for safety reasons.
“I am still on the case of money marriage but on the Cameroon side. We have had several meetings. I may not be able to take you to Becheve because of the level of hostility out there. One of our church buildings in Keyi has been under lock and key because we rescued a girl from there.
“It has been more than three years and no effort is geared to open the place, in spite of our plea. The locking of the church and their declaration that they don’t want to see me in the community is enough hostility. Their level of understanding is low. They accused me of bringing them into media attention,” he said.
A public commentator, Joseph Obungabia, described the practice as dehumanisation, saying, “Even in modern times, some communities in Cross River State are still dehumanising the girl-child in a practice known as money marriage.
Lending his voice against the practice recently, the governor of the state, Prof Ben Ayade said, “When customs contradict morality, common sense and civilisation or are in conflict with our legal systems, then it should stop.
“Our laws state that Nigerians, including the 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 into jail. The people need education, enlightenment on the evils of these customs, and that is where we are focusing on.”
Right groups want money marriage criminalised
A women rights group led by a lawyer, Mrs Imah Nsa Adegoke, the TINAF, has been pushing for the state government to activate the Cross River State law number 10 of 2007, titled Female Persons Inheritance Property Law so that women and girl-children can be saved from slavery, dehumanisation and denial. They called on leading monarchs in the 18 local government areas of the state for their intervention and support for the law to be revived.
“This law can be a saving grace for women, importantly widows because it provides for their protection. Even children born out of wedlock, once their fathers acknowledge them, this law protects them from wicked stepmothers. We need this law to be implemented. It is not a women liberation thing,” Mrs Adegoke said.
Another female rights group, Girls Power Initiative (GPI), frowned at the continued increase in cases of violence against girls and women, especially sexual and gender-based violence.
The head of programmes of the group, Mrs Ndodeye Bassey, said Nigeria was signatory to many international and regional legal instruments protecting the lives of women and girls and had even gone further to domesticate some.
She called on the police and other law enforcement agencies to build the capacity of its personnel so as to be conversant with current laws and policies that protect the rights of girls and women.
Last month, the European Union and United Nations (EU-UN) Spotlight Initiative, in collaboration with the African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, organised a capacity building event in Sankwala and Becheve communities against sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices, with a view to bringing an end to the practice.
The executive director, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, Monday Osasah, said the awareness campaign would help in abolishing old traditions, which were skewed against women and girls, including money marriage.
On his part, the chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Obanliku, The Rev Akasin Joseph said, “Sometimes, I visit churches, mostly not by invitation, but to ensure that the new position against money marriage is being announced on pulpits, and all the churches visited have been passing the information to their members.”
The paramount ruler of Obanliku, Uchua Amos Item said, “In the case of eliminating money marriage, we started from the roots. We have gone from complex to the simplest, and we have succeeded. We have made reference to the council legislators to enact a by-law to ban the practice completely.”
Item told journalists that he was desirous to end the age-long practice since he ascended the traditional throne five years ago.
He said the traditional council had been meeting, but since it is a practice that has been entrenched, time is needed.
“The end of this practice won’t be soon, it requires gradual enlightenment and government backing. We don’t need this archaic practice in this modern time. It is against humanity. The clan head of Becheve land, Sunday Ichile is in support of the paramount ruler,” he said.