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The slave-wives of Becheve

Cross River community sells girls, infants, the unborn into marriage, lifelong slavery for as little as N4, 500. The Becheve Community in Cross River State…

Cross River community sells girls, infants, the unborn into marriage, lifelong slavery for as little as N4, 500.

The Becheve Community in Cross River State has come into the limelight for an old practice in which girls, some not even born yet, are used as currency to pay off debts incurred by their parents.

Daily Trust visits the community and brings you the story of some of the victims.

Just beyond the famous Obudu hills, a stone throw from the famous Obudu Mountain Resort, on the hilly stretches of Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State, one would find the Becheve community nestled in the chilly haze that is typical of these parts.

The Becheve are a group of about 100, 000 people who speak 17 dialects of the same language and are spread into Benue State and the Republic of Cameroon, between which Obalinku is squeezed.

But borders and dialects aside, the Becheve people are tied by a shadowy culture that has put them in uncomfortable limelight recently.

It is a culture that allows the use of women and girls to pay debts or procure favours in what has become known as “money wives.”

These money wives could be women, young girls or even the unborn.

In reality, they are more of slave wives than anything else.

According to this practice, a man whose wife is pregnant and is having financial issues could decide to take a loan which he would pay with the daughter by giver her out as a wife to the loan shark.

Such arrangements are entered into even before the sex of the child is known.

Once the agreement is entered into, the father could make demands of food or money from the moneylender.

The lender would keep records of how much he is owed, often converting gifts given to the girl’s parents into monetary terms and noting them down as part of the debt.

Even the girl’s mother is entitled to show up at the lender’s house to receive gifts of money or other items.

In the end, the debt is written off as the bride price.

The girl is surrendered to the lender as a wife to put to use as he pleases.

The girl will have no rights and her opinion is never sought in the matter as she is practically enslaved.

Such women are put to work on farms which they cultivate for their husbands.

She is left to fend for herself, as the husband is not obligated to care for her.

He may sleep with her or pass her on to his relatives for sex or hire her as a farmhand, our correspondent reports.

The men in Becheve cherish this practice as a status symbol as it earns them acclaim amongst their peers.

No surprise then that many of them go out of their ways to acquire money wives.

However, recent attention on the practice from outside the community is threatening the men’s desires.

Our correspondent, who visited this community, reports that the men are unhappy with the attention as it might scuttle their age-old practice.

While it may be bliss for the men, for the women, it is hell. One of these women is Dorathy Etagwa, 27.

She became a money wife at 5.

“My husband is still alive. He should be 75 or more. I am one of the money wives,” she said.

“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 to decide who I want to marry.

“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,” she said.

After 22 years in the practice, Dorathy knows the intricacies of the system.

“The practice is that I have to work and feed the family. I have suffered so much to cultivate many farms from dawn til 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 in the same situation 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 who 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 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,” she said.

Faith Ago, 17, is a shy teenager.

She became a money wife at 3 but is now widowed because her husband was advanced in age and died two years ago.

Before she could be transferred to the man’s next of kin for the same kind of marriage, as is the practice, an evangelical group came to her rescue.

Becheve Community is nestled amongs the hills and has pleasant weather but for young girls here, they face lifelong slavery as money wives
Becheve Community is nestled among the hills and has pleasant weather but for young girls here, they face lifelong slavery as money wives

“The man used to sleep with me but luckily I did not get pregnant,” she said.

“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.”

She feels indebted to her rescuer, one Pastor Richards Akonam.

“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,” she said.

Another victim, a girl, who gave her name simply as Gift said she does not know how old she is or when she became a money wife.

All she knows is what her husband told her.

“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 often lost money. My father was beaten three times in a row. And lost N4,500.

“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 sums of 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 objection yet my father stuck to his gun, saying I am his daughter and 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 debt had appreciated.

“He cannot let me go anymore.

“I am still in the man’s house as one of his wives.

“My father has died, and the thought of ever being free is non-existent.”

 

  • A voice at last

Pastor Richards Chybuikem Akonam, who rescued Faith, is the first man to draw attention to the custom in Becheve.

He arrived at the community over 25 years ago as a missionary.

An author, who has also published books about the practice, Pastor Richards has established Richgrace Foundation, an NGO, through which he champions the campaign.

He has been able to rescue some of the girls even at the risk of his life.

Some of the rescued girls in concert with C.S. Don, another NGO, owned by a daughter of the former state governor, Donald Duke, have trained some of these girls.

The partnership is one that Pastor Richards is pleased about as he appreciates C.S.Dons for training and polishing three of the girls.

Other groups have chipped in to help.

“This practice is heartrending,” Pastor Richards said. “There is the practice of ‘replacement wife’ in the same money marriage stuff.

“For instance, there was a case of a three-year-old girl sold to a very elderly man for marriage.

“Then the man died. Instead of the girl to regain her freedom, she was rather given to the man’s brother, who also died.

“Yet again, the poor girl was given to another man as a wife.

“It is very painful the way toddlers are violated wantonly.

“There is also the case of Miracle, an 8-year-old girl, who is now living with me.

“Her elder sister died at 14, her next younger sister was given to the man as a replacement. She, too, died at 12.

“So they now went for Miracle who was to be used to replace her late sisters.

“It was here that God brought us. We rescued her when she was six. Now she is eight.

“All because their parents owed the particular man N18, 000 and could not pay. It is a terrible practice.

“No regard is given to the money wife. No formal education.

“The husband is also forbidden to spend on the woman. Money wives are sometimes called ‘general wives’.

“Her husbands’ friends or associates could ask the husbands to lend their wives for the night or to tend to their farms.

“And there will never be compensations or appreciations.

“Money marriage is a cheap way of introducing girls into prostitution.”

The pastor said the fact that most of the husbands are already old and often die not too long after means that a lot of the girls become widows at quite an early age.

But beyond the money marriage, there are other forms of marriages in Becheve that the pastor finds troubling.

“There is another form of money marriage called love marriage or waterproof marriage,” he said.

“Here, no dowry is paid but when the children from such marriages are sold by the husbands to pay the wives’ families as dowries.

“They also use the voodoo, Olambe, to intimidate and scare these young girls into never fleeing.”

Locals now believe that their leaders promise to end the practices are not sincere.

This has only increased the calls for the custom to be binned.

 

  • NGOs step in too

An NGO, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development as well as Spotlight Initiative, with support from the European Union and the United Nations, recently invited the traditional chiefs and youth leaders of Becheve to Calabar, the capital of Cross River State for them to make firm commitments in support of the campaign.

The paramount ruler of Obanliku LGA, HRM Uchua Amos Item, said since he ascended the throne two years ago, he immediately set about ending the tradition.

Although he said it has not been an easy task, he is determined and with prayers and good supports from other community leaders and the authorities, he has been recording some progress.

“The practice is very old. It is now archaic.

“We don’t need it anymore today because it is against humanity,” he said.

“That segregation against the womenfolk is no longer needed.

“We need a holistic approach, where the traditional institution, the youths, religious bodies, NGOs and political chieftains must come in.

“The harmful practice against the girl child must be done away with. We, the traditional chiefs, have met and agreed on measures to take against those who will persist.

“There are fines and traditional demands which are necessary to deter those that may still want to go that way, “he said.

 

  • ‘The time has come’

Clan head of Becheve, HRH Sunday Ichile, also corroborated that time has come for the practice to give way and that they are doing all in their power to end it.

Speaking at the event in Calabar, the minister of women affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen, represented by Mrs Victoria Lar, condemned the practice and called for concerted efforts by all, especially the community leaders to abolish it because it is the height of human rights abuse and gender-based violence.

“The tradition of money marriage where some young girls are used as money wives or currency is purely modern slavery and violence directed against the woman because of her gender,” she said.

“It is a phenomenon deeply rooted in gender inequality, and one of the most notable human rights violations.”

The representative of the United Nations, Mr Edward Kallon who spoke through Yinka Akiri said for the tradition to be truly eliminated, it is the men in that community who should resolve that they will no longer accept toddlers and such under-aged girls as money wives, or subject them to such untold hardship and depravation.

Rhetoric aside, until this practice is ended, the likes of Dorathy Etagwa and Gift, all they will know is a life of servitude over their parents’ mistakes.

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