There is an odd practice among the Becheve tribe in Cross River State whereby girls, sometimes as young as four years old, are used as collateral for loans their parents obtained from more illustrious kinsmen. Unfortunately, the innocent girls are often turned into sex slaves in addition to performing other chores for which they are not paid. Some victims of the obnoxious practice narrated their ugly experiences to JUSTINA ASISHANA who has just returned from a visit to some of the affected communities.
Beatrice Okumo belongs to the category of females members of the Becheve tribe in Cross River State referred to as ‘money wives’. As a five-year-old girl about 30 years ago, her parents had used her as collateral for a sum they borrowed from their creditor who was then about 50 years old and was much older than Beatrice’s father.
Beatrice, who calls his parents’ creditor Papa, says she is now about 35 years old now, though she looks a lot older, with fast-ageing skin and a resigned look.
Her journey into slavery had begun when her mother was delivered of a baby but her father had no money to settle the hospital bill. Her parents had considered themselves lucky that they were able to obtain a badly-needed loan from Papa with which they paid the hospital bill and also bury her mother who, unfortunately, had died during the childbirth.
Narrating the rapid, downward trajectory of her life’s story in Pidgin English, Beatrice said: “The person I was given to as ‘money wife’ was very old. I do not know the exact year I was given as payment for the debt, but I was still a child. They said I was going to take care of a baby there.
“When I was about 11 years old, Papa came to where I was sleeping and wanted to sleep with me, but I asked him whether he would be happy to see someone do that to me if I were her daughter. He explained to me that my family had used me to obtain a loan from him. I tried to resist him, but he overpowered me and forced himself on me.”
Beatrice recalled that after the incident, sexual encounter between them became regular occurrence and she got pregnant at 12. She reiterated, however, that their sexual encounters were never consensual as Papa was always forcing himself on her.
She said: “I resisted him each time he wanted to sleep with me, but he always forced himself on me. I ended up having six children for him but two of them died. He had three wives before he got me as collateral for my parents’ debt. He treats me as if I am a piece of property, and I cannot return to my family because they had vowed to kill me if I returned home, since they have no money to secure my freedom.”
Like mother, like daughter
Beatrice said in a bizarre twist of fate, Papa also resolved at a point to use the eldest of the girls she (Beatrice) had for him as collateral for a loan that was taken for treatment of the complications she developed while giving birth to one of her children.
However, the 15-year-old girl at the centre of the bizarre arrangement ran away from home when she heard that she was going to be used as collateral. Not one to be deterred, Papa settled for Beatrice’s younger 10-year-old daughter named Lovina.
Seeing how the situation was unfolding, Beatrice fled with Lovina to look for a job in the city to enable her repay the loan taken by her parents.
Beatrice said as she fought back tears: “Papa obtained N70,000 loan and promised to use one of my daughters as collateral.
“My first daughter was the one given out as collateral, but she ran away. Till now, I have not seen her.
“They said since she was not available, Lovina should replace her. So, each time I look at Lovina, I cry. She is just 10 years old and does not know anything!
“Will she now become a money wife at this age? This is disturbing me badly and that is why I need help.
“I need money to pay the people because they say that if the child will not return, we should repay them.
“I had to leave home with my children so that they would not use any of them as collateral.”
Swearing on her resolve in raw Pidgin, Beatrice added: “The same suffer wey I suffer, naim my pikin go come suffer too? I no gree o. E better make I die dey look for the money to pay than make dem use my pikin as money wife!”
Innocent young girl as collateral for maternal uncle’s debt
Now 14, Jennifer Abega was used as collateral at age seven. The bank had seized her uncle’s property after he defaulted on his loan. So, Jennifer’s parents allowed her uncle to use her as collateral for another loan he obtained from a local lender, which he used to settle the bank.
Jennifer said: “My Uncle got a loan from the bank, and when he could not pay back, the bank came to clear his house.
“He came and explained to my mother and urged her to give me to him, as he had seen someone who wanted to lend him money. The person wanted a girl as collateral.
“My mother agreed and allowed him to take me away. They gave me to one old man in Amana. I wept profusely.
“My uncle is very greedy. Even after he had collected the money from the man, he still came back and collected more money, goats, drinks and other things.
“I stayed there for three years and those three years were hell. Each time my father visited me, I asked him why he allowed his daughter to be sold like a goat.
“I was never happy there. They maltreated me.
“The man had another woman who was also used as collateral and she had given birth. Whenever she cooked for the family, she would give everyone good food and soup but she would give me pepper to use as soup for my food.
“I was used as a slave. I worked on the farm and at home. I did everything in the house apart from cooking, and if I did not do it, I would be shouted at.
“I was lucky that all through the time that I was there, the man did not touch me. He had the other wife, so he focused on her.”
Narrating how she ran away from slavery when she was 10, Jennifer said her mother had paid her a visit and she followed her when she was returning.
The story did not end there though, as Jennifer’s uncle resisted her attempt at freedom and told her mother to either return Jennifer to the creditor or repay his debt directly to the man.
Narrating the impasse, Jennifer said: “My uncle told my mother that she was the one who would repay the loan because I was the one who failed in my obligation.
“He said my parents should repay the man or force me to go back. However, I’ve told everyone in my family that nothing will make me return there.
“Every time I see my uncle, I feel like fighting him.”
Jennifer is still facing the dilemma of her parents’ inability to repay her uncle’s N120,000 loan. Although she is currently in school, she has become the butt of jokes among her classmates who call her ‘money wife’.
Debt bondage, also known as money marriage, is an age-long practice among the Becheve, a tribe in Cross River State that spreads around 17 villages/communities mostly on the border between Cross River State and neighbouring Cameroon Republic.
The communities include Ketele, Amana, Ogbakoko, Belinge, Ranch, Ikwette, Imale, Ekor, Kalumo, Yindive, Makambe, Apambu, Belegete, Kajinga, Mangbe, Mbutu and Agusor.
In these communities, money marriage or debt bondage is a custom by which a girl child is given out as collateral when parents or close family members obtain a loan from another family.
A collaterised girl child is usually transferred to the creditor at very young age and, more often, she is a victim of child rape, forced labour and early pregnancy.
Experts say debt bondage is another form of child slavery, child trafficking and child marriage.
Poverty as contributor to debt bondage
For the majority of the females who spoke willingly to The Nation, poverty is responsible for the increasing rate of debt bondage in their communities. Poor families rely on the well-to-do to bail them out of urgent financial situations, offering their underage daughters as collateral.
Another factor that pushes debt bondage is non-availability of banks in the affected communities, coupled with cut-throat interest rates charged by banks that agree to give loans. So, instead of someone who needs financial assistance to take a loan from the bank, they resort to local lenders who usually accept female children as collateral.
Most of the females who spoke to The Nation said that the bulk of their families’ indebtedness was used to pay third-party hospital bills.
Telma Ekwa, a ‘money wife’, said her father was almost going blind in his left eye and needed money for urgent medical treatment. So he obtained a loan for his treatment, using her as a collateral.
However, Telma, who is from Ranch community, has so far refused to live with the creditor, despite insistence by the man and his family that the N160,000 loan should be repaid or Telma should be forced to relocate to the benefactor’s house.
Telma said: “I was bonded when I was five years old. My father was very sick; he had an eye problem and there was no money to treat him.
“After taking the loan, they said I should wait in my father’s house until I was mature.
“When I was about 10 years old, my parents said it was time for me to go but I refused.
“The man is very old. He is older than my father. He has white beard all over his face.”
‘My three underage children at risk’
Kareen Ksa is currently facing a huge dilemma as she contends with the possibility of losing her three children to her ‘money husband’ if she can’t repay the N200,000 loan obtained by her dad.
Kareen ran away from her money husband’s house after she met and fell in love with another man, David, and got pregnant for him. She and David have three children together, but David does not have the money to repay the loan collected by Kareen’s dad, which would have served to secure her freedom.
David became mentally ill two years ago, after which Kareen became the family’s sole breadwinner. This did not deter her parents’ creditor from asking her to either repay the loan, or give up her three children as collateral.
She said: “I ran out of the place because I was maltreated due to my refusal to sleep with the man.
“The day I left the place, I told them I wanted to go and see my mother, but I did not return.
“I later met David and we started to live together, but he did not have money to pay off my parents’ debt.
“I gave birth to two children before he ran mad, and another one who is now three months old.
“I believe that my money husband is the one behind his madness.
“He (Kareen’s parents’ creditor) has been asking that I pay the loan or give him my children.
“I am doing some menial jobs like planting, harvesting and peeling cassava for people, but it is difficult to raise N200,000, especially as I am the only one taking care of the children who are between three months and seven years old.”
The Nation learnt that although collaterised females can have children with anyone other than their ‘money husbands’, the children they give birth to belong to the creditor families and can only be freed when the loan is defrayed.
It was learnt that sometimes, bonded females are encouraged to sleep around if their money husband is too old to have sex with them. Children born through such arrangements belong to the creditor family unless the bonded woman or her family succeeds in paying off the debt.
Kareen says her singular desire for now is to pay off the debt she was bonded for so that her three children would not be taken from her.
“I am always thinking of how to raise the money. I am afraid that he will come and snatch the children from me.
“I suspect that he is the one who made David mad. All I need now is the money. I need to raise the money,” she said.
Young, bonded and widowed
In Becheve, it is not strange to see girls as young as 11 already widowed. However, even the death of a ‘money husband’ is not enough to liberate the ‘money wife’ because she is a property of the creditor’s family.
She is either given to another family member or told to repay the loan in order to secure her freedom. In extreme cases, a money wife may be persuaded to go outside, get pregnant and bring the child which to the creditor’s family.
Like others around her, 14-year-old Tabitha Jones was used as collateral when she was seven years old. Her money husband died four years later when she was 11. However, she remains in bondage because the creditor family will not release her until her parents’ debt might have been paid. She said she was often starved in the house and when the man died, the suffering became worse as she was maltreated more than before. She later ran away.
Tabitha said: “The man I was given to as a wife is dead. I stayed in the house for about five years but the man did not touch me because he was very old.
“I suffered in that house and every time, I just cried. I worked on the farm and did almost all the work in the house such as cleaning, sweeping and washing.
“Each time I complained of too much work, they said that my family should come and pay the loan so that I could return home.
“The man is dead now and the family tried to force me to go and seek men outside, get pregnant and bring the children. But I did not agree, and because of that, they started starving me.
“I ran away, but they are disturbing my parents too much since I refused to go back to them.”
Perpetual Onimi is experiencing the same thing. Widowed at 17 and now 20 years old, she is still struggling to repay the N200,000 loan obtained by her family when she was five years old. The money was used to pay for her grandmother’s medical treatment.
Perpetual stayed with her parents’ creditor because her family warned her against fleeing. She bore the suffering, but she did not allow the man, who she said was older than her uncle, to mate with her.
She said: “The man was very old. He is not someone I can love.
“The first time he came to me and started touching me when I was about seven, I was afraid. I ran out of the room and reported him to his mother, who promised to intervene.
“He tried several times when I was about eight or nine years old. However, by the time I grew up, he had become too old and could not do anything again. “Seeing that he could not sleep with me anymore, he joined the others in maltreating me.
“He even told me that even if he died, I would remain in the house until the loan was repaid.”
After her ‘money husband’s death, Perpetual ran away to her parents’ house, saying she was too young to continue taking the insults and maltreatment. She noted that initially, her parents did not agree with her decision to leave, but she remained resolute and her family left her alone.
“For three years now, my family and I have been trying to raise the money, but it is not easy to raise N200,000. We are doing all we can to return the money,” she said.
Victims adopt new strategies
These days, bonded girls are known to flee from their money husbands, after which they mount pressure on their parents to repay the debts. However, it was observed that some of the victims stayed with their parents’ creditors until they might have had one or two children.
Perpetual, Tabitha, Jennifer and Kareen, who all spoke with the reporter, are some of the girls who have succeeded in running away from their money husbands. However, their nightmares are not over as they face threats and pressure from the creditors on a daily basis.
They each expressed frustrations that despite the years of hard labour, the creditor families still demand the full payment of the loan, in addition to the gifts given to the families of the girls whenever they visited their bonded daughters.
“They cheat us a lot. After we work for them for many years, they still come and say we should pay the full money if we do not want to return to the house [of bondage]. That means it is the man that wins all the way and we are the victims in this,” Jennifer said.
‘I want to be free’
The victims say that they cannot become free or marry legally if the money collected by their families is not paid in full. They also say they become marked women in the communities as they are often called “somebody’s wife.”
They lament that they become prey to young men who take advantage of their situation to sleep with them and refuse to make commitments.
“I want help so that I will be able to pay the man’s family so that I can be redeemed and free. I want to be free to go to school, to work and get married as a free woman,” Perpetual said.
“I cannot marry legally if I do not pay the money unless the person who wants to marry me makes a repayment. Payment will make me free. It will make me a free woman because now, it is as if I am in prison,” Tabitha said.
“I am not free now. I am even scared of getting into another relationship because I suspect it was the man who made David mad and he can make another person mad if I go with the person.
“So, I want to pay the money so that I will be free from all these troubles. I need help to raise the money to redeem myself so that I can be free,” said Kareen.
Ignorant of the law
Money marriage is prohibited under the Child’s Right Act (2003) but none of the aforementioned victims is aware of this and the majority of them, especially those who had run away, are still faced with the dilemma of how to repay the debts they didn’t obtain directly.
Child’s Right Act (2003) is the law that guarantees the rights of all children in Nigeria. ‘Children,’ as defined by Child’s Right Act (2003), is any person under the age of 18.
Part III Section 21 of the Child’s Right Act states that, “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of a valid marriage and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.”
Part III Section 22 states that children are prohibited from being betrothed, as “no parent, guardian or other person shall betroth a child to any person.”
Anyone who goes contrary to these sections, according to the Child’s Right Act (2003) will be fined N500,000 or imprisoned for a term of five years or both.
Pastor to the rescue
Pastor Richards Akonam has rescued 110 bonded girls in the past five years and he has also empowered many of them.
Speaking with the reporter at his base in Ogoja, Cross River State, Pastor Akonam said:
“In the past three months, we have redeemed and freed five girls. It was quite expensive, the lowest being N160,000 while the highest was N280,000.
“One of the girls is legally married now. She was given out when she was four years old and when she wanted to move out, it was big trouble because the man requested for everything that the family of the victim collected from him.
“The cost was overwhelming, but we were able to free her.”
Akonam described debt bondage or money marriage, as it is popularly called, as a modern kind of slavery which is driven by greed and has continued because of the increasing rate of poverty in the country. He noted that, for some people, it is a status symbol to have a money wife.
“While others point to cars and houses as signs of wealth, a wealthy Becheve man will likely point to the number of ‘money wives’ he has as his source of wealth,” the pastor opined.
Richards said that the debt bondage practice gives rise to s€xual and gender-based violence, adding that apart from the trauma which the girls go through from extremely young age, it is another subtle way of introducing girls to prostitution.
“This is because, at a very young age, they become s€xually active, because as a money wife, you must reproduce.
“Even when the man is old and inactive, the family constrains the girl to find a s€x partner, either within the home or outside.
“They do not care to know who the baby’s father is. To the family, giving birth to children, especially girls, is the return on their investment,” Richards noted.
He said the practice is unacceptable, adding that he is among the people at the forefront of combating the scourge in the communities.
According to him, a lot of girls are forced into debt bondage and they are ready to leave, but there is no money to redeem them. He decried government’s refusal to enforce the Child’s Right Act (2003) in communities where money marriage is rife.
“It is totally unacceptable in today’s world to withhold education from girls or to deny them their rights, buy or sell them into slavery.
“There are a lot of ways to help these girls, but funds are needed because the girls cannot be liberated without paying off the debts.
“Government seems to be doing nothing. We have had so many talks, but it amounts to nothing.
“Even with the passage of the Child’s Right Act, not one arrest has been made or one person prosecuted. So the girls are still victims of this archaic practice,” Richards said.
He said that the fear of death and other penalties tied to leaving keep some collaterised girls in the homes of their ‘money husbands’, adding that those who leave are still forced to pay the loans obtained by their families.
“It is an unfortunate situation because if the victim decides to leave the creditor’s house, all the labour she has put in and the act of sex she had engaged in with the man are not deductible from the loan. She and her family will still pay. So, in all this, the girl and her family are the losers,” the pastor added.
Gender-based violence in Cross River
The Cross River State Government passed the Child’s Right Act in 2009, domesticating the national Child’s Right Act (2003). The law sets out the rights of every child to be free from physical, mental or emotional injury, abuse, neglect or maltreatment, including sexual exploitation and abuse; and provides a robust framework for the child protection system.
However, the law seems to have failed to protect Becheve girls from this modern-day slavery.
The Director, Women Development at the Cross River State Ministry of Women Affairs, Nancy Nsor, in September 2021 said that gender-based violence (GBV) is assuming geometric increase in recent times, adding that in the first five months of 2021, there were 717 reported rape cases, which exclude other forms of violence and harmful practices the women and girls in the state face daily.
“GBV in Nigeria is almost accepted as a fact of life in some cultures that perceive women as the property of their husbands,” Nsor said; while the 2018 Nigerian Demographic and Health Survey noted that out of 100 women between the age of 15 and 49 in Nigeria’s South-south, at least 46 have experienced physical violence by the age of 15.
The United Nations Population Fund Reproductive Health (UNFPA) and Family Planning Analyst, Dr. Abayomi Afe, during an inter-school activism against sexual and gender-based violence in Calabar in December, said that Cross River State leads the chart on sexual and gender-based violence with 42 per cent in the South-South region.
Afe said that Cross River has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the South-South region, noting that the state is very diverse in terms of cultural practices and money marriage a.k.a. debt bondage.
“In Cross River, the statistics of gender-based violence is still on a very high side, although we are still using 2018 National Demographic Survey Statistics.
“Other studies have shown that within the period of the pandemic in 2020 and now, gender-based violence has really gone up,” Afe said.
Meanwhile, Becheve youths are trying to combat this scourge, as it was learnt that the people who still propagate the age-long custom are the elderly ones.
A youth leader, Ondafe Lazarus, said that his sister was a victim of debt bondage and that the practice is still rampant but now done secretly.
He added that he and other youths have been trying to help victims and to prevent other girls from being bonded.
“We, the youths, are talking to parents to stop using their daughters as collateral and we advise youths who have interest in these girls to pay the debt and marry them, so that they will stop living a life of slavery.
“We do not like the idea of these small girls going in for money marriage. We need to do more sensitization,” Lazarus said.
Need for intensive sensitization
Some of the officials of women affairs ministry in the state refused to respond when they were asked for steps being taken by government against the practice.
However, the Director, Women Development, Ministry of Women Affairs, Nancy Nsor, said that when the debt bondage issue was first brought up in the ministry, she was not yet in office.
She, however, said that the ministry intervenes by trying to sensitise the communities and the girls, adding that she does not have detailed information about some of the issues involved.
Nsor said that for now, there are organisations involved in fighting the scourge but observed the need to do more, both from the side of the government and NGOs.
Speaking about the Child Rights Act in the state, the director said that the Child Rights Act is being enforced, adding, however, that debt bondage and money marriage, being the custom of the people, had been difficult to break.
“It is their custom and it has been very difficult to stop it. You have to do enough sensitization, which the state has been doing. There has been a lot of publicity in this regard.
“The Child Rights Act is on ground, but it is difficult to invoke it on these people because it is their custom.
“The people, because they are in very remote villages, have not gotten enough sensitization to make them know that the custom is bad. There is the need for sensitization.”
Nsor further said that many victims want to leave the bondage but they cannot because there is no money to redeem them.
“Lack of money makes the practice to thrive,” she lamented.
Cross River State Commissioner for Justice, Tanko Ashang, did not respond to the phone call or text message sent to him, asking him to say what his office is doing to prevent gender-based violence in Becheve communities.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Report Women initiative.