Of Becheve s, infants, the unborn or as little as N4, 500.
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.”
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-yearold 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.
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.
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.