“My husband died a year after we got married,” began Chinwe Eze (not real name), a young mother of three who told the story of how she was forced into marriage when she fell pregnant for the young man that rejected her pregnancy. “I was 16 then, and he was 65.”
“My husband died on the 3rd of December, 2011,” she explained further, pointing to the wall of her sparsely decorated living room where the date ‘3/12/2011’ was written with white chalk as if to constantly remind her of the death of the elderly man whom she got married to but barely knew.
Chinwe’s countenance, as she narrated her story, was that of one who has resigned to the fate life had thrown at her. She was only a teenager living with her uncle and his wife at Aba in Abia State, South-eastern Nigeria when she was put in the family way.
“My mother was selling okpa (a traditional Igbo food). She used the little money she made to take care of me and my five siblings. My father had no job, so he left everything for my mother to do. And since she couldn’t take care of all of us with her meagre income, she sent us to our relatives to live with them,” she narrated.
Chinwe, who hails from Ezinifite in Anambra State, was sent to stay with her uncle when she was ten. Six years later, a twenty-year-old trade apprentice impregnated her. He accepted the pregnancy but wondered how he, a “boy-boy” (an apprentice), could take care of a pregnant girl. Chinwe’s uncle accepted the N20,000 that the apprentice could raise and bundled her back home to her mother.
“They brought me back home to my parents and my family insisted that I must get married. I refused, but they warned that if I put to bed at home, that I and the baby would have it rough as there was no money to look after us. I had to accept one of the elderly men who came seeking my hand in marriage. He was a widower whose wife died without giving him any issue. I was five months pregnant then,” she narrated.
Chinwe gave birth to her son four months later but the celebration of her childbirth was cut short when her elderly husband died. He was a sickly man whose family desperately wanted him to have an heir before dying; in a society that promotes male ascendancy.
After his death, Chinwe decided to return to her father’s house since her late husband’s family was not treating her nicely. She however did not get that succour she craved in her father’s house.
“My mother was still struggling. I tried to join her in the okpa business but things were not working. My late husband’s family started pressurizing me to come back. I weighed the two options and decided to go back,” she added.
But the option Chinwe took came with a price. Her husband’s family promised to take care of her and her son in exchange for her breeding more babies for her late husband.
“They told me that one of my husband’s brothers would be the one to be sleeping with me. I had to do as they instructed. I now have two more children, a boy and a girl,” she further narrated.
For eleven years, Chinwe, now 27, has had no life of her own as she survives on the little income her husband’s family provides her with. She explained that she wanted to start a business but her family opposed the decision.
“I was learning how to sew when I first got pregnant. Now, even if I want to go back to the trade, who will sign the agreement for me? Who will pay for my training when my husband’s brother seems not to care?” she asked rhetorically.
Chinwe’s life mirrors the condition of many other girls who were forced into marriage on account of “unwanted” pregnancies. These hapless girls have become easy prey to elderly men and even women who desperately want to have their own heirs. They are unceremoniously married off to such people to breed babies for them. In some parts of South-east Nigeria, this practice is seen as normal due to the elevated status given to the male child by customs and traditions.
Randomly sampled opinions across South-eastern Nigeria suggest a woman in the region is duly recognised and is customarily elevated by virtue of her birthing at least one male child. And this makes her fulfilled as she would be accorded more respect than her counterparts who are unable to achieve the same.
While Chinwe was in her own case forced into an unceremonious marriage, Ngozi Asogwa (not real name) was deceived into it. A native of Nsukka in Enugu State, Ngozi got pregnant at the age of 17 in 2016. Her family accepted to marry her off to a man whom she had never seen before. The sister to the said husband approached Ngozi’s family members and told them that her brother had asked her to act on his behalf. Even while they were sceptical about the whole affair, the woman persuaded them to accept the offer by insisting that her brother who resided in Onitsha was busy with his business and would be back as soon as he could.
The woman then came with her family members and performed the marital rites, and months later, Ngozi gave birth to a baby girl. The woman then returned and took her and the baby to her own home where they were to stay and wait for the arrival of the supposed husband. Two years went by, and no husband showed up. This got Ngozi and her family members worried. In spite of this, the woman continued to calm them with the same tale of the man being busy in Onitsha. One day, Ngozi managed to get hold of her supposed husband’s phone number and called him, and that was how she got the shock of her life.
“The man told me that he knew nothing about me and the baby. He then informed me that he was already married. That was how we got to know that the said man had been married for years with no issue and that his sister, the one that approached my family, wanted desperately to help him get children,” she narrated in tears.
Now, Ngozi wants out of the sham marriage but the woman who paid her supposed bride price is insisting that Ngozi’s family must pay back the whole money she spent for the marriage, including the bride price, she said.
“She told my family that we will have to pay her N273,000. Where will I get such money from? I am in bondage right now, and I don’t know how to free myself from it,” she lamented.
Ngozi who is only 22 is now determined to start a new life, but with the issue of the unpaid money still hounding her about, she has not been able to move on.
“If I go back there, the next thing is for them to insist that I give them more babies and they won’t even care how I make the babies. That is not what I want for my life. Any man that comes for me will run away because of this issue. The woman is heartless. She should at least collect a little sum of money and let me be,” she lamented.
Ngozi’s brother, Michael Eze, said “all we want” is money to pay off the woman holding his sister.
Many girls who get pregnant while still with their guardians are not only forced into marrying elderly men but also women who are in desperate need of children, especially male children. A research work published in the Pan-African Studies journal of 2012, revealed that woman-to-woman marriages in Igbo Land were not contracted in response to the sexual emotions or attractions of the couples, but simply as an instrument for the preservation and extension of patriarchy and its traditions.
Sleeping with random men to breed babies
Kosarachi Amadi, a native of Umunachi in Anambra State, was forced to marry a woman at age 15.
“I wasn’t really forced per se,” she said. “I just looked at my condition and decided to jump into the marriage. My mother gave birth to me when she was 14. She wasn’t married then. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t accepted in my family. So, when I got pregnant, I decided to find a home for my baby. I didn’t want the baby to pass through what I went through.”
Kosarachi explained that the young man who impregnated her was only 16 at the time and could not take care of her. His family was not interested. So, when an elderly woman approached her family for her hand in marriage, she hurriedly accepted.
The woman in question had lost her husband some years back and had no children, so she married Kosarachi to “fill her compound with children”. Kosarachi further revealed that she slept with any young man that appealed to her and eventually had six more children for the woman that married her.
“Although I was still young, I understood what I was there for. Mama (the woman that married her) didn’t care where the children come from. All she wanted was to have so many of them, and she takes care of us. So, what do I care?” she asked rhetorically.
She however lamented that with her kind of lifestyle, she has had to treat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) several times.
More challenges for girls forced into marriage
Chioma Okeke, the Executive Director of Shoulder for Gender Support and Development Initiative (SGSDI) in Anambra State, who has worked with girls that were forced into such marriages, revealed that these girls are prone to diseases and that they easily spread it because they sleep with multiple partners.
She added that many of them are living in abject poverty and have had their lives muddled up by the situation.
“It is pathetic! Many of the women who have passed through this condition are elderly now, but they are still in pain. Yet the society is still condoning this sort of thing. I feel the women involved should come out and speak up against a practice that destroyed their childhood,” she said.
Why do such marriages persist?
Mrs Okeke attributed the reason for the continuity of this sort of marriage to the culture of the people which mandates that every child “must have a father whose name he will bear.”
“They will tell you that it is against their culture to have an illegitimate child in their house. They maintain that every child must have a father,” she said.
She added that the solution to this concern is to ensure that there is a drastic reduction or outright elimination of cases of unwanted pregnancies in the area since the menace is clearly skewed against girls who fall pregnant unwantedly. She then advocated that sex education be taught to children early enough at home as that would help expose them to the realities of their life. She expressed worry over the fact that many families are still uneducated and uninformed about sex-related issues which eventually translates to their children not knowing much about sex education.
“Some families see it as a taboo to discuss these issues with their children. It was so in our time. Nobody taught us. My mother then would tell me that if any man crossed my leg, I would get pregnant because I had just started menstruating. This was the type of education we got from our mothers. It is a pity that this later generation is doing the same. They should wake up!” she said.
Mrs Okeke harped on the need for everyone in the South-east of Nigeria, including religious and community leaders, to speak up against the practice because it negatively impacts not only the girls but on everyone in the society.
“When it is happening to other people, you will think it has nothing to do with you. Your husband, son, or brother might be one of the people sleeping with these girls, and he will bring the infection or disease back to you. We have to come out and speak up,” she said.
Is it Culture?
In an interview, Nnadozie Anene, an 80-year-old community leader in Abatete, Anambra State, explained that the practice has been in existence long before he was born. He stated that because the Igbo tradition places a higher premium on the boy-child over the girl-child, such practices would continue to exist.
On why many girls with unwanted pregnancies are pushed into early marriages, the octogenarian said that children born out of wedlock are usually treated disdainfully and that to prevent that and ensure that such children (particularly the boys) are not born illegitimately, such marriages are contracted.
“The young girl is forced to marry, sometimes even to a woman who doesn’t have any children, so that the girl’s child will become hers and be eligible for some rights and properties in the family of his adopter,” he said.
Also speaking on the same issue, another community leader from Nibo in Anambra State, Patrick Okpala, added that such a practice varies from community to community.
“In my hometown in Nibo, we accept a girl and her pregnancy because one cannot tell what the child would become in future,” he asserted.
Mr Okpala however added that sometimes, it is because of the uncertainty of the child’s destiny that some families do not allow the child to be born into their homes as such a child could, for instance, grow into a very prosperous person and even outshine the male siblings of the pregnant girl and command more respect.
“There is currently a case in my village where such children are struggling for the ownership of land with their mother’s siblings. They have become wealthier and are insisting on getting the same share of land as the legitimate children in the family,” he narrated.
What the government is doing
The Co-Chair of Anambra State Child’s Rights Law Implementation Committee (ASCRIC), Hope Okoye, stated that the committees are working assiduously to ensure that practices that violate the Child Rights Law and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Law are eliminated in the state.
Mrs Okoye, who is also the Coordinator of the VAPP Law Implementation Committee in Anambra, said they were working with the local governments and community leaders to set up a response team that would ensure that gender-based violence of any form is eradicated and that justice is served to the survivors.
“We are also planning on identifying endemic communities where child marriage is prevalent so that we will carry out sensitization on the provisions of the Child Right Law and the VAPP Law. We take advantage of the existing platforms and liaise with communities and then sensitize them. Sometimes, we go to their market and churches to create the awareness,” she added.
Mrs Okoye, who is also the Executive Director of the Integrated Anti-Human Trafficking and Community Development Initiative (IATCDI), urged families whose daughters had unwanted pregnancies and are finding it difficult to take care of the babies, to give them out in adoption.
“The Ministry of Women Affairs is responsible for facilitating the processes of adopting a child. There are people who are ready to officially adopt a child through the ministry. The ministry still reserves the right to revoke the adoption if anything goes wrong. People are ignorant of these facts, and that is the reason they would want to push out their girls with unwanted pregnancies,” she concluded.