The lives and dignity of female children have been subjected to gross abuse in Becheve, a community in Obanliku Local Government Area, Cross River State, for ages. An age long traditional practice allows the betrothal of underage girls, including unborn ones, to men who in some cases are old enough to be their grandfathers. The practice popularly known as money woman has not abated in spite of the adoption of the Child’s Rights Act by the state in 2009. Many innocent girls who are victims of the abusive practice are betrothed to their would-be husbands while they are still in their mothers’ wombs. Unfortunately, they are often denied access to basic education and treated as slaves by the aged hubbies. INNOCENT DURU reports that apart from the social deprivations they suffer, the hapless girls are dying from Vesico Virginal Fistula (VVF), among other health challenges.
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It sounded like another Alice in the Wonderland tale, but Lovelyn (surname withheld) meant every word as she shared her ugly life experience. She was betrothed to an aged man while she was still in her mother’s womb and only escaped the servitude that would have been her lot by jumping out of the unholy arrangement.
“They told my mother while she was carrying my pregnancy that if I came out as a female child, I would be given out to the man as his wife,” said Lovelyn.
“It is no fiction; it is what happens in Becheve. As we speak, many innocent girls in the town are going through hell because of the practice, which they call money woman.”
Asked why her parents would agree to that kind of arrangement, Lovelyn said her father died a few days after she was born while her mother had no choice in the matter but comply with the agreement.
She said: “The betrothal process began immediately she gave birth to me, although I was still with my family. It was my mother’s family that gave me out to the man because my father had died a few days after I was born.
“My bride price was paid; I think it was about N40,000 or N50,000. The man was already above 60 years and going to 70. The only attraction is always the money. Once they see some small money, they will give their daughters out to the man that desires her.”
The smart girl that she was, Lovelyn had noticed how the practice had crippled the lives of many other girls around the community, so she began to plot her escape from the web of tradition she was entangled in if only to achieve her dream of going to school.
Recalling her escape from the forced marriage, she said: “When it was time for them to come and take me away, I made an arrangement with one Pastor Richard for my escape.
“I have many friends whose future was ruined by the practice. I remember Vivian, Charity, Jeniffer and Jacintha, to mention a few.
“Many girls who are only 14 or 15 years old are already giving birth from their forced marriages. Those of us that escaped with help from Pastor Richard have every reason to thank God.”
After her escape from Becheve, Lovelyn, who has since taken refuge in a Southwest state, was enrolled in a school. Now a senior secondary school (SSS) pupil, she says her ambition is to go to the university to study Law.
“I thank God that I can now read and write,” she said with a smile betraying excitement.
“I am in senior secondary school 2 going to SSS 3. If I had been married to the man, I would never have gone this far academically and my dream of going to a higher institution would have been dashed for life.
“I just thank God for using Pastor Richard to save me and others from their hands.”
But there is a part that still makes Lovelyn sad. She said while she is free, her elder sister is going through hell as a result of the traditional practice.
“She was a very brilliant girl and she had hoped to go far with her education, but she had her dream shattered when she was in primary three, as she was given out in marriage at that age.
“She is only 22 years old now, but she already has four children. She was married off at the age of 11. She had her first child at the age of 15.
“The man’s family had taken her away to Abuja when she was 11 and later brought her back to the man.
“There are many young girls who are not happy being in marriage but they cannot stop it. This is why we are calling on the government to help us stop the practice.”
Investigation conducted by our correspondent revealed that the case of Lovelyn has inspired many girls in the ugly arrangement to flee Becheve. One of them, Faith, who spoke from self-exile in a South-south state, recalled how she was given out as a replacement for a sister of hers who got married to another man before the man she was originally betrothed to could complete the payment of her dowry.
Faith said: “When my grandfather was still alive, he collected money from someone with a promise that he would give the man a wife. He later gave my aunt to the man. But when my grandfather died, the man stopped giving money to the family.
“My grandmother told the man not to worry; that even if my grandfather was dead, she was still there to continue the deal. She said she would give the man another wife if my aunt passed the age he was supposed to take her in as his wife.
“The man subsequently resumed giving her money. But before he could finish paying the dowry, my aunt was old enough to marry, so she got married to a man of her choice. My grandmother then asked our mother to give one of us out to the man and my mother gave him my elder sister.
“Unfortunately, my elder sister refused to go to him and my mother tricked me to go to the man while I was still very small.”