Cross River communities where girls are used as collateral, turned into sex slaves

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 ifI 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

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.”

‘Generational bondage’

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.

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