By Alfred AJAYI
AT 16, she had an unintended pregnancy for a man, who fled. She was then left with bearing a child out of wedlock and with no man to take responsibility, a condition that is culturally prohibited among many Igbo families in Nigeria’s Southeast.
For her family, that was a “shame” and to untangle themselves from what they considered a social stigma, she had to be forcibly married off, brushing aside her rights. A desperate search for a suitor ensued and it was a woman that appeared to marry her.
The Woman-Husband culture
Adaeze Ifeanyi (not her real name), who hails from Osile village in Enugwu-Ukwu, Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, shed tears as she recounted how her ‘marriage’ to a 60-year-old woman, Ngozi Okonkwo, was sealed.
“The man who made me pregnant did not come. So, my people arranged for an alternative just to ensure that the baby in the womb has a father,” she said, sobbing.
Since Igbo culture forbids girls from giving birth in their fathers’ houses, Adaeze was ‘married’ to Ms. Okonkwo, who was desperately in need of a baby boy to perpetuate her father’s name and linage. Her anticipation was that the pregnant teenager would give birth to a baby boy, but the hope failed.
“I gave birth to a baby girl and she was very angry with me,” Adaeze said.
However, the woman-husband gave her a second chance. Adaeze won the struggle to find a man of her choice to impregnate her after her woman-husband had arranged an 80-year-old man.
Again, a girl and they were kicked out
“I gave birth again and it was a baby girl,” Adaeze said.
This woman got mad and asked me to leave her house. She no longer caters to me and the two girls. I now make peanuts to make ends meet.”
Adaeze said her situation had affected her sense of her self-worth and pride.
She regularly fights social stigma, especially from her peers, and is now considering leaving the community, she said.
“I am always an object of scorn among my friends. They said I am a small girl who is marrying an old woman. I feel ashamed in their midst. I must leave that place before Christmas.”
She is now 19 and desperate to put the marriage behind her.
In addition to social stigma, her safety is a matter of concern.
The woman-husband, Ms. Okonkwo, has reported her to the community’s vigilante group after she tried to chalk out a new path for herself. Ironically, that became her way of getting help. But she fears the woman could become more desperate in forcing her to stay in the marriage and keep birthing children even in most torrid conditions.
Ms. Okonkwo was contacted to comment on this report. After describing the story to her by phone, she said, “I am not in the mood to talk now. I will call you later.” She did not call back, nor did she answer repeated calls to her phone for several days.
Luckily, her case is being handled by a Non-Governmental Organization, Safenest Organization, which fights against domestic violence and child abuse.
In an interview with the director of the organization, Mrs. Oluchukwu Chukwuenyem, the activist narrated how her organisation became aware of Adaeze’s case and decided to help.
“The woman marrying the girl reported her to the vigilante group in the town for misconduct,” Mrs. Chukwuenyem said.
“They interacted with the girl and got concerned about her case. So, they decided to get human rights activists involved. The Chief security called me and we are on the matter now.”
Mrs. Chukwuenyem said that Adaeze’s case bothers on rights violations, which “must be seen to a logical conclusion.”
“I have spoken with the victim, the woman-husband, Ms. Ngozi (Okonkwo) and she insisted that the girl must stay in the marriage. I have also gone to see the traditional ruler of Enugwu-Ukwu. He said the culture of the community does not recognize such a relationship. In fact, for him, there is no marriage between the two of them. He has also asked me to write a comprehensive letter on the situation development,” she said.
Adaeze, with credit passes in her O-level subjects, looks to a glorious future as a seamstress and the Director Safenest Organisation assured that “no stone would be left unturned in assisting her,” though she prefers that Adaeze goes back to school.
“A very beautiful girl at her prime, she is being traumatized, but we are working to get her justice. The first thing is taking her out of that exploitative relationship,” she said.
Not a one-off problem
Stories like that of Adaeze reverberate across various communities of Anambra State, particularly the remote and educationally disadvantaged ones, primarily driven by cultural sentiments.
The Coordinator, Child Protection Network of Nigeria, CPN, Anambra State Chapter, and Executive Director, Victorian Clarion Foundation, Mrs. Uju Onyendilefu, gave further insight.
“In so many areas where we have had our interventions, we discover that people prefer that the woman who is childless should go and marry a younger girl that will come and give birth on her behalf in order to inherit the family resources,” Mrs. Onyendilefu said.
A publication by Evelyn Nwachukwu Urama on May 13, 2019, entitled “The Values and Usefulness of Same-Sex Marriages Among the Females in Igbo Culture in the Continuity of Lineage or Posterity” explains that same-sex marriage among women in Igboland is used to bridge the gap created by the challenges of the socially and culturally constructed gender roles with the aim of “male daughters” and “female husbands” becoming sons and husbands to wives for procreation and continuity of the family’s lineage.”
The ordeals of Adaeze are a reflection of the realities faced by teenage wives in such relationships. They are indirectly in biological relationships with other men who did not pay their bride prices.
She said girls entangled in such relationships are vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. “Remember it involves having to sleep with different men with different health issues.”
However, an Igbo cultural leader, Chief Matthias Ameke, said the “woman-husband” practice was not conventional.
“In Igbo culture, a lady of marriage age who is not married is permitted to bring in a man to impregnate her and she keeps her father’s family name on, but becoming a husband to another woman,” Chief Ameke said. “It happens in some communities but it cannot be said to be cultural to Ndigbo.”
Good laws, poor implementation
There are pieces of legislation and international conventions that not only prohibit child marriage but stipulate sanctions for offenders and reliefs for the victims.
For instance, section 23 of the Child Rights Law of Anambra State 2004 categorically states that “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever”.
According to section 25, any person who marries, a child, or to whom a child is betrothed or who promotes the marriage of a child or who betroths a child commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to a fine of 500,000 (five hundred thousand naira) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
Similarly, section 16 of the State Violence Against Persons Prohibition, (VAPP) Law criminalizes emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse. This is described as a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards any person, including repeated acts of insults, name-calling or ridicule, threats to cause emotional pain, which some of the teenage girls go through.
In addition, the Nigerian constitution in its section 41 sub-section 1b states that every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly – no person shall be held in slavery or servitude.
Apart from local laws, there are international conventions that protect every child from being forced into any form of relationship including marriage.
One of such is the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, ratified by Nigeria. The convention is informed by four core principles which are: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival, and development as well as respect for the views of the child.
A clear inference here is that any marriage tied against the will and without the consent of the girl child is a violation of these core principles.
A child protection expert, Mr. Emeka Ejide, further stressed the nullity of such practice.
“The issue of a child or a woman getting betrothed to a woman is in peculiarity called a repugnancy doctrine and such repugnancy law to the extent of its existence should be discarded because it is against equity, natural justice, and good conscience.
“So, it cannot pass the test of time in any court. The other time, Nigeria said no to same-sex marriage. So, whether it is male to male or female to female, it is out of the law,” Mr. Ejide said.
It is expected that the Child Protection Network, CPN, Anambra State, will take steps in getting justice for the victim. However, the Co-ordinator of the Ruler of Law and Anti Corruption Legal Aid Committee, Barr. Nkoli Ebede, noted that prosecuting the case will be easier if all necessary information is made available to the network.
“If the matter is given to me, we can take action in her favour as long as those in possession of facts about this matter will avail us,” Barr. Ebede said.
Multiple activists interviewed for this report called for conscious and committed efforts towards ending child marriage, especially the culture that permits a woman to marry a fellow woman, through education and sensitization across communities.
The child protection expert, Sir Ejide: “When a law is enacted, it is left for the government to disseminate that law to all nooks and crannies of the society. Then, it behooves us as child protection experts and network organizations to sensitize the populace on the provisions of such laws such as the Child’s Right Law of Anambra State 2004, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Law 2017, and the Disability Rights Law.”
“Having those laws in vernacular will sustain the language and enhance better understanding. But, the interpretation must be approved as carrying the original meaning of those laws. It will make the laws popular and further simplify for the understanding of everyone,” Sir Ejide added.
For the Coordinator, Child Protection Network, Mrs Onyendilefu, breaking the culture of silence will go a long way in combating the practice of child and forced marriage.
While Safenest organization is making effort to sever the illegal relationship, the case of Adaeze is a clarion call for the government, public-spirited individuals, and other NGOs like the CPN, to do anything within their sphere of influence to give her a new lease of life, she said.