Becheve, Nigeria – In this sleepy village, in the shadow of the Obudu mountains in Cross River state, an ancient tradition continues that child protection workers say condemns young girls to a life of slavery and sexual exploitation.
Girls as young as five in southern Nigeria are still being sold to settle their parents’ debt as part of a tradition known as “money marriages”.
Five-year-old Miracle was married for money a few weeks ago. She now lives with missionaries who say she’s proof money marriages are real.
She was bought to replace her late teenage sister – who was herself was a replacement wife who couldn’t have a baby with her new owner.
Another young girl, Rose Inyite, is lucky as she was rescued nine years ago.
“I was about 10-years old when they gave me out. My father died when I was seven years. At 10 years, they took me out,” she said.
However, Onomatopee Sunday Ichile, a community leader, said the practice has been banned.
“That thing was there, but it stopped I think in the ’90s. And the money woman they are talking about, it’s not that people come out and say that I am looking for a woman to marry. It happens when someone falls sick, or one has a police case, then they borrow money. But the most prevalent is borrowing to pay tax,” Ichile said.
The so-called money wives can face decades of slavery and sexual exploitation as they are passed from one owner to another.
Missionary Richard Akonam has devoted his time to rescuing girls who’ve been sold off. In nine years, he has freed 21 young women.
“The man goes to buy a girl outrightly. An uncle can even betrothe a girls before she is born. The man will wait even after 40 years. If the man dies, the brothers can still go to get their brother’s money wife,” Akonam said.
Only a small number of the girls sold into slavery are rescued.
Organisations working to support the victims say they’ve been threatened on many occasions and warned to stop their work.