Philip Obaji Jr., Daily Beast, April 4, 2019
Monica, 16, is one of two sisters sold as wives to men who found their photographs on their father’s Facebook page and contacted him. She and her 14-year-old younger sister never wanted to get married until they completed their secondary education in Ogbakoko, a small village in Obanliku Local Government Area in Nigeria’s south-central Cross River state. But the teenage sisters fell victims to a culture which subjects little girls, some as young as 10, to de facto slavery through a tradition called “money marriage.”
The sisters belong to the Becheve community, a large tribe of 17 villages in Obanliku where there is a long tradition in which young girls—often referred to as “money women” or “money wives”—are sold in exchange for food or livestock or cash, or to settle debts.
Like hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of girls from the Becheve clan who are victims of money marriages, Monica and her sister were sold without their consent. Their father wanted to clear the debt he owed to a distant relative. The two sisters got married a month apart to men whom they did not know at all and who were old enough to be their grandfathers.
Their respective husbands got in touch with their father after seeing the Facebook page where he posted photos of his six daughters to draw the attention of his tribesmen. The men of the clan have found the new technology helps to extend and expand their old, exploitative traditions.
Usually in the Becheve community, parents of the money brides take the girls to men who can afford to pay for their daughters whenever they think they are fit for marriage, or wait for interested men to request their daughter’s hand in marriage. But in recent months, families who are so desperate to give their children away for money turn to Facebook so their kinsmen can check them out.
In effect, they use Facebook, quite literally, as a face book, although the actual exchange of money or goods does not take place online.
Spokespeople for Facebook, when contacted by The Daily Beast, were not familiar with the phenomenon as practiced in the Becheve community.
Reports of Facebook being used as a tool to facilitate child marriage aren’t unique to Nigeria. Last November, the social media platform came under fire after posts discussing the sale of a 16-year-old girl in South Sudan. The victim was married in the process after her father, in exchange for his daughter, received 530 cows, three Land Cruiser V8 cars and $10,000. The teenager reportedly was bid on by five men, including senior officials in the South Sudanese government.
But the money wives of Becheve rarely receive any publicity, and often endure very difficult times as, in effect, chattel servants. They are usually not allowed to go to school and could be given out to another man if their husbands so desire. If the husband of a money wife dies, his next-of-kin becomes her new husband. The Becheve custom demands that if a money wife dies without bearing any child, her parents can bring another girl in the family to replace her. Regardless of the treatment she gets in her husband’s house, a money wife is not to run back to her parents.
“The practice is meant to boost the status of the men in Becheve community,” Magnus Ejikang, a local chief in Ogbakoko, told The Daily Beast. “The more brides you have, the more respect you gain in the community.”
Facebook is hugely popular in Nigeria with about a fifth of the country’s 98 million internet users connected to the site. But in rural areas like the Becheve community, where literacy levels are not so high among the elderly, the social media platform is mostly common among young people, who are the greatest owners of smart phones. Activists say youths in the clan are actually the brain behind men searching for money wives on Facebook.
In the Becheve community, the practice of child marriage is deeply rooted in its customs and tradition. While rights campaigners admit it will be challenging changing the age-old tradition, they do nevertheless believe that the scale of the practice could easily be reduced.