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19-year-old Adaeze struggles in forced same-sex marriage

She had an unintended pregnancy at the age of 16 for a boyfriend who had fled. She was therefore faced with the prospect of bearing a child out of wedlock with no partner to support her, a situation frowned upon by many Igbo families in Nigeria’s south-east.

That was a “shame” for her family, and in order to free themselves from what they saw as a social stigma, she had to be forcibly married off, disregarding her right. A desperate quest for a suitor began, and it was a woman that appeared to marry her.

The Culture of the Woman-Husband

Adaeze Ifeanyi (not her actual name), an Anambra State native from Osile village in Enugwu-Ukwu, Njikoka Local Government Area, wept tears as she described how “my marriage” to Ngozi Okonkwo, a 60-year-old woman, 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.

Because Igbo society prohibits girls from giving birth in their fathers’ homes, Adaeze was “married” to Ms Okonkwo, who was desperate for a baby boy to carry on her father’s name and linage. Her hope was that the pregnant teenager would give birth to a boy, but that hope was crushed.

Adaeze explained, “I gave birth to a baby girl, and she was very angry with me.” The woman-husband, on the other hand, offered her a second opportunity. Adaeze won the struggle to find a partner of her choice to impregnate her after her woman-husband had arranged an 80-year-old man.

Again, a girl and hell was let loose

“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 for me and the 2 girls. I now make peanuts to make ends meet.”

Adaeze stated that her situation had impacted her self-esteem and pride. She faces social stigma on a regular basis, particularly 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 live that place before Christmas.”

She is now 19 years old, and she is desperate to put the marriage behind her.

Her safety, in addition to the societal stigma, is a concern. Ms Okonkwo, the woman-husband, has reported her to the community’s vigilante group when she attempted to chart a new course 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 horrid 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.

Director, Safenest Organisation, Mrs Oluchukwu Chukwuenyem

Fortunately, her case is being handled by Safenest Organisation, a non-profit dedicated to ending 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.

With credit passes in all of her O-level courses, Adaeze sees a bright future as a seamstress, and Director Safenest Organization promised that “no stone will be left unturned in assisting her,” though she prefers Adaeze return 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 Adaeze’s reverberate across Anambra State’s many communities, especially the distant and educationally disadvantaged ones, fueled mostly 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.”

Coordinator, Child Protection Network of Nigeria, CPN, Anambra State Chapter, and Executive Director, Victorian Clarion Foundation, Mrs Uju Onyendilefu,

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 laws and international conventions that not only prohibit child marriage but also impose penalties on offenders and provide relief to 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 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 Anambra State Child Protection Network, CPN, will make efforts to ensure that the victim receives justice. However, Barr. Nkoli Ebede, the coordinator of the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Legal Aid Committee, stated that pursuing the case will be easier if all relevant 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.

Many activists interviewed for this report advocated for concerted efforts to end child marriage, particularly the culture that allows a woman to marry another woman, through community education and sensitisation.

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 behoves 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.

Breaking the culture of silence, according to Mrs Onyendilefu, Coordinator, Child Protection Network, will go a long way in addressing the practice of child and forced marriage.

While the Safenest organisation is working to end the illegal relationship, Mrs Chukwuenyem stated that “the case of Adaeze is a clarion call for the government, public-spirited individuals, and other NGOs like the CPN to do everything within their power to offer her a new lease on life.”

Writing by Alfred Ajayi with Support from the Media and Gender Project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism #CREATESAFESPACES; Editing By Saadatu Albashir