Baby Factories in Nigeria: After the Outrage

Baby Factories in Nigeria: After the Outrage

Less than a couple of weeks ago, yet another baby factory was uncovered.  A line-up of girls, many of whom should be in secondary school studying to make their lives and eventually those of their children better, stood instead, at various stages of pregnancy.  A few babies, too, were held in hands, some on the floor, looking carefully at the cameras and possibly wondering what the fuss was about.  These babies were presumably on the queue awaiting sale.  Reactions have ranged from exclamations of outrage on social media, comments echoing disbelief and anger on the internet, high-pitched conversations between husbands and wives, and between friends.   Certainly, this indignation is understandable – the incongruous sight of teenaged girls, with their protruding bellies or the sight of chubby babies who may end up sold for relatively insignificant amounts of money to the highest bidder must tug at the heart of even the most hardened person.

This is, of course, not the first time that a baby factory was discovered in the country, or even in that part of the country.    A cursory investigation through the kind services of Google would reveal no less than six separate incidents dating from 2008.    One would begin to imagine that baby farms or factories have in fact become useful employers of labour, albeit of teenagers mostly.  And one might be tempted to wonder if the exclamations of horror over what may well now be described as “usual” if slightly occasional have not become merely hyperbolic.   If one disputes the appropriateness of the use of the word “usual,” if one disagrees with the cynicism of those who would flip over the page or to a more interesting television channel, then the question that would logically follow would be:  What has been done to eliminate baby factories in Nigeria?

I watched His Excellency, Governor RochasOkorocha, on television stating, predictably, his disappointment.  He stated thatorphanages would henceforth report to his office or to the First Lady’s Office.  I listened and wondered about concreteness. When would they decide to whom orphanages would report? Why were there illegal orphanages there or anywhere else in the country?It is easy now to demonise Imo State, but what about other states?  Do other states in the country have concrete policies, plans, legislation, and implementing processes and procedures to ensure that baby factories would be so rare as to be non-existent? How effective is the anti-trafficking agency, NAPTIP?

To establish effective policies, plans, and legislation, one would first of all have to understand why baby factories are planted and why they thrive for years.  What are the root causes?   With knowledge of the root causes, we may be better positioned todevelop adequate and effective responses. In my view, some of the root causes are:  the premium placed on biological children, inability to police orphanages, failure to use our criminal laws effectively, and the absence of adequate policies and legislation. I discuss some of these root causes and some solutions below. 

As with many businesses, the law of demand and supply applies.  There would be no factories if there was no demand for their products.  Baby factories are set up primarily to produce babies.  Girls and young women are encouraged or compelled to give birth to children who are then sold to persons.  Who are the beneficiaries of this terrible business?  The answer is, primarily, infertile couples.

The premium placed on having biological children in Nigerian society and cultures is one important root cause of baby factories in Nigeria.  Infertility is one of the most difficult challenges a couple will have to face, especially in Nigeria.  In a country where many cultures place a heavy value on biological children, the burden of infertility is not merely a personal cross which a couple may have to carry.  Instead, it becomes an almost overwhelming encumbrance placed by the society on a marriage. Add to that the burden of living in a society where having a child is not a matter left to choice, where religions actively encourage adherents to multiply and fill the earth, infertility begins to take on the appearance of a crushing affliction.

In many cultures in Nigeria, it is not out of place to begin to query couples a year or two after marriage about children or for alternatives to be suggested three or four years after.  Frequently, the burden of explanation – and the shame – falls on the woman, whom many assume to be the problem, despite increasing education and exposure to differing wisdom. In some parts of Nigeria, the consequences of infertility for women include domestic violence, divorce, polygamy, lacking rights in relation to burial of one’s husband, and loss of inheritance rights.   Many can recite personally the cases that they know in which second wives were brought into the home, or in which women were thrown out, or in which women with or without their husband’s consent engaged in outrageous and sometimes dangerous rituals in order to birth biological children.   Such story lines have been a Nollywood staple but they are rooted in reality.

Men are not exempt from this burden, although society typically does not impose the same weight of shame on men.   Damage is done to familial relations as the couple trades blame with extended family. The labels, sometimes the help of, witches and wizards are invoked.  Apart from the demands and collateral effects of culture and religion, very little research has been done on the psychological effects of infertility, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is extensive.

In short, infertility in Nigeria can be both painful and life-altering.  Yet, it is not rare.  Although we have high rates of fertility – the World Health Organisation put it at fertility rates of 5.7 per woman in Nigeria (World Health Report, 2004) – about 12 million couples are infertile.  That is a significant number of Nigerians.

Existing solutions include assisted human reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilisation and artificial insemination.  These, if successful, would provide the biological children that many couples desire.    Although not many can afford them, these technologies are increasingly available in Nigeria.  Fertility clinics have sprung up and it is likely that many will open their doors soon.   Surrogacy is also a possibility.  However, while I know of a few Nigerian couples who have chosen this route outside Nigeria, to my knowledge, outside Nollywood movies, this is still an option people seldom pursue within the country.

For many who cannot afford the significant expense of these technologies, alternatives such as adoption and fostering may be a possibility.   But the premium placed on biological children in many cultures in Nigeria prevents this from being a viable possibility for many infertile couples. This is one of the root causes of baby factories. 

Baby factories thus become a provider of a much-needed service, supplying children conceived and birthed for the purposes of sale. The recipients often pass off these children as their biological children to satisfy societal and cultural demands for biological offspring.  This deception is not limited to those who patronise baby factories. Even people who have received their bundles of joy via assisted human reproductive technologies deny this, preferring instead to concoct tales of miracles.   Every child, of course, is a miracle.  But the secrecy and lies with which we shroud belittles the true miracle of reproduction whether biologically or through adoption. The result is that baby factories are a thriving business that would otherwise be very limited in scope. 

Another root cause is our seeming inability to manage orphanages properly. With what has happened recently in Imo State, and other news of baby factories in other states in the past, how is it possible that illegal orphanages still exist?  It continues to surprise me that one can establish an illegal orphanage without passing through the due processes of law.  I marvel that this can go undetected for years.   How is this possible?  In effect, what this means is that there is very little regulation, monitoring or supervision taking place. The absence of adequate, responsive regulation of orphanages is an indictment on law enforcement, Ministries of Social Welfare and Ministries of Women Affairs and other relevant bodies in the country. 

Another root cause is the lack of relevant policies.  These include policies on infertility and on assisted human reproductive technologies.   Such policies would take into account the many factors that give rise to infertility, a specific action plan to tackle these, and a manner of dealing with the safety, legal, and ethical issues that arise from assisted human reproductive technologies.

The answers to these matters seem to lie in personal, societal, and state resolution and action.  At each of these levels – personal, societal, state – we must decide who we are and who we would like to be.

At the personal level, we must recognise that at least some of the demand for the services of baby factories comes from regular, everyday people.    To those people who are going through the challenge of infertility, I say: We must decide where must stop in our quest for children and whether criminal ways of obtaining children are truly worth it.  This is not to minimise the pain of infertility.    As a woman who suffered a miscarriage early in my marriage, and who went through a few months of doubts about my ability to conceive and bear a child, it is difficult to imagine the personal pain that I would have suffered if the situation had not ended quickly in the conception and eventual birth of my first child.  Those few months seemed unbearable, and I cannot imagine how my husband and I would have coped with years of the same.Having said this, however, it is difficult, if not impossible to see how raising a child, beginning with a foundation of falsehood, is the best that one can give a much-longed for child.   I know that it will be an act of courage and a personal decision for couples to admit how they became parents. But acknowledging, even within limited circles, that we have adopted our child or required some assistance may help reduce the stigma of infertility and prevent the need for buying babies and passing them off as biological. 

As a society, we must determine how far we would go in demonising infertility, rejecting adoption,and stigmatising the infertile.   This requires conscientious addressing of those aspects of our cultures which put a premium on fertility and on biological children.  We must begin conversations about these matters in different ways and arenas, for instance, in our churches.  We must develop sensitive ways of discussing infertility and ponder our roles individually and collectively in creating a culture where having a child becomes a prize to the point that passing off a child as biological is considered an option. 

While adoption is becoming somewhat more acceptable than it was in the past, we still have a long way to go.   As a society, we must work on breaking the remaining culturaltaboos and procedural barriers to adoption.  We must work towards getting to that point when stigma, fears about inheritance rights, and all the other factors that limit adoption as an option in our cultures cease to exist.  Is this easy?  No.  Is it the right thing? You need only look into the faces of those teenagers that we saw a couple of weeks ago, children themselves about to birth other children, to agree that it is worth a try.

Although infertility is a difficult terrain to navigate, and it is difficult to prescribe for couples how to deal with a challenge that no one who desires children would wish to have to deal with it, the law must stand up to its prescriptive and protective role.   As a State, we must choose to protect children, including those yet to be born, by putting in place and implementing the policies and the legislation required to ensure that children do not become commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.  Despite the increasing patronisation of fertility clinics, however, there is very little state monitoring of assisted human reproductive technologies and very little discussion of the various legal and ethical issues arising from their use or abuse.   Issues of safety, patients’ rights and remedies for any breach remain a mirage.    Where is the State’s care for these issues?  Why do we have no comprehensive policy for assisted human reproductive technologies?

Perhaps, more urgently, there must be adequate policies and legislation to address adoption processes.  These policies must be developed to make those processes less bureaucratic, less expensive, and more open and transparent.  Regular, consistent supervision and monitoring of orphanages in different states must become a given.  Steps to increase awareness of the benefits and challenges of adoption would also be a beneficial component of these policies.Some states like Lagos State have more experience with adoption policies and processes.  Perhaps it can serve as an example for other states.

What is the law against sale of babies?  Under which agency does such a matter fall? I have read a news report in which NAPTIP stated that baby factories were not within its jurisdiction.  If this proves to be the case, it is a matter that should be investigated?  Should NAPTIP have some jurisdiction in the case of baby sales? They clearly do not think so even though it is clearly beyond argument that a baby is a “person” deserving of the protection of the State, including protection from being trafficked.  Section 50 which defines trafficking may provide room for argument.  It defines trafficking as “…all acts and attempted acts involved in the recruitment, transportation within or across Nigerian borders, purchase, sale, transfer, receipt or harbouring of a person involving the use of deception, coercion or debt bondage for the purpose of placing or holding the person whether for or not in involuntary servitude (domestic, sexual or reproductive) in force or bonded labour, or in slavery-like conditions.”  If NAPTIP has no role to play, is this beneficial?

A look at the Adoption Law of Lagos State shows, for instance, that there is little clarity about the prohibition of baby sale.  The law applies in a situation where relatives cannot be found but where a mother is selling her baby with the owner of a baby factory as an agent, what law should apply?  This is a critical matter, especially in view of states’ inability to curb such factories.    There is clearly a vacuum that needs to be plugged.

Aside from the babies, the teenagers and women involved certainly come within the purview of the definition of human trafficking under section 50 of NAPTIP.  It would be good to hear more from the Agency about any efforts it plans to engage in, in this respect. Moreover, child welfare agencies in our states must work more effectively to prevent teenagers, who are really only children themselves from becoming desperate enough to be lured into this illegal and immoral business. 

Finally, a clear identification of the law against the sale of babies must be made.  Baby sales are not an offence if there is no law to the contrary.  Where those laws are lacking, they must enacted and any criminal penalties must be applied vigorously on those who establish baby factories.  Harsh sentences must be imposed to serve as deterrent.  The newspapers which enthusiastically reported the existence of these factories must follow through, asking pertinent questions about outcomes from law enforcement and from the administration.

The latest news of yet another baby factory should energise us to look inwards.  The news should not only titillate us but cause us to take proactive action even in the states of the country where these factories are yet to be discovered. After the outrage, it is time to get to work as people, as a society, and as a nation to make baby factories, inoperable, outdated, and even unnecessary.

This article was first published in Thisday, in May 2013.

All blogs are the opinions of the writer and the views expressed therein are not necessarily endorsed by CHELD.

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