AKWAYA, South West — “I was still small, may be five years old.”
It was a sunny morning in May. Queenta Abine sat baby-in-lap, explaining how she became a wife, a mother and the mistress of three men all before she turned 15.
Her voice quivered. She paused. Tears rolled down her swollen cheeks.
“I was still small.”
A school dropout, who is now as far separated from her dream of becoming a nurse as she is from ever having a childhood, Ms Abine is what the locals here call a “money woman”, an expression that translates more aptly as a “purchased woman”.
Like most women in her community, she was given into marriage long before she was ripe for school – as settlement for her family’s debts.
Using girls to raise money, repay debts or compensate favors is an open and longstanding practice in this landlocked community of peasant farmers and wild fruit gatherers on the Nigerian border.
Guardians of the tradition – rich and influential men who run traditional cults and shrines – defend it as a legitimate path to marriage for girls and an escape from poverty for parents who have nothing else.
“Money women” gain control of their children and rights to inherit their husband’s property, said Simon Ojua, deputy chairman of the Akwaya Traditional Council, a political and religious institution that produces and enforces the community’s customary laws.
But in reality, it is a criminal enterprise of blackmail and extortion that traps young girls and women womb-to-tomb in domestic servitude, sexual abuse and public scorn, a month-long investigation by The Standard Tribune found.
Queenta Abine sat baby-in-lap, explaining how she became a wife, a mother and the mistress of three men all before she turned 15.
Critics called it one of the country’s worst forms of child and gender-based violence, combining early forced marriage, slavery and sexual exploitation in one.
The crimes committed against young women, most of them long before they are born, have gone unpunished for decades.
A backward culture, grinding poverty and the blind eye of fully-informed officials have kept the practice alive among the Olitis and more than 20 other tribes in the Akwaya administrative area – a territory so remote that most villages are only reached after weeks of trekking through dense forests and dark wet valleys.
“Many women” are born, suffer and die across the region without any true contact with the outside world. The seclusion of this otherwise beautiful countryside with lush vegetation and rolling hills has helped conceal abuses that often leave women with broken lives.
Girls who are given away or acquired as “money women” wind up as sex toys and baby-making machines for men and housemaids or farm workers for their older wives, according to the account of more than a dozen victims, officials and even perpetrators.
They do not get any education because that would make them stubborn and less submissive.
“It is slavery,” said Ibrahim Seidou, the deputy divisional officer for Akwaya sub-division.
Mr. Seidou, a lean man with owl-like eyeballs and a radiant smile, hails from the Far North, a part of the country where more than seven in ten women are victims of early and forced marriage.
He said he had seen the promising lives of young women in his own family derailed by forced marriage, but nothing like what goes on in Akwaya and surrounding villages, which share the same culture.
“It is the entire life of young girls that is sacrificed,” he said.
Data on the scope of the problem is non-existent.
Officials and community leaders nonetheless described widespread exploitation of girl children, implicating almost every extended family in a population of over 85,000.
“Money women” don’t get the rights to property or their offspring they are promised, we found
The personal stories of “money women” differ, but they contain the same graphic details of maltreatment and sexual abuse, usually at the hands of men in the same household:
Such early marriages emerged in this area in the mid-1940s, around the end of the Second World War, which impoverished many of the area’s inhabitants, according to community leaders.
Parents married off their girls while they were still young to earn money and other favors in the form of bride prices. The economy never picked up. Roads were never built. Jobs were nonexistent.
With time, people started pledging even unborn babies to secure loans. Girl children became “mortgage or surety when people have one of two problems to solve,” said Martin Ekwalle Ekwalle, the mayor of Akwaya.
There is also a cynical side.
The system was put in place and protected by several men-only cults that use their influence in powerful traditional councils and religious shrines to blackmail poor families and victims; it emerged from interviews with victims.
Sometimes, girls are forced to take oaths at the local shrine and told they will be bewitched if they tried to escape or beaten until they succumbed, at least three victims said.
In 2000, a woman fell sick, her family needed money and Mr. Abine had cash.
Mr. Abine, now 72, is a sturdy man with a bald who lives at the foot of a hill on the western fringe of Akwaya town.
Most of the hill was hand-dug to create level ground where he built a cement block cottage overlooking the rest of the town.
More of the excavated area became a courtyard where chicken and dogs roam. He plans to build another house there – “a retirement home befitting my status,” he said.
A retired veterinary worker, Mr. Abine is well-off or even wealthy compared to the standards of most of the town’s struggling inhabitants. Every day, he said, numerous people come to him for loans, offering their girls as collateral.
In 2000, a woman fell sick, her family needed money and Mr. Abine had cash.
In exchange for Frs200,000 ($400), both sides agreed, Mr. Abine would get the woman’s young girl as wife.
When the girl named Queenta was five, she came to live with him and took his last name.
“The point that influenced me to take the girl was that, first, she had lost her mother; had lost her father; had lost her grandmother,” said Mr. Abine. “As at now, she is so desolate. Even right now, the girl is so desolate. That attracted sympathy.”
Mr. Abine agreed to a taped interview in May, in which he claimed he was one of the first people to speak up against child marriage in his community.
But at several points in the interview, he referred to 15-year-old Queenta Abine as his wife and at one point called himself the girl’s “legitimate owner”.
He denied treating her as property then stated that he had once passed the girl over to a brother as mistress and encouraged her to sleep with another man, who made the girl pregnant by the time she was 14 or so.
Mr Abine also said he would not let the girl go without reimbursement, because “quite much was spent” on her and her mother. The girl’s child, Mr. Abine said was his, even though another man was responsible for the pregnancy. Asked why, he said, “I am the legitimate owner of the mother”.
“Money women” don’t get the rights to property or their offspring they are promised, we found.
Instead, they become property themselves that can be exploited, passed around or inherited.
At their very origin, they are “commodities”, said Patricia Ode, president of the Akwaya Women’s forum, a group that defends the rights of women and girls.
Though perpetrators say debts are converted into bride prices, in reality they are down payments that are followed by small gifts and favors.
“How can you pay bride price for a woman you don’t see?” asked John Etadu Ateh the traditional chief of a tiny village north of Akwaya called Motom and an opponent of the practice.
The money women produce working the farms is used to procure other “money women”, said Ms Abushi.
Child and forced marriage are all illegal in Cameroon, just as slavery is. But no one has ever been indicted for the abuses against women in this area.
By May 2015, Mr. Seidou, a young graduate from the elite National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM), had only worked in Akwaya for two months.
As deputy divisional officer, he is the second most powerful government official in the entire administrative unit, which comprises nearly 100 towns and villages.
Mr. Seidou’s office – an extension of the powerful ministry of territorial administration – coordinates the work of all local arms of the central administration, including the police and gendarmes.
But services like social welfare and women empowerment are completely lacking because appointed officials have never taken up duties.
Procedural problems also make it difficult for the administration to end the abuses, Mr. Seidou said.
“The real problem is providing justice,” he said. “For the courts to come in, the victims must first press charges. This practice takes place in villages that are five days’ walk away and if victims don’t press charges, it is difficult for us to do anything.”
Several victims said they had complained to authorities but received no protection or justice. One said her abusive husband refused to honor an administrative summons and no further action was taken against him.
Mr. Ekwelle has by far the best office in the entire Akwaya sub-division. He sits behind a huge mahogany desk, under two effigies of a youthful President Paul Biya.
As chief municipal authority, he is responsible for recording births and deaths and for certifying marriages.
“People are still very traditional in their ways,” he said. “They still hold and pay a lot of respect to the customary form of marriage, where they believe that once you have paid the bride price, the wife is your own.
“They believe they have nothing at stake. The idea is that if they go in for a marriage certificate, by the time the man is dying, the wife will have access to all the property.”
The actions of both the municipality and decentralized administrative services have over the years been limited to sensitizing parents and community leaders with the hope they would abandon the practice.
That is paying off, said Mr. Ekwelle, the phenomenon is “phasing out.”
But teachers at the local primary and secondary schools said girls continued to be pulled out of class every day to become brides.
At Government High School Akwaya, the number of girls was lower than the number of boys in every class from Form One to Upper Sixth, according to school enrollment records.
At the end of seven years, there were fewer girls left in a class than the number that came in because many had dropped out along the way.
One school official, who was not allowed to speak to the media, said no more than 30 girls had graduated from the college of more than 500 students since its creation.
…no one has ever been indicted for the abuses against women in this area.
Groups like the Women’s Forum and individuals like a young activist called Ignatius Imbush, are trying to fill the gap but are limited by how much they can do without adequate training and resources.
Powerful organizations like the United Nations Children Fund and Plan International that are fighting early and forced marriage in other parts of the country have no presence here.
A few years ago, the Catholic Church began reimbursing bride prices to free some of the girls but the initiative failed to stop parents from giving away their girls.
Left on their own, victims created an association to provide peer support, confront community leaders and push authorities to act.
However hard they try, they said they were no match to the deeply entrenched practice and its powerful perpetrators.