Two months after 17-year-old Ebere fell pregnant last year, she considered having an abortion. But she was told by a doctor that such a process – eight weeks into her pregnancy – could lead to complications.
Going home to her parents after visiting the doctor wasn’t an option for Ebere, who feared her strict father would beat her and shame her in their neighbourhood. The father of the baby had denied all responsibility and threatened to kill her if she ever tried to contact him again.
A nurse, who saw the troubled young girl sitting in the hospital, approached her to find out what was wrong. Ebere explained her situation and the nurse showed her a Facebook page of a man she said was a social worker who helped pregnant women in her position. She told her to call the phone number.
“When I called and explained my situation, he asked me to meet him at a popular restaurant in town,” says Ebere, speaking to the Guardian in her home city of Enugu, in south-eastern Nigeria. “When we met, he offered to take me to his home and care for me until I gave birth, but only if I was willing to sell the baby to him.”
With no other options, Ebere accepted his offer. She moved in with the man without telling her family. For her, it was the best way to escape the trouble she’d have faced had she returned home, and she could make some money at the same time.
“I didn’t even ask him what he wanted to do with my baby,” Ebere says. “All I wanted was to get rid of the baby and take my money.”
After Ebere gave birth to a boy, the man she’d been living with sold the baby to a married couple. He gave the young girl 70,000 naira (about £140). Ebere returned to her family, telling them she had been kidnapped by traffickers who took her to a remote village and forced her to work as a domestic slave before freeing her.
“Everyone felt sorry for me,” says Ebere. “My parents wanted to inform the police but I convinced them not to do so by giving them the impression I didn’t want to be reminded about the trauma of my captivity.”
Ebere is one of many young girls in south-eastern Nigeria that the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (Naptip) says have been drawn into a lucrative trade in baby trafficking. According to the agency, girls involved in the trade are known as “social mothers”. Impoverished young women with nowhere else to turn and who have no access to abortion or antenatal care are being targeted.
Traffickers pose as social workers, offering help to pregnant women who need support. In reality, Naptip says they are frontmen and women in the business of selling babies to couples or to middlemen. They typically charge $1,500 (£1,200) for a baby girl and $2,000 (£1,600) for a boy.
“Many young girls are being impregnated by their boyfriends but because they don’t want their families to know about their pregnancy, they meet baby sellers who hide them until they give birth,” says Comfort Agboko, head of Naptip’s south-east office. “Their babies are then sold by these baby sellers who only give them a token of maybe 50,000 naira (about £100).”
Stories of baby trading are not uncommon in Nigeria, where at least 10 children are reportedly sold across the country every day. Each year several children – including nearly two dozen freed in February – are rescued by security forces from traffickers, most of whom operate in the south of the country. The majority of those trafficked are children of young women held captive until their babies are born and then released, their babies sold on. Naptip says cases involving social mothers are increasing in the region.
“Baby sellers see the business as a normal trade and that is why they act as if they are selling any other goods,” says Agboko. “In some cases, the child passes through up to five buyers.”
Authorities have struggled to deal with human trafficking due to inadequate funding and a lack of cooperation between the police and Naptip. When cases do reach court, a sluggish judicial system allows trials to drag on for years, denying timely justice for victims.
“We are being frustrated by court processes,” complains Agboko, who says Naptip has apprehended a number of baby traffickers in recent months. “Many times we go to court, we are told that the judges are in tribunal [for local election petitions] or have gone for one assignment or the other.”
While those challenges remain, traffickers continue to use every available avenue to trade babies, including contacting expectant mothers via social media.
“About half a dozen single mothers we have supported financially in the south-east have said they had been in touch with baby traffickers in a bid to market their infants,” says Abang Robert, public relations head of Caprecon Development And Peace Initiative, an NGO providing support for victims of human trafficking and single mothers. “In most cases, the deal fell through because the traffickers offered so little.”
For mothers such as Ebere who have sold their babies using traffickers, there is no way back.
“My father would have killed me if he saw that I was pregnant with a man I wasn’t married to,” says Ebere. “I had no choice but to let the baby go.”
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