01/18/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Nigerian Local Government Confronts Child Abandonment

Her mum slipped away into eternity when she was a little child. She was raped by her dad at the age of 14, who had since remarried. Her stepmother is hardly in the picture. She sought succour at The Refuge. Today she is back in school under their sponsorship. MACA's (Mother's against Child Abandonment, an initiative of Obioma Liyel-Imoke, Wife of the Cross River State Governor) coordinator in 2008, Mary Amoji Ogar, visits her every Saturday. She hopes to be a lecturer in the near future.

She is a 13-year-old orphan who thought she was in love with a 20-year-old brick layer. She got pregnant and was thrown out by her uncle. She is being cared for at The Refuge. While she says she's in love and consented to being in an amorous relationship with this man, the man in question could be charged for statutory rape.

Sometimes in addition to poverty, teenage pregnancies do emanate from cultural issues. Granted, MACA provides succour to some of the young girls affected, but the real challenge for MACA may be getting society to change their mindsets on certain cultural issues that may encourage this act. In addition to this, they would have the arduous task of dealing with occultism and incest, which are also socio-cultural issues.

A case in point is the pathetic story of Mary Akpan (not her real name), who is currently being housed at The Refuge. Ogar says she would have been stoned, perhaps to death, by some irate members of her village as her pregnancy was considered a taboo. It was an affront to a supposed impeccable image of the village -- an outright sacrilege. The man with whom she shared her moments of secret passion and pleasure, which almost turned lethal, had slipped into oblivion. Obviously, this harsh judgement had eluded him.

Ogar, clad in a cream skirt suit and long flowing brown hair in her ebullient and circuitous manner, talks about these social issues in the boardroom of the office of the Wife of the Governor of Cross River State, Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke. Underneath her vibrant personality, she still sheds light on the gravity of the situation at hand. The different stories of the young ladies at The Refuge flow seamlessly from Ogar vocal cords like her wavy brown hair. The ladies have no form of livelihood and sell their bodies for paltry naira notes that are fast depreciating to the U.S. dollar; some of them try and earn a living by hawking fruit and other commodities under harsh weather conditions. They end up being lured into the beds of not very affluent and morally decadent men who rob them of their dignity.

However, with the amendment of the Child Right Acts Bill which was announced on Children's Day, May 27 by the State Government, it is envisaged that there will be a significant decline in teenage pregnancies. The law has stiff penalties for early marriages, illegal carnal knowledge of underage girls, genital mutilation, etc. "No one in the state has a right to marry any girl under 18 years or betroth their child if she is underage. Offenders will pay a fine of N50,000 and/or will go to jail for five years," says Idak Iwuchukwu, the state's Commissioner for Social Welfare and now Cross River State Commissioner for Women Affairs. This is the new law. Tattoos or other skin marks on children attract a lighter term -- 5,000 naira and/or one month imprisonment. The commissioner also says that rape cases will attract a 14 year jail term, or life imprisonment if it is a little child involved, and the offender will not have an option of paying a fine according to the new law.

There still is the issue of how to effectively deal with the babies born under the earlier mentioned circumstances -- rape, incest, statutory rape etc. Over 27 babies born at The Refuge are being fostered in warm and loving environments, and the foster parents look forward to fully adopting these children, but adoption is an entirely different situation, as many have to wait indefinitely for their adoption papers. Iwuchukwu says that with the alarming rate of child trafficking in the country, which many see as a visible means of livelihood, there are very stringent laws on adoption of babies, especially those whose foster parents do not reside in Cross River State. In cases like these, the law states that the commissioner would have to grant a separate licence in addition to the legal adoption licences once interested parties have met all obligations -- and this could take a very long time.

Normally, the timeframe for completion of adoption processes is about three to six months; this is inclusive of a two-week investigative period of the interested parties. However, according to the commissioner, this process could linger for up to one year if the social system picks up any defects in the integrity of the parties concerned.

In spite of all the procedures that may seem cumbersome to people wanting to adopt children, Iwuchukwu feels adoption is still a noble venture and people should be encouraged to adopt. According to her, it is a way of expressing love for a child and giving back to society. "People do not have to be childless before they consider adopting a child." She proudly cites an example of an older couple in the state, who having nurtured their own biological children, went a step further to give a child who would have otherwise been left to fate, a chance to maximize his potential by providing love and care in their comfortable environment. Today, that child is a young adult and the pride and joy of his parents.

MACA works closely with the Ministry of Social Welfare to ensure that the incessant cases of abandoned babies can be reduced to its barest minimum. They are doing the best they can at The Refuge, but according to Ogar, there are constraints as there are only so many that can be accommodated at The Refuge. "We accept them in their third trimester," says Ogar. "That way they can have their babies and leave room for incoming mates. It's like a quick turn over." The ultimate goal she says, would be to set up a Refuge Village equipped with all the facilities that would enable them accommodate more young ladies.