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Jessica Mack: Teens Locked Up and Forced to Give Birth to Kids Sold into Slavery—How Can This Happen, and What Can We Do About It?

June 12, 2011

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Last week, BBC broke the story of what has been dubbed a “baby farm” in southern Nigeria. Now that we know this, what are we going to do about it?

By **Jessica Mack**

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Last week, BBC broke the story of what has been dubbed a “baby farm” in southern Nigeria. Nigerian police raided the grounds, “rescuing” more than 30 poor teenagers who had reportedly been locked up and forced to bring their unwanted pregnancies to term, only to relinquish their babies to human traffickers or purveyors of body parts for witchcraft. It’s the stuff of a horror film, and, oddly enough, it is.

Except this is really happening, to real women, in real time. BBC first reported a “baby farm” raid in a nearby Nigerian city back in 2008. Clearly, there is something very wrong here—both in what’s happening to these women in Nigeria, but also in the way that these issues are being conveyed in the global media.

Human trafficking remains an outstanding problem in Nigeria, despite earning the U.S. State Department’s “stamp of approval” on its anti-trafficking efforts. Since 2009, the annual Trafficking in Persons Report has ranked Nigeria as a Tier 1 country, signifying the government’s full compliance with the U.S.’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Though “compliance” doesn’t necessarily mean effective prevention of or protection from trafficking. With this “baby farm” situation, we see the tenuous value that such rankings have for reality on the ground. While the Nigerian government has stepped up its anti-trafficking efforts in recent years, increasing prison sentences and fines still won’t address precipitating factors.

To start, women in Nigeria, and especially young women, are undervalued. There is a dearth of ready access to affordable and high quality reproductive health care services, and moreover social and cultural taboos about accessing such services. Early marriage and early pregnancy remain common, and you can guess that maternal mortality is also quite high. Abortion is restricted almost entirely, and highly stigmatized beyond that.

BBC writes, “Desperate teenagers with unplanned pregnancies are sometimes lured to clinics and then forced to turn over their babies.” Horrible, and it gets worse. Desperate teenagers with unwanted pregnancies also seek fatal care from quack abortion providers. Women regularly play Russian roulette with concoctions (bleach and ground glass) and gruesome instruments (knitting needles) just to preserve some semblance of reproductive choice.

Given rightful sensitivities about how Africa and Africans are portrayed by almost everyone else in the world and/or especially the global media, the BBC needs to check the caliber of their coverage.

The operative issue here is “desperate teenagers with unwanted pregnancies.” Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, no small claim, and almost 45 percent of the population is under the age of 15. This is not some measly minority; young people comprise the mitochondria of the nation and are the future of this emerging country. Yet their health and rights needs are so often cast aside.

In a 2009 report, the Guttmacher Institute maintained that national policies to protect the reproductive health and rights of young people have not been sufficiently implemented or enacted. Why hasn’t there been more done to address the unique health and rights needs of this set?

Perhaps it’s a little like national anti-trafficking efforts: there on paper, mysteriously absent or positively ineffective on the ground. This vast divide between vision and reality is what local and global advocates should push the government to reconcile. The recent presidential election, for example, might have been an opportune time to raise these neglected issues. Sure there’s a lot else going on, but there always is. The sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people are chronically marginalized, so perhaps it’s time to force the issue.

There are amazing national and international reproductive health advocates and providers doing work to counteract the heaps of risks and vulnerabilities which too often complicate women’s lives in Nigeria, but the battle is uphill. It is past due that the government put some muscle behind this. The U.S. should hold more accountability, too, than simply superficial compliance on trafficking. They should urge the Nigerian government to examine the intersection of healthcare system failures and trafficking vulnerabilities.

These might have been salient points for the BBC to touch upon in its coverage of this issue, especially since four years after they first reported on baby farms, here we are with no discernible change. Alas.

Given rightful sensitivities about how Africa and Africans are portrayed by almost everyone else in the world and/or especially the global media, the BBC needs to check the caliber of their coverage. For starters, the 2011 article on “baby farms,” includes at least one typo, and a sentence cribbed verbatim from the 2008 piece. It’s not clear where or when the awful phrase “baby farm” was coined, but I must say that’s macabre marketing genius right there. BBC’s use of the term in its title is sensationalistic—link baiting even—and distracts from the complexity and gravity of the issue.

Human trafficking, human rights abuses, false imprisonment, reproductive choice, I mean there’s a lot to take in here. This is a highly disturbing scenario, but only further perverted by the use of this phrase. While there are human rights and human lives at stake here, the term caricatures a complex set of issues, and objectifies those involved—the babies, the young women, and even Nigeria itself.

For some readers perusing this eye-catching article (also covered in the New York Daily News, natch), this may be their first introduction to social justice or health issues in Nigeria. Let’s see what they’ll get: baby farm, witchcraft, desperate, poverty, corruption, crime, and savagery. The article “otherizes” these issues, painting Nigeria as a horrid place where such a ghastly things occur.

Yet, this notion of using pregnancy as a fulcrum for manipulating women is not so “other,” not so savage and foreign after all. It happens all over the world, and it happens right here in the U.S. For instance, increased discussion and examination of crisis pregnancy centers is revealing just how manipulative and coercive their tactics can be. Who do they often target? Poor, desperate young women with unwanted pregnancies. In addition, one could argue that, in fact, no one is more immersed in finding ways to manipulate women via reproductive rights than the US Congress.

BBC states the obvious: “poor, unmarried women face tough choices if they get pregnant in Nigeria.” Um, yes. I think we can safely substitute any country in the world in that sentence and it would read just as true. In fact, we can say that young women face tremendous reproductive health challenges all over the world. Now that we know this, what are we going to do about it?

Copyright 2011 Jessica Mack

________________________________________________________________________

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Jessica is a global feminist in the reproductive health field, and you can normally find her blogging as Senior Editor over at Gender Across Borders.

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