A smiling mother cradles her first born caressing his tiny fingers in her hand. But 16-year-old Affiong Ene Essien is close to tears when she describes her journey to motherhood and says she was almost forced to give up her baby for adoption.
Affiong had been sharing a simple one room rented home in south-east Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State with her mother, her sister and young niece. Her parents say they had no idea about their daughter’s pregnancy when she went missing.
“We had hoped she would get a job after completing her secondary school last year,” her father, Ene Ekpe Essien, says.
Affiong says the father of her child disappeared and cut off contact when she became pregnant. With problems at home, Affiong headed for the city of Calabar in neighbouring Cross River State.
Confused, scared and broke, she was extremely vulnerable. She says she was offered free food, lodging and medical care at a refuge for pregnant teenagers – but on one condition.
“Since I did not have anywhere to go, I had to accept to sign with them that I would give the baby away and go.”
Escorted to church
Refuge Girls Home denies that any of the girls it takes in are ever coerced into signing over their babies.
It is an initiative of Mothers Against Child Abandonment (MACA) – a Pro-Life non-governmental organisation set up in 2008 by Obioma Liyel Imoke, the wife of the Cross River State governor.
It says all the girls are given the option of keeping their babies, although most of the 100 girls it has cared for since 2008 have chosen not to.
“Most of them on their own decide to surrender them over to the government,” said MACA head Regina Ejemot-Nwadiaro.
It is the responsibility of the state government’s Ministry of State for Welfare and Community Development to find suitable homes for adoption.
Affiong said she was not allowed to use a mobile phone to call anyone and that the only time she was allowed to leave the home was for medical check-ups or to go to church along with other pregnant teenagers.
She says she was escorted to church and after the service had to come straight back to the home.
On 4 August, Affiong delivered her son by caesarean section at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital. Medical staff were soon suspicious that all was not well.
“I wasn’t happy and it wasn’t to my own mind that I should hand over my first child to the government,” said Affiong, who told me that an employee of the home threatened her.
“The woman said that if I think of carrying that baby and running away then they were going to arrest me and jail me.”
A request to interview the hospital officials was turned down with one official stating: “I would not like to comment on that because of issues on the ground.”
Doctors said Affiong became very distressed after the birth and it was clear things were not right One doctor has chosen to speak out after discovering that some babies are being removed from the hospital even before their mothers are discharged.
“When I came in I discovered that everybody was in a state of panic – scared. They were talking in hushed tones,” said Dr Elihu Osim.
“The truth was that young Affiong was worried about her child being taken away from her. She was frantic and had been crying all day and that’s how the nurses got to know there was a problem.
“She was hysterical. She was not just weeping, not just sad because of what was going to happen to her baby but she was scared of what would happen to her. It was a double tragedy,” said Dr Osim.
Affiong said the woman from the home was telling her to sign a release form to allow her baby to be discharged even though he was sick and still needed medical care.
Against her wishes and terrified of being punished, the 16-year-old relented.
“I begged the nurses and the doctors to let me sign so I could have my baby and hand it over. I told them I don’t want trouble.”
But the medical staff refused to let the baby leave.
Affiong’s father Ene Ekpe Essien feared she had been killed Meanwhile Affiong’s parents had no idea where their daughter was or that they had a new grandson.
“I was feeling very sorrowful and I was crying seriously,” said Mr Essien, who suspected his daughter had been killed.
“Every Friday we were praying for Affiong. We were praying to find her.”
Affiong says in the hospital, the pressure kept coming.
“The Reverend Sister came to tell me if I want to take my baby home then they would count all the money they had spent on me and then I would pay them back,” she told me.
Refuge Girls Home denied this account and described it as “an isolated case of somebody trying to make allegations.”
“Even to the very end when they put to birth, we still do counselling at that point while delivering postnatal care to say: ‘Do you still stand by your decision to hand over or to go with your baby?'” said Dr Ejemot-Nwadiaro.
“We employ core professionals who know what it means to follow global ethics and global best practices in doing issues of child welfare. We have in our employment child protection experts and they know so I don’t think there’s any way one of us could have done something like that.”
“And if we get to hear such, we will probably sanction or call the person to order but we don’t have such a case and I don’t think it happened,” said the MACA director.
A factsheet produced by the organisation says it has also saved the lives of discarded babies.
“About 125 babies who otherwise would have been left to die in dustbins, toilets and other deplorable places have been rescued and are thriving in adopted homes.”
MACA says that it does not accept any money in exchange for the children in any shape or form and adds that the state government arranges all the adoptions.
Adopted by foreigners?
Speaking more generally, a barrister in Calabar working to promote and protect the rights of children says that in Nigeria, adoptions are not all being carried out according to the law.
“I know a lot of illegal adoptions are going on. Under the guise of adoption, children are being trafficked to other states and to other countries,” said barrister James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative who points out that the law in Nigeria prohibits international adoption.
He says money is a factor.
“There are so many people who have locally-made applications for adoptions. The story is that there are no children but we are aware that there are so many children who are adopted by foreigners from Nigeria.”
Mr Ibor highlights the strong link between poverty and the vulnerability of children.
Barrister James Ibor believes many children are being taken abroad “We have cases where some of them actually have their children in churches and they either die or their babies die. Some of them are adopted.
“Many of them never see their children again – even when they are willing, they are coerced or manipulated to give up their children because of their circumstances.”
The authorities say they are trying to clamp down on the trafficking of babies.
Earlier this month, police in Akwa Ibom State said four babies were rescued from traffickers and were moved to a home run by the state government.
Two of the babies were found in the home of a man believed to be a trafficker while the other two were in the hands of buyers in Port Harcourt.
Dr Osim helped reunite Affiong with her parents and they all tell me they are proud of the latest addition to the family.
“When I remember the pain and I turn around and see my son I am always happy,” said Affiong, taking it in turns with her mother to hold Daniel.
“At least even if I’m not going to have any child again, I have one and that will always make me happy.”