Inside Nigeria's horrific 'baby factories'
In April 2018, Nigerian police raided three buildings in the country’s capital city, Lagos, in a pre-planned operation. Inside the properties, they found hordes of teenagers and children - 100 women and girls and 62 boys - of varying ages. Although little was revealed about their living conditions, authorities did say that some of the babies and children had already been sexually abused. As horrifying as this may sound, in some ways the intervention came just in time, allowing them to be rehoused and protecting them from what may have come next.
All are believed to be victims - the mothers and the children - of a relatively new form of human trafficking, known as 'baby farming'. First officially brought to attention by UNESCO in 2006, baby farming sees young mothers give birth and their children - often forcibly - taken from them to be sold on. It is estimated that 10 children are bought and sold in the country every single day. So while the raid may be seen as a success for authorities, it’s a little-disputed fact that there are plenty of other baby factories still operating.
Baby factories inherently rely on the vulnerability of pregnant young women, who are approached by nurses, doctors, pastors and ‘charity workers’ - sometimes acting as scouts for organised crime syndicates - who offer to give them a place to live and care for them during their pregnancy. Usually disguised as maternity clinics, orphanages or welfare homes, these are presented as places of benevolent respite. Yet, once the children are born they are taken from their mothers, often against their will, and sold to the highest bidder. Some are trafficked for child prostitution, others are used for slave labour, or even traded for ritualistic purposes. Many are also the subject of illegal adoptions, exchanged for money with desperate families in Africa and Europe. In some parts of Nigeria and wider Africa, women face being shamed for not being able to conceive or carry a child to full term, and surrogacy is illegal.
In what is perhaps a sign of just how many women and children are victims of the baby trade, a 2015 investigation by the news organisation Al Jazeera saw journalists offered a "fast track adoption" in which the could they buy a newborn "within weeks". After a meeting with a man named Dr Ohaeri, who had previously been raided by police on suspicion of being involved in the dealing of children, it was confirmed that "he had a baby ready and would sell for about $4,500." Many reports suggest that parents-to-be can order a child by age or sex, with boys being more expensive.
In an even more complex version of the trade, families are also being provided with babies that they believe to be their own. In 2012, a court case in the UK drew attention to the issue of what the judge described as “desperate childless parents”: women who, along with their husbands, travelled to Nigeria to receive fertility treatment and were injected with drugs that made them think they were pregnant and had given birth. "I recall a doctor inducing labour through intravenous drip and I experienced what was labour, a very traumatic delivery and a baby was presented to me covered in blood as would have been normal in a delivery room,” said one woman. DNA tests later showed that the child her and her husband had received, was not biologically theirs.
The majority of the mothers who fall victim to so-called “baby factories” are unmarried teenagers and young women from poorer households. Although Nigeria is considered to be Africa’s richest country in terms of GDP, over 42 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, according to the World Poverty Clock. Add to this the social rejection of unmarried women who fall pregnant in a country with some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world - with the procedure only legal in cases where the mother’s life is in imminent danger - and expectant mothers are left in a difficult situation, on which it is easy to prey.
However, it is not only women who have fallen accidentally pregnant that end up in these ‘homes’. Some are forcibly impregnated - raped by "studs" employed by bosses specifically for this purpose - in order to meet demand, having been either kidnapped or lured to the centres on the false promise of work. They are then confined inside the facilities until they have given birth. As a result of the rise of militant Islamist group Boko Haram, responsible for the abduction of several groups of young women from towns in northern Nigeria, this method is thought to be increasing.
Among the most notorious of traffickers is a woman known as Madam One Thousand, who is believed to have been running baby farms for at least a decade in properties disguised as maternity homes and drinking water factories. According to a report by the International Crimes Database, run by the T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague, the rape and impregnation of women in her 'homes' is common, while living conditions are inhumane: "Victims were confined in [a] facility that is enclosed by high fences covered with sharp pieces of glass and iron wires to prevent them from escaping. The women complained about poor nutrition and living conditions and some of them were even subjected to hard labour while being pregnant."
But Nigeria is not alone in facing this problem. In January 2015, almost 40 newborn babies were rescued from a similar ‘farm’ in China, the country considered to be the other leading source of illegal adoptions. Of the children rescued, seven of them had been born with AIDS or another sexually transmitted disease. India and Sri Lanka have also struggled with the baby trade, while in 2014 Denmark took the unusual step of banning adoptions originating in Nigeria, citing concerns over forgery and corruption.
The distressing fact is that, as much as Nigerian and international authorities are making efforts to crack down on baby farming, many campaigners believe that the trade is actually booming. As the country fell into recession in 2016, record numbers of baby factories were discovered. Although this recession has now eased, it is hard to believe that those involved would simply go back to their day jobs, given the profits to be made. So while they continue to operate, and pregnant young women and children continue to be socially and economically vulnerable, more and more will to fall victim to their clutches.