LAGOS, Nigeria -- Dozens of pregnant teenagers could face charges after being accused of planning to sell their babies into a growing child trafficking trade in Nigeria's southeast, officials said Thursday.
Thirty-two girls between 15 and 18 years old were arrested during the raid of an illegal clinic in Aba in Abia state Saturday, the state police chief said. Police believe the children were destined to be trafficked in Africa's most populous country.
The girls were taken at the Cross Foundation, locally known as Heda Clinic. The clinic's director was also arrested. The police accused him of buying the babies from the young mothers and selling them for a generous profit to childless couples. He denied the charge, and said he is a volunteer doctor who delivers the unwanted babies and then places them in orphanages.
"One of the girls told us that mothers sell their babies for $160 to $190," said Abia State police chief Bala Hassan.
Anti-trafficking agency spokesman Orakwe says that they can then be resold for up to $6,400, depending on their gender. Traditionally, boys are preferred, as they can inherit land according to the local Igbo culture.
Abortion is illegal in Nigeria, and its southeast region is mostly Catholic.
"This girl already feels that she has brought a burden onto her family and onto herself, and she wants to get it over with," says Orakwe.
Child trafficking carries a penalty of 14 years to life imprisonment.
The girls were first taken to a police station, and then to a shelter in the city of Enugu run by the anti-trafficking agency for interrogation.
Authorities said they suspect most of the girls were impregnated by boyfriends, but said they are also investigating the possibility that some were forced or tricked into having babies.
"There is an increasing market," says Orakwe. "We found out that some homes get a person to impregnate a girl, take away their supposed burden and then give them peanuts."
The anti-trafficking agency said the problem is most pronounced in Nigeria's southeast, where people prey on girls to provide babies for trafficking rings. The absence of paperwork for these children means anything can happen to them. An illegal adoption home was shut down in the area on Monday.
Concerned about a trend it says is growing, the anti-trafficking agency is planning a meeting with all government bodies dealing with trafficking issues, including Nigerian immigration and the Ministry of Women Affairs, to find ways to improve oversight.
"We are also calling on parents to find better ways to deal with this issue rather than stigmatize these young girls," says Orakwe. "These things happen. So long as the stigma is there, people will run from their homes."