The first time I learnt about paternity fraud was in a playful conversation with my mother. I was 10 years old and newly curious about resemblance.
To my 10 year-old brain, my still evolving appearance held no resemblance to my father. Nor my mother either, although I could at least recognise parts of her in me because it had been pointed out enough times by the adults around me that I gesticulated like her and walked like her.
I asked her if the man in our house is in fact my biological father or whether she had me with some other man. She jokingly said she had me with a man she was in a relationship with before she settled down with my dad. I believed her, because sarcasm was something my child’s mind was yet to come to grips with.
At 13, I threw a tantrum about not liking my family and tearily demanded to be returned to my biological father’s. That was when she realised I missed the joke and was forced to retract that story and launch into a lecture about how being a 3rd child; she would have had to cheat on my father to have had me with another man and in her words, “that will be paternity fraud.”
Nigerian men are currently having a spirited conversation about the evil of paternity fraud and a Twitter user – a man by all indices, went so far as to suggest that paternity fraud be criminalised. A lot of fellow Nigerian men agree with him.
Another Twitter user went so far as to suggest that such crime should warrant a prison sentence. The story of two distant Aunts (Aunts in the Nigerian sense of an older family friend) immediately came to mind when I read that.
Aunt Ene* was a third wife to a rich North Central Chief who until she married him fresh out of a Diploma programme was notorious for changing wives like outfits.
He desperately needed a child and Ene needed the social security his wealth provided her. She will claim when the ruse came undone; years after giving birth to his first child – one she had with her ex-boyfriend, that even she didn’t realise whose child it was she raise. This is because she ended her relationship with her ex ahead of her wedding with some difficulty.
My mother told me this story to illustrate how this is the only way it is possible for her to have had me with another man, and she “wasn’t even sexually active till after marriage, so there was never any chance you could have belonged to anyone but your Dad.” She believed Ene’s story, and so do I.
Sadly, her husband, church and family did not, and her social ruin was quick and merciless. She passed on never having sorted out the paternity of a child who ended up being grudgingly raised by her family.
Aunt Aisha* intentionally went out of her way to sleep with her husband’s younger brother after 3 years of marriage with no child in sight. Her husband’s family were calling her all sort of names, pointing to the wife of her husband’s brother with whom she shared a 3 bedroom compound as an example of what a woman should be – she unlike Aisha had given birth to two children already in the two years since she joined the family.
Fertility test was not in vogue in the 1980s but Aisha was almost certain of her own fertility. Her family has a history of fertility. She couldn’t say the same about her husband so when the pressure got too much she devised a plan. From the way my mother told it, her logic was simple, “she figured if she had her husband’s brother’s child, it would not be too big a fraud. He is raising his niece/nephew after all.”
She was never found out, my Mum only ever found out because as she said, “She needed to get it off her chest as part of her grieving process after the death of her husband.” He died a happy man, having known ‘his child’ for 5 years.
Very often, when women find themselves in the fix that is paternity fraud – it is rarely anything but a difficult situation even for them. It is not out of malice. Men on the other hand, will sire children out of wedlock in a heartbeat, and when their deceit is exposed there is a certain – if unspoken, expectation for the woman to understand that these things happen.
A conversation about paternity fraud we must have, if at all, isn’t about punishing women for it. It is about demolishing the social strain factors on women to bear children to fully attain womanhood. It is about the double standard with which we approach fraud altogether.
There is no scale of fraud to weigh one against the other and determine which one is worse. If at all we must weight one fraud against another, there is no greater fraud than a man who stands before God and man and swears to be devoted to a woman who will invest her blood and tears in supporting him, only to turn around and betray that promise by cheating often enough to sire multiple children out of that sanctified union.
Time and again, Nigerian men have done that with little repercussion.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.