28 March 2008

Nigeria: When Bankole Wept for Unfortunate Children


In 1924, certain world powers under the platform of United Nations Organisation (UNO) made some declarations on the need for proper protection and care of children. Despite the fact Nigria is a soverign state and signatory to the above international instrument against child abuse, it makes little or no difference as child abuse is a common phenomenon in Nigeria which ranges from hawking, trafficking, prostitution among numerous other vices. PHILIP NYAM observes the dispostion of Hon. Dimeji Bankole on how to ameliorate the scourge

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Dimeji Bankole is a man full of milk of human kindness and compassion. Although, being a man who had a very privileged childhood attending some of the best schools in the world, Bankole is still in touch with the realities of the Nigerian society particularly as it affects children. This explains why he could not hold his tears when the speaker of the children's parliament on a courtesy visit narrated a gory picture of the sins of parents against children. The little girl had complained to the Speaker how children are being raped by men old enough to be their grand fathers; how children have been turned into domestic slaves; how many children cannot afford basic health care and access to education and so on.

Watching the girl spoke with passion, Bankole started shedding tears instantly. It was emotion laden. For a man who has military background, weeping openly for a cause attracted a lot of interest and curiosity from across section of analysts, newspaper columnists and public commentators who have given their various colourations. This singular encounter with the children may have ignited the spirit to fight for the rights of the Nigerian children. The Speaker knew that the tears alone would not save the children from harassment and inhuman treatment from their parents and guardians. Hence, the Speaker challenged the House of Representatives Committee on Women and Social Development to delve into the scourge of child abuse and make a reappraisal of the Child Rights Act, 2003 to ascertain the factors behind the non-compliance.

According to chairman of the Committee on Women and Social Development, Hon. Beni Lar, "It was in course of investigation and inquiry that the rest of us wept. Our findings reveal that child abuse in all its ramification is getting worse in Nigeria while the various existing laws and law enforcement agents appeared rather incapacitated under the current situation. The truth is that most of the legal and institutional devices against child abuse in Nigeria appear grossly inadequate. Another reality is that practical mechanisms must be sought to tackle the unfortunate social phenomenon. Consequent to our inquiry, more result-oriented alternatives has been outlined in this article for action".

Children constitute a central focus in the socio-cultural alternative of every nation. Many world bodies, international and non-governmental organisation have also established legal, administrative and institutional structures for the effective existence and survival of children. For example: In 1924, certain world powers under the umbrella of United Nations Organisation made some declaration on proper protection and care of children. The year 1979 was declared the International Year of the Child by the United Nations Organisation. There was also the United Nations Convention on the right and welfare of the child which, was also put in place by some African nations in 1997.

Despite the fact that Nigeria is a sovereign member of the United Nation and a competent signatory to the above international instruments against child abuse; the intolerable social phenomenon is on the steady increase in the country. In fact, it is absurd to note that millions of Nigerian children are subjected daily to all forms of abuse ranging from trafficking to slavery and forced labour. This ugly situation continues in spite of the efforts by law enforcement agencies, international, national and governmental authorities.

Now, having looked at the enormity of the problem faced by children, it is pertinent to pose a few questions: Who is a child? What is Child Abuse? In Kano as in Calabar; in Lagos as in Lisbon; In Sudan, Tokyo, everywhere; a child is any human being below the age of 18 years. In Nigeria, a Law exists and known as the Child Rights Act that defines a child as a person under the age of eighteen. Within the purview of this article, a child is every human being under the age of 18 years who is by nature, fragile, small, indefensible, incapable of defending himself or herself and so, very prone or vulnerable to child abuse in all its ramification. Size does not matter here; every child is in a struggle for survival. Every child is vulnerable. Every child needs protection.

Child abuse is any act capable of damaging a child. It involves all acts departing from legal and reasonable use of a child. It also includes any act or step taken to injure the physical and mental constitution of a child or a person below the age of eighteen years. Child abuse also includes all conceivable means of causing threat, maltreatment, harm and injury to a child. Every parent, uncle, aunt in our republic would do well to take a few minutes to picture his or her child subjected daily to the following in the helplessness: Rape, child prostitution, slavery. These ills against children are innumerable. Child trafficking is the illegal recruitment transportation, transfer, harbouring, smuggling or receipt of person below the age 18 years by use of force, or undue inducement. There are Nigerian children distributed and placed even at this moment in foreign homesteads and subjected to all forms of ill-treatment, discrimination and abuse.

Nigerian children are kidnapped and sold either for financial profit or for sacrifice for the appeasement of cultural gods and traditional deities in Nigeria. Then there are the child street beggars, child street hawkers, child house-helps, child bus conductors and child cafeteria workers visible to us everyday. It is however worrisome that in spite of the existence of the Child Rights Act, the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons and other civil society groups the menace of child abuse continues unabated. But we must admit that these institutions and their operations were not necessarily established for the specific purpose of child protection. The responsibility lies with a serious and intensive application of the Child Rights Acts.

Again, the nature of the towering challenges and odds require a shift in paradigms. Unleashing and mobilising anti-women and child trafficking operatives after offenders is only an aspect of solving the problem. Even the Child Rights with its 277 provisions does not address the underlying issues.

The problem of child abuse has its roots embedded in illiteracy, poverty, corruption, ineffective law enforcement agency, disobedience of law and order, indecent traditions and even the electoral process in Nigeria.

Enacted in 2003, the Child Rights Act prohibits marriage to a child, with a stipulated fine of N500, 000 or imprisonment or both. The same penalty is applicable for the offence of forcing a girl into marriage against her consent on the basis of child betrothal agreement. The marking of a child's body with tattoos and other skin incisions attract a penalty of N5000 or one month imprisonment or both.

Under the Child Rights Act, exposing children to the use, production and trafficking of narcotics carries a life imprisonment. Drugs have been identified in this present age of astral technology and nuclear armaments as the most potent weapon capable of destroying any civilisation. Drugs disorientate and destroy the child and youth resource. Other provisions in the Child Rights Act with various penalties include the abduction and removal of children from the lawful custody of their parents and failure of parents to render necessary obligations to their children. The big snag is that child matters fall under the Concurrent Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria. By implication, the National Assembly and the states Houses of Assembly share a responsibility for lawmaking on children's issues. The Child Rights Act as enacted by the National Assembly is only operational in the Federal Capital Territory. Neighbouring Niger and Nasarawa States are at liberty to adopt or reject it. The Act has so far been adopted by a mere 12 out of 36 states of the federation. Most have rejected it on grounds that it conflicts with entrenched social norms, traditions and even religion.

Therefore, the impending summit on child rights to be hosted by the women and social development committee of the House of Representatives, under the leadership of Hon. Beni Lar is long over due. It is high time all stakeholders gather and brainstorm on the way forward to save our children from slavery and other acts of inhumanity. The new law, which is in the offing, courtesy of the House committee on women affairs, is the right step in the right direction. The idea to set machinery in motion for the establishment of a Child Protection and Enforcement Agency Service is a welcome development. It is only timely that all Nigerians stand firm in support of this laudable project by the House to succeed so that our children could have a guaranteed future. As the number one supporter of human rights, Bankole would do the children and the nation a lot of good if he ensures that this summit holds in good time. But the summit alone cannot solve the problem; it must be backed by action. And for Speaker Bankole's tears to have a positive effect on the plight of the children, every decision taking by the House on the issue of children's rights must be pursued with vigour and purposefulness.

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