This Day (Lagos)

3 August 2010

Nigeria: Child Labour - a Threat to Future

Lagos — Child labour is so widespread in Nigeria that it has been accepted by many as part of normal life. But the practice is only an aberration which takes away the innocence of millions of children; it is a threat to the future of the country.

The Nigerian NGO's Report reveals that a staggering 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria. Many of these children are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age. Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violation.

While children have always worked in Nigeria, the figures have significantly increased over the years. The end of the oil boom in the 70s, coupled with mounting poverty, has driven millions of children into labour.

The difficulties faced by the Nigerian child should really be looked into, as they have proven over the years that they are problems which are here to stay. Recent studies and reports, especially from the International Labour Organization (ILO) show that child labour has been made worse in recent times because some of these children have no solid background, no education and no parental care. In the circumstances, they become street hawkers. They work in the streets during the day, and work even at night in some cases. Such lifestyles become very dangerous and nomadic types of life. There is little wonder therefore, that the future of these children is very dark and bleak.

In the past, children worked with their families, learning skills they would need as adults. But today, children are forced to work for their own and their family's survival. The money earned by 'children workers' has become a significant part of the family income.

One of the most heartbreaking reminders that we are a poor country is the inundation of children on our streets selling different items to passers-by. From Lagos to Benin, Kano to Enugu, children under the age of eighteen, through circumstances beyond their control, are left to fend for themselves, and often for their parents as well, through the money they make working on the streets.

Such is the case of Abimbola, an 11 year old girl, who comes out at night, to sell walnuts (Ukpa or Awusa). Seeing her run endlessly after buses amidst the ceaseless traffic along the Lasu-Isheri road is heart-rending. Like many 'children workers' in this area, Abimbola takes advantage of the slow traffic caused by a major road failure to hawk her wares. And, she hawks till very late in the night. She told THISDAY that she sells till late in the night because she starts hawking after school hours. "My name is Abimbola and I am 11 years old. I go to school in the mornings; this is why I come out in the evening to sell for my mummy. I am helping my mummy so that she can have money to send me to school", she said.

Bolu, an 11 year old, is another child worker who hawks on the streets of Lagos. Morenike, his mother explained why the young boy, who has difficulties communicating intelligently, has to hawk. Morenike said, "In my house, everybody has to work to eat. I have four children and my husband is dead. I am an ordinary trader, I sell roasted corn, walnuts and pears; tell me how can I support my children with what I get from my small business? Only my last two kids are in school because I cannot afford to send the elder kids to secondary schools. Even if I have to send them, what will I send them with?"

Such is the case of many children in this country. There are many children in Nigeria who work under inhumane conditions hidden from public view. The conditions of some of these children are compounded by the fact that they do not receive any kind of formal education. Because of the ramifications and consequences of child labour, it is no wonder that it is actually illegal in Nigeria, although the sheer scale of the activity gives the impression that it is legal.

Many argue that child labour is associated with poverty. And, they believe that until concrete measures are taken to tackle and reduce poverty, child labour will continue to be with us. They say that parents and guardians who push their wards towards paid or unpaid labour do not do so as a matter of preference, most of them usually do so because they have been left with no other choice. Some do so because they are widowed and the means by which they can look after the family is severely limited.

Child Rights activists also submit that lack of access to education is a major reason for the child labour quagmire. In many developing countries, and evidently in Nigeria, quality education is no longer free. The 'free education' available in many local and state governments across the country does not provide the desirable tools for future freedom from ignorance or even preparation for work after education.

Statistics shows that these working children lose out on education because they have no time, money or energy to go to school. It also shows that about six million children, comprising of boys and girls, do not attend school at all, while one million children are forced to drop out of school due to poverty or because their parents demand for them to contribute to the family's income.

Over eight million children manage to stay in school and work at their spare time to pay school fees. But due to high demand at work, these children normally skip classes. Missing out on education makes it impossible to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation and prevents them from having a better life and a safer future.

It was revealed in a meeting held in Kaduna recently by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) that three years after the Child Rights Act was introduced and passed by virtually all the 17 southern States here in Nigeria, only three out of the 19 northern states have passed the Child Rights Act.

"The law seeks to promote the rights of children to better life and protect them against the vagaries of exploitation, abuse and exploitation". Rabiu Musa, UNICEF Communications Officer stated. "Kogi, Kwara and Niger states have passed the law, while Sokoto and Katsina are almost sealing it". He said.

He explained that the states were amending the Act to suit their local peculiarities in terms of religion, culture and environment. Musa said about 10 million children were not in school in the country and called on stakeholders to collaborate in reversing the trend as it was becoming a serious social problem. According to him, UNICEF is engaging parents, the three tiers of government and institutions, including NGOs, to address issues of child labour and trafficking.

In order to protect the Nigerian child, the Federal Government has made various efforts to control the child labour process. In August, 2003, the Nigerian Government formally adopted three International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions setting a minimum age for the employment of children. In addition, the country signed a memorandum of understanding in cooperation with ILO to launch a country programme under the International Programme for Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

The government showed further commitment by implementing the West African Cocoa Agriculture Project (WACAP) and by passing the Child Rights Act Section 28 and 29 into Law. The Child Rights Act prohibits exploitative labour and enforces sections 58 to 64 of the Labour Decree of 1974, now Labour Act. All legislations are designed to protect children from exploitative work.

It is however sad to discover that these bad trends still thrive in the country. To solve the problem of child labour, activists suggest that governments must be committed to progress in some crucial areas. These critical areas are poverty reduction and alleviation; provision of easy access to quality education; and availability of social security.

A child right activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained what needs to be done in the critical areas. She said, "To reduce poverty significantly, progress must be made in the areas of economic growth, investment and jobs. Greater access to jobs by parents, especially women will help minimize the incidence of child labour in the country. Progress on education should be on these important aspects.

"Free education should be made available to all children in the country and an enforcement of the universal basic rights to education by all children should be vigorously pursued. Secondly, the government should improve the quality of education to ensure that even children from poor homes have access to quality education. Thirdly, specific interventions in the areas of social security will still be required to minimize child labour."

The bottom-line is that all forms of child labour exposes children to exploitation and abuse. The children are forced to surrender their innocence and, in many cases, their future. It is therefore important to save these children by intensifying efforts to control all forms of child labour in the country. If the youths of a country are truly the future of that country, then Nigeria's future needs a major rescue operation.

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