Nigeria: Out-of-School Children and Urgent Need to Domesticate Child's Rights Act

A recent report by the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) revealed that Nigeria has a shocking 13.5 million out-of-school children, the highest figure in the entire globe. How the country arrived at this alarming figure has continued to generate debate among academics.

This is even as there are urgent calls by stakeholders in the education sector for domestication of the child's rights act amongst others as panacea to this potential threat. CHIKA MEFOR writes.

Few days ago, Nigeria joined the rest of the world to mark the Children's Day which is internationally celebrated on the 27th of May of every year. On this day, the concerns of children are once again reviewed, and the challenges confronting them are taken into proper perspective.

Here in Nigeria, the celebration was marked with some sober reflection on the state of the average Nigerian child who has not had it so good with acquiring basic education which incidentally is his right as enshrined in the laws. Section 15 (1) of the Child's Rights Act as captured in Cap. C50, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, bestows on every Nigerian child the right to free and compulsory basic education.

These are the provisions of Section 15 of the Child's Rights Act: (1) Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education, and it shall be the duty of the government of Nigeria to provide such education. (2) Every parent or guardian shall ensure that his child or ward attends and completes his (a) primary school education; and (b) junior secondary education. (3) Every parent, guardian or person who has the care and custody of a child who has completed basic education, shall endeavour to send the child to senior secondary school except as provided for in subsection 4 of this section. (4) Where a child to whom subsection 3 of this section applies is not sent to secondary school, the child shall be encouraged to learn an appropriate trade and the employer of the child shall provide the necessaries for learning the trade.

From the provisions of the Child's Rights Act highlighted above, it is very clear that Nigeria has laws that protect the interests of the child, especially right to free and compulsory education. It was clearly spelt out that the child's acquisition of basic education is compulsory, implying that there should never be any circumstance under which a child is not enrolled in school to acquire basic education. Basic education as stipulated in the Act is the primary and junior secondary education. The law also mandates the government of Nigeria to provide the child with this basic education so that there are no alibis to prevent the child from acquiring education.

The government of Nigeria has obviously not relented in its responsibility of providing the Nigerian child with basic education, but can the effort it has made so far be said to be enough? This important question comes on the heels of the recent disclosure by the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) that Nigeria houses a whopping 13.5 million out-of-school children, the highest figure in the entire globe. This figure was only about 10.6 million some five years ago. How the figure swelled to this alarming number has continued to be a subject of debate among concerned educationists and members of the Nigerian public.

All the reports released so far on the deteriorating state of education in Nigeria have pointed to northern Nigeria, particularly the North-East, as having the highest number of out-of-school children, and pundits have attributed this anomaly to the reluctance or outright refusal of the governments of the affected states to domesticate the Child's Rights Act which mandates governments at all levels to ensure the provision of basic education for children.

Speaking on the possible reasons for the refusal or reluctance of some state governments to adopt the Child's Rights Act, Barr. Oluwaleke Atolagbe, an Abuja-based human rights lawyer, averred that the problem is not even with domesticating the laws since people are not likely to conform to standards that they do not see as aligning with their belief system, but that the real issue is the socio-cultural and religious perception of the people which often pits them against government policies and programs that are meant to benefit them.

"The concern with respect to domesticating the Child's Rights Act by some states of the Nigerian federation, particularly the northern states, will be less of legal issues and more of socio-cultural cum religious issues because most of the northern states may not really agree with the tenets of the Child's Rights Act.

"Perhaps that's the reason why some of the states that have domesticated it in the north, I understand, have reduced the age, that is the age of definition of a child, from 18 to 16 years.

"Then we should also understand that their own concerns may not be so much of taking care of children per se. Until there is a social reengineering and a paradigm shift in their cultural belief, it will be a bit difficult for them to come to terms with some of the provisions of the Child's Rights Act," Atolagbe said.

Atolagbe's argument was that the governors in whose hands lie the power to adopt this important law, could actually go ahead and give their consent to the law, but without getting the nod of the people for whose benefit the law was adopted. This therefore implies that it is the people's acceptance of the law which can only be occasioned by a change in their perception, that can make any changes possible.

Atolagbe's argument can be strongly corroborated by the situation in many rural communities in the Federal Capital Territory where parents abruptly refuse to send their children to school despite the fact that basic education is free. The major reason given by these parents for taking such drastic decisions was that their children were not born to go to school but to help them on their farms. The parents of these hapless children also attributed their decision to abject poverty and lack of basic life's necessities. One of the parents who spoke with LEADERSHIP, Hadiza Bello, a mother of four children, disclosed that she had been responsible for catering for her four children for almost 8 years, since according to her, her ailing husband has not been able to do anything to support the family.

Bello further said that she was more comfortable paying for her children's Islamiya classes which she said was N200 per person per month, than sending her children to the government schools. Bello's case is one among many other cases of parents' abrupt refusal to send their children and wards to school on account of poverty.

Looking at the swelling number of out-of-school children in Nigeria in the last four years, one would see the government's recent failure to reduce the huge population of out-of-school children as a direct reflection of its neglect of the education sector which incidentally has also not been getting the prescribed funding that it needs to perform optimally. The United Nations' prescription for funding of education is at least 26 per cent of the national annual budget, and Nigeria in the last four years has failed to hit this benchmark.

The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, admitted last week during his valedictory press conference that the federal government has failed in the last four years to fulfill its promise of reducing the population of out-of-school children by half, and regretted the worsening situation of the education sector which instead of improving measurably, has deteriorated to the dismay of watchers and stakeholders of the sector.

Many of those who thought that the school feeding program initiated by the Buhari administration to lure out-of-school children into school, would have the magical effect of drastically reducing the population of out-of-school children, were dismayed when the program couldn't achieve the much needed improvement. Some schools of thought say the school feeding program failed to achieve the purpose for which it was initiated because it was largely compromised.

According to them, many of those who were assigned to manage the program across the states of the federation failed to utilize the funds provided them for the project, and rather channeled it to their selfish interests. Critics of the Buhari administration and observers of the education sector blamed the failure of the school feeding project on the lackadaisical attitude of government towards supervising the implementation of the program. They insisted that government did not do much to ensure that the project was optimally implemented.

Now, going back to the north where the population of out-of-school children has continued to soar geometrically, one would observe that the major cause of the hike in the population of out-of-school children in that region is the fact that the insurgency which majorly ravaged the north-eastern part of Nigeria, led to the closing down of schools and occasioned the displacement of many children of school age. The Chibok and Dapchi kidnapping incidents that saw the abduction of scores of school girls can lend credence to the claim that insurgency is majorly responsible for the displacement of so many school children in the north east.

In this same north east, particularly Borno State, many children of school age are inhabitants of internally displaced persons camps where formal education is largely inaccessible. Because of the quest for survival, children who ought to be in school are sent out to hawk all manner of commodities, ranging from edibles to clothing. The only form of education they are given is the Quranic education.

Another major challenge that has perennially bedeviled Western education in northern Nigeria is the Almajiri learning system. This system of learning that encourages vagrancy and a strong dislike for Western education is majorly responsible for the idling away of many children of school age who were introduced to it without their consent. Rather than enrol these children in government schools, their parents send them to Mallams who teach them Quranic lessons, and send them back into the society where they become beggars or indulge in other untoward activities to get their daily bread.

Many Islamic scholars and teachers of the Quran have strongly condemned the Almajiri system and called for its total eradication. They have also described the characteristics of the present day Almajiri learning system as non-Islamic as they insist that Islam does not encourage vagrancy and irresponsibility. The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, was one of the strong voices that condemned the Almajiri system, and even called for the conversion of mosques and other religious structures into schools where children can be taught formally.

And in a bid to incorporate the Almajiris into the society and give them a new lease of life, former President Goodluck Jonathan ensured the construction of school buildings and other structures across many of the northern states, to provide decent accommodation and learning space for the Almajiris. But it has been reported that almost all of those structures that were constructed with huge budgets are now dilapidated and ruined, an indication that there are still those who are not comfortable with the plan to eradicate the contemporary Almajiri learning system.

Still talking about the domestication of the Child's Rights Act, there are still remaining 12 states that are yet to adopt the legislation. They are Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Enugu, Gombe and Kaduna States. The others are Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara States. It has been established by Barr. Atolagbe that the domestication of the Child's Rights Act is not in itself the panacea to the challenges bedeviling Western education in the north. Atolagbe's deduction accentuates the fact that there is an urgent need to chart a new course for the institutionalization of Western education in the entire north and in other parts of the country where the out-of-school children figure is high.

This important decision will require the cooperation of traditional rulers, religious leaders and traditional institution for effect. It would also require the government to invest more in sensitizing the rural dwellers across the country, about the importance and benefits of Western education. The Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and the States Universal Education Board (SUBEB) will need to engage the rural dwellers across the federation in some productive dialogue, in order to make it possible for an understanding to be reached between the rural dwellers and the people who will be interacting with them.

Now, with regard to the freeness or otherwise of the universal basic education as stipulated in the Child's Rights Act and the Universal Basic Education Act of 2004, there is need to emphasize that universal basic education is free, but it also requires the support and contribution of parents through the Parents Teachers Association scheme. The UBEC points out that "Education for all is the responsibility of all." While the PTA contributory scheme is meant to augment for the necessities of the universal basic education, it however should not be pegged at exorbitant rates that could precipitate some protest and dissatisfaction. The story of 7- year old Success Adegor, the little girl who was sent home for not paying her school fees in Delta State, promptly comes to mind as this subject of lapses in the education sector takes centre stage.

It would be recalled that the little girl attended a government school where basic education was supposed to be free, but was sent home because she could not pay up her school fees. Her protest led to the exposure of the shoddy activities that had been going on in her school. The headmistress of the school was extorting money from the pupils and students of the school, a practice that is common in many government-owned schools where basic education ought to be free.

This sort of anomaly and many more are recurrently happening in many government- owned schools today, and they have adversely affected the rate of enrollment in government schools.

Now, having admitted that the education sector was not accorded its pride of place by the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, it is the hope of education enthusiasts and stakeholders that Mallam Adamu Adamu, the outgoing Minister of Education will prepare a template before leaving office, that will enable his successor to achieve the very important goal of cutting down the figure of out-of-school children to the barest minimum.

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