Yet, Another Day for Children

It’s another Children’s Day today May 27, and government is again, reminded that there can be no meaningful progress in any society where the rights of its children are not protected. ADEZE OJUKWU in this report looks at the world of our youngest citizens.

That “children are God’s gifts to mankind,” is an opinion upheld by humanity, hence, the regular review of commitments of nations to the rights and welfare of the child. The state of children is again in focus Monday May 27, as Nigeria marks this year’s Children Day. This year’s treatise, as in previous editions, is being used to draw attention to the critical needs of the nation’s youngest citizens who often relish the frolicking and frisking that characterize the occasion.

A child, according to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Charter, on the rights and welfare of the child, refers to every human being below the age of 18 years. Experts note that these early years are vital to the child’s survival, growth, health and later accomplishments. Child rights advocates fear that wrong prioritization and poor planning, could endanger lives of children and hinder their progress.

United Nations Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) 2001 World’s Children report puts it more succinctly: “Because these early years are a time of such great changes in a young life and of such long-lasting influence, ensuring the rights of the child must begin at the very start of life. Choices made and actions taken on behalf of children during this critical period, affect not only how a child develops but also how a country progress,” it noted.

This seems to define, in great measures, the Nigerian experience as far as child welfare and related issues are concerned. In principle, the Nigerian government is wholly committed to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child with the following tenets: Recalling the Declaration on the Rights of the African Child to take all appropriate measures to promote and protect their rights and welfare;

Noting with concern that the situation of most African children, remains critical due to unique factors of socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances; Recognising that the child occupies a unique and privileged position in the African society and that for the full and harmonious development of his personality;

Recognizing that the child, due to the needs of his physical and mental development, requires particular care with regard to health, physical, mental, moral and social development and requires legal protection in conditions of freedom, dignity and security; Taking into consideration the virtues of their cultural heritage, historical background and the values of the African civilization which inspire and characterize their reflections on the concept of the rights of the child;

Reaffirming adherence to the promotion and protection of these rights which imply the performance of duties on the part of everyone. President Olusegun Obasanjo has, on various occasions, reiterated his government’s commitment to the welfare of Nigerian children through huge expenditures on free primary education, primary health care services and other similar programmes.

But critics argued that the critical obstacles confronting a greater percentage of Nigerian children have not been effectively identified and addressed by governments. Lagos like many other big cities in the country is hardly a safe haven for children, many of whom are seen scavenging for food in dustbins, hawking pure water and other items or forced into prostitution; all for economic reasons.

Daily Champion’s findings for instance, showed an equal unpalatable pattern in Enugu, Port-Harcourt and other Eastern cities where the under-aged are subjected to lives of servitude as house-helps, farm hands or apprentices. The North presents an even more grueling picture, as children are subjected to various forms of abuses on the streets of Kano, Kaduna and other Northern enclaves. These gory details all seem to point to the fact that Nigeria’s record in child rights, is abysmal as captured by UNICEF’s data.

Infant mortality rate for instance, which, according to the report, had declined from 200 to 91 per 1,000 live births between 1960 and 1990, has failed to improve. Also, “the under-five mortality rate, which stood at 191 deaths per 1,000 live births nationally in 1990, is currently as high as 208 in the sprawling urban slums and underserved areas of the country,” notes the report.

Information from the Federal Ministry of Health made available to Daily Champion, says malaria, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections (ARI) and vaccine-preventable diseases are to blame for the majority of under five deaths. Malaria, it was learnt, remains biggest child killers, accounting for 25 per cent of the infant and childhood mortality rates in 1994. Healthcare, the UNICEF report says, has suffered in the past from weak political commitment, inadequate funding, deteriorating infrastructure and poor management; though immunization figures have risen due to support from the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development (FMWA & SD).

Dr. Rosemary Abdullahi, a Child Development Expert at the FMWA & SD, confirms that advances have been made. Her words: “A national Child’s Right Implementation Committee has been set up, and a draft decree also sent to the relevant authority to ensure that it is compatible with Muslim law.” Dr. Abdullahi, a physician who attended the International Stockholm Conference in 1996 on “commercial sexual exploitation of children, said child’s rights to education, health and protection from sexual abuse were some of the main thrusts of the conference.

She hoped that a legal age of marriage will be approved to prevent parents from marrying off their girls at puberty, a common practice in the North which predisposes them to Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) and other severe health complications that accompany early child-bearing. She had noted: “Human Immuno Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), is still a major concern although more children still die of malaria and diarrhea.”

On child labor, Dr. Abdullahi was quoted in the UNICEF reports that ‘what we in government see as child abuse, is not what the public considers an abuse. For example, hawking is believed to be training for the child’s future. It is difficult to change behavior, she explained ‘without changing attitude first.” She listed poverty, shortage of lawyers to take up cases of child abuse and lack of understanding of child rights by the police and courts, as major constraints to the rights and welfare of the child.

Mrs. Ibukun Olajide who sells smoked fish at Mushin market in Mainland Lagos, told Daily Champion that the major reason she withdrew her 11 year old daughter from school to hawk fish in the market and adjoining streets, is to augment the family income. Sad as it is, children, however innocent and immature, seem to be the victims in the vicious game of buck-passing between government and parents, each armed with astonishing tales of why they are unable to fulfill their obligations to the Nigerian children. However and with the growing awareness on rights, more children rights activists are resisting such violations. According to 16 year old Dayo Israel-Abdullahi, back from Perugia, Italy, where he attended a UN people’s conference, there can be no meaningful progress in any society where rights of children are flagrantly violated to the country’s shame.

Her him: “We see a proliferation of humanitarian calamities affecting children, such as hunger, abuses, diseases and unbridled effects of state conspiracy.” Mr. Israel-Abdullahi who heads General Action Against the Violation of Human and Children Rights (GAAVOHCR) a non-governmental organization, also noted that child rights is a recent phenomenon that has its origin in the 1945 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The acknowledgement that children have the same human rights as adults is even more recent, he said adding, “that in much of human history, the idea was inconceivable. As a matter of fact, children’s needs were considered, if at all, as acts of charity and certainly not as fundamental rights.” But the entire story, Daily Champion learnt, changed on November 20, 1989. After more than a decade of intricate negotiations that originated with a 1978 proposal by the government of Poland, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the first and only human rights instrument to focus specifically on the rights and freedom of persons under the age of 18.

Skeptics were unimpressed and there were widespread predictions that few countries would formally embrace the treaty, but virtually the entire comity of nations have signed up. According to Mr. Israel Abdullahi, in the decade since the CRC was adopted, the world has seen dramatic gains in areas of child health and development, especially since the 1990 world summit for children, the first major effort to implement the document agreed in a series of universal goals for child survival and development.

“Over 80 per cent of children in developing countries are now immunized, polio is on the verge of eradication, iodized salt is protecting an estimated 12 million infants each year from brain damage and severe forms of vitamin A deficiency, including blindness, have declined sharply thanks to supplementation programmes,” Abdullahi said. He however regretted that millions of children, a good percentage of them in Nigeria, remain untouched by the progress.

“In a $30 trillion global economy, billions of people live in what is categorized as absolute poverty surviving on $1 dollar per day.” At least half of them, are children, he explained. About 130 million children, majority of them girls he further noted are not in school, while another breath-taking number lack qualified teachers and writing materials. Another estimated 250 million children work to survive and many others are object of sexual exploitation.

Needless to note that Nigerian children have a huge share in this circumscribed lot. But in all, they seem to be crying out against “this grandiose violation of their rights”. “A change,” they demand. Nothing short of this can suffice.