LAGOS State government often commands this writer’s admiration. Reason? In its portfolio, it has innumerable welfare measures. Needless to define what a welfare measure is. The latest in the series is the Child Rights Law. Coming across it in The Guardian recently, I felt highly elated. But on second thought, the feelings became mixed. The state government’s intentions are good, as there is need to protect every child’s rights that are abused on daily bases. The State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation (WAPA), therefore, embarks on a sensitisation and awareness campaign on zero-tolerance against child abuse. This is commendable.
A concerned parent inquired, “What is child abuse?’’ And I replied, “It is the maltreatment of children”. Maltreatments are of different forms – “Sexual abuse” is when a child is involved in sexual activity by an adult. A child means an under-aged; “Physical abuse” takes place when physical injury is caused by cruelty or undue punishment (non-accidental injury); “Neglect,” when basic physical provision for needs is lacking; “Emotional abuse,” when lack of affection or hostility from care givers damages a child’s emotional development; and “Child labour” is when a child is involved in working life (that is, a child worker). This is not to say that pupils or students must not work on the schools’ farms or around the compound, essentially in Biology or Agriculture lessons; “Child trafficking” is the buying and selling of children for sexual purposes here or abroad. There are intrinsic dangers in child abuse. Besides its impairment of health, the bug-bear of fatalities looms. Academic advancement can be stunted, with poverty into the bargain. A single-parent remarked: “Streets hawking encourages unplanned teenage pregnancies”. I agreed with her. In my considered opinion, parents and guardians must avail themselves of the free education programmes for their children and wards. On the whole, the Child Right Law is in the interest of parents and children.
Nevertheless, as there are two sides to a coin, so, the other perspectives must be considered. Opinion widely diverges. One contestable argument of the Lagos State officials is that parents must produce the limited number of children that they can cope with. This is easier said than done. That argument is not tenable. Is there any law in this country, which specifies the number of children that a couple must produce? If there is, how is it implemented? That reminds me of a cousin’s viewpoint: “Initially, my mind-set was on two children, but with improvement on my economic well-being, I end up with five”. The point is that family planning is advisory and not compulsory by any law; it is usually in the realm of suggestion. Our country has some challenges of cultural and religious differences. Barrenness is a curse; fecundity is a blessing and a sine qua non for marriage. If a woman’s womb is unproductive, the union is unsustainable. In an engagement in discussion, one young lady assured me: “I am the sixth and the last child of my parents. By the Grace of God, I am aiming at a crowd of children for my husband”. “Really?”, I asked. She re-assured me, “I say it. And I maintain it, by the Grace of my Maker”. I appreciated her sincere seriousness and said, “That is a true confession; I like that”. To us in this country, surviving children are insurance policies of sort to their parents in old age or difficulties.
Besides, children ensure the continuity of the family lineage; if there are no children, the ancestry shall terminate. And it is an abomination, if it should. Therefore, family planning is an anathema to couples, particularly to the barren ones. The suggestion to limit the number of children fails to take cognizance of polygamy. So, how can Child Rights Law be effective? In Nigeria, the political, economic and social settings are not identical with what is obtained in most advanced nations. Not that I am opposed to the law, but only sounding the need for understanding.
Talking of child abuse pre-supposes that the parents are also abused. If parents are not abused, there could be no child abuse phenomenon as engendered by the prevailing economic down-turn. It is excruciating that children are required to play their small parts. In some homes, the mothers and not the fathers are the bread-winners; invariably, the latter might have lost their jobs. In a country where university graduates resort to Okada (motor-cycles) operations, what is expected of the children or wards? A mother who is probably the bread-winner may be far away in a market for sales or purchases, leaving the child with instructions to hawk sachet water or condiments after the school hours. Consider the plight of single-parents (through divorce or death)! The experience of poverty could be harrowing; it is better imagined than experienced. Far be it from an enemy. Mothers in two-parent households do not find life comfortable, not to talk of single-mothers. A saying goes: ”Out of two evils, one must be better than the other”. An economy that forces many housewives into prostitution, qualifies street hawking as a better evil. Therefore, child abuse eradication or reduction requires serious considerations. A government cannot tackle child abuse without first tackling our poor economy.
There is social stratification. In every society, three classes exist, viz; upper, middle and lower classes. Our political, economic and social milieux are poor. Not until there is improvement, efforts are in near futility. In advanced countries, children are cared for right from the embryo. At birth, they are registered and projections are made for them to adulthood. Child benefit is a state payment towards the cost of maintaining children. In Nigeria, there is nothing of such. A welfare state is one that is committed to ensuring for all its citizens at least some minimum living standards, including housing, education, and medical services. The absence of this provision leads to crime, poor public health, child abuse and unemployment. Social security benefits are state payments designed to assure all residents of a country of minimum living standards. The benefits cover the recipient and any dependent, especially the children.
In our country, these are lacking. The well-being of a child or the whole family members devolves upon the bread-winner. Feeding, clothing, housing and health are the responsibilities of the father or mother. The situation must be rectified, before we talk of eradicating child abuse. In Britain, there are security benefits for single-parents families, tax-free child benefits of mother, child’s special allowance payable to a mother on the death of a former husband, if the marriage was dissolved or annulled. Also, there are guardian’s allowance benefits and other welfare benefits.
Child abuse takes place in homes and along the streets. It does not begin and end with street hawking. Is consideration given to child abuse in homes where the upper class families brutalise children, wards and house helps? Hawking belongs to the streets. Physical brutalities are at home. Does the government realise that more abuses take place inside the homes of the upper and middle classes who punish house-helps with starvation, or deductions from their wages, apart from heavy household chores. In the homes of the rich, their under-aged helps are uncared for in sickness, but are promptly dispatched to their biological parents. In some affluent homes, what the children eat is different from what the helps eat. How does the Lagos government cope with these?
Before child abuse is eradicated in Lagos State, the enabling economic and social environments must be created. There is no short cut or fire brigade approach, like the LAWMA’s moribund initiative of night street sweepings in 2007. Can child abuse be effectively tackled without adequate personnel and essential logistic? Like we have a voluntary organisation such as the National Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Children, to maintain inspectors and visitors to investigate reported cruelty. Or neglect? Is the government creating special taskforce to do the monitoring? The chances are that innocent parents or guardians shall be unduly exploited by questionable taskforce members. The prayer is that the implementation of the Child Right Law does not end up as one of the nine days’ wonders.
By Victor Oshisada
THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER, NIGERIA