The World of Street Children

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Okechukwu (middle) with friends

The problem of street children in Nigeria has developed into a migraine. Various efforts by the federal and state governments to address the problem are merely a scratch on it

|  By Anayo Ezugwu  |  Aug. 26, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

FOR Darlington Obi, a 13-year-old boy from Imo State, getting a commercial bus to work as a conduct is a challenge. Obi, who lives with his uncle, wakes up every morning to jostle with other boys at Iyana Iba garage, an outskirt of Lagos, to get a bus to work with to make ends meet. He had been on the street of Lagos, for the past three years hawking bottled water and soft drinks for his uncle and the wife before becoming a conductor earlier this year.

Fashola
Fashola

According to Obi, the uncle, his late father’s younger brother, had brought him to Lagos after the death of his father with the intention of continuing his secondary school education and then to the university. But when he got to Lagos, the story changed; rather he became an errand boy to the uncle and his wife. Obi is now forced to fend for himself because he stopped to hawk drinks for his guardians. So, all he does now is to go out in the morning to earn a daily bread and return at night to sleep in his uncle’s house.

“Since he refused to train me as he promised, my friend introduced me to this conductor business that I’m doing now and I’m saving money to rent a house with my friend and leave him with his wicked wife,” he said. Apparently, Obi’s ambition to go to the university may not be realised. He now intends to learn how to drive and become a professional driver.

Like Obi, Tina Mordi is another teenager who was brought to Lagos with a lot of promises. A relation had given Mordi, 13, to a family in Lagos, to baby-sit a new-born and perform other chores in the house, while she would learn a trade in the evening. But that ended as a pipe dream.

Thus, when she could no longer bear the maltreatment of her guardians, Mordi ran away from the family and started living under the bridge. After she had slept under the bridge for a week, she had an encounter with a woman who asked her to come and live with her. Mordi embraced the offer with open arms thinking that a redeemer had come her way. She now hawks oranges for the woman. This has depressed her and made her long to go back to her parents. “My parents were told that I would help the family to take care of their new born baby when they go to work and to learn a trade in the evening. But I ran away from the family at the peak of abuse at home before the woman that I’m hawking these oranges for picked me up and promised to take care of me. I can’t trace my relations and I’m not happy doing this but I know that one day, I will find a way to go home,” she said.

Almajirai children
Almajirai children

Chibueze Okechukwu, 14, an Ebonyi State indigene, was similarly lured to Lagos, by his uncle to join him in his retail business. “We were selling air freshner, key holders and other things for him. I found out that one had to trek all over Lagos to sell these things. Sometimes, we would trek to many places without food and without sales. We were only allowed to take pure water,” Okechukwu said. One day, a friend of his suggested that they should go to where there were always traffic congestions or near traffic lights so that they could wash the windscreens of vehicles for motorists when traffic was not moving. Okechukwu saw this as a better avenue to make money instead of hawking goods that were hard to sell. “I didn’t want to starve to death. At the end of the day, I make up to N500 or more although I still live in my uncles house. But the trouble now is that many other children are getting into the business. You see small, small boys of about seven, eight years doing the same work. I may soon quit or change location,” he said.

In spite of getting money to keep body and soul together, Okechukwu would have preferred to be in school. “No, I don’t support any child from a good background to do it. I’m doing it because I have no choice and there is nobody to help me. I would have loved to continue with my education rather than sleeping in abandoned vehicles and under bridges. I will not tell you the particular places because I don’t trust you. Some car owners and drivers are very wicked; even though they won’t give you money for washing the wind screens of their vehicles, the way they would shout at you and talk to you would make you cry. Such people fail to know that if we had the opportunity, we would want to be like their own children, going to good schools and not lacking anything,” Okechuwu said. But poverty drove him out of home to an uncertain future.

Yusuf (he refused to give his surname), 16, is another child who would have loved to be in school instead of being a street kid. “I ran away from home to Lagos because my father separated from my mum and remarried. Since his new wife came in, my dad no longer had time for me, although I was then in school, he wouldn’t pay my school fees, meet my needs or even care for me. To worsen matters, when I returned home on holidays, my stepmother and father couldn’t tolerate my mistakes. So, when he was not at home, I ran away, and became a bus conductor sleeping at a motor park,” he said. For now, Yusuf is hoping to graduate from being a conductor to a driver.

George
George

The stories of Obi, Mordi, Okechukwu and Yusuf typify the experiences of numerous street children in Lagos. They are children of many Nigerians who were brought to the world with the hope that they would be leaders of tomorrow, but now are having a raw deal because of the situation at their births and homes. But they may also count themselves lucky when they are told about the likes of Sa’adatu Ibrahim. Ibrahim had come to know herself as a five-year-old girl when she started accompanying her mother to the streets to beg for alms. Now, she is 16 and married to a crippled beggar. She is also nursing a baby for the husband. “This begging is what I have been doing from when I was very young, maybe about five years. I was living with my mother in Oyingbo. At that time, I used to give my mother whatever I made every day before I got married. When I grew up, I got married and I used to carry my husband around to beg. Now, he is sick and I’m doing the begging with my child. It is not good to beg, but what do I do? Some of us become sick and die. Others run back to the North. Some of us marry beggars like us who have no homes. Some just get belle (pregnant) and they give them husbands. The girls don’t go far because there is always someone watching them. The boys, at times, go back to the North. Some get jobs as mai guard (security guards) or mai suya (meat sellers) in Lagos,” she said. Sa’a, as she prefers to be called, does not want to think about what the future holds for her because she thinks she is trapped and there seems to be no exit from the situation.

The sorry stories of hundreds of street children roaming about major cities in the country are varied and sometimes identical. But the common trend found in them is that they need care and good upbringing, which seems to be lacking. Some are hawkers and beggars, while others engage in all sorts of menial jobs, against their wishes so that they can feed and fend for themselves. Some are even orphans and vulnerable children prone to illnesses and malnourishment. They are also exposed to drug abuse, all kinds of crime, accidents, arrest and harassment by law enforcement agents, sexual assault and are also at risk of being trafficked. They make their homes in hostile and dangerous parts of the cities and towns, including abandoned buildings, abandoned vehicles, under bridges, motor parks and refuse dump sites, among others.

Children begging for alms on the highway
Children begging for alms on the highway

They usually retire to their dangerous abodes at dusk to avoid detection and dash out early in the morning before they are seen by the prying eyes of the police or rightful owners of some of the structures that serve as their haven. Their hopeless outlook paints a graphic picture of their state of helplessness, bereft of hope and cut off from the sustenance of family ties.

Matthias Chibueze, deputy director, Global Agenda for Total Emancipation, GATE, said that the increase in the number of street children in the country today, was the result of long neglect on the part of the government to address issues affecting the well being of its citizens. He said that the increased cases of street children have shown that the government has failed in its responsibility to the children and the nation at large. He also blamed government agencies and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, for their ineffective approach in solving the seemingly insurmountable problem.

“Government agencies and the NGOs that rescue children from the streets often say they are involved in rehabilitation. In some cases, they incorporate the word “rehabilitation” into the names of the organisations. I have worked as a consultant to UNICEF in reconciling street children with their parents. I have heard the tales of woes of the children we were reconciled to their parents. On one of the occasions, while sitting as a mediator, I burst into tears as I witnessed the ignorance of the parents who knew next to nothing about raising children. The point being made here is that the concept of rehabilitation for street children in Nigeria will not work as it is built on assumption. The cooperation we demand from the children is too high for them to give to us,” Chibueze said.

Wike
Wike

According to him, the question those who labour to rehabilitate must ask is what drove the children to the streets in the first instance? He said that the children were driven to the streets by the abuse their custodians subject to and they have never known peace in their lives. He noted that no child who enjoys the comfort of a peaceful home, love and acceptance of the parents would opt for the streets, but the streets became an alternative when the home became unbearable.

Dele George, founder of Little Saints Orphanage, Palm Grove, Lagos, also urged the various tiers of government to evolve a mechanism for the rehabilitation of street children in Nigeria. She said the increasing number of street children constituted a social menace. According to her, such children having been exposed to hard lives, abuse, robbery and other social vices could end up being criminals. George regretted that the government had yet to fully tackle the menace of street children decisively. “There is the urgent need to address the increasing number of children on the streets today. Government, at all levels, should put structures in place for their rehabilitation. It will not be enough to say we have evacuated children from the streets, but also of importance is where to take them. Rather than give alms to these children, we should direct such resources to their development,” she said.

Oluyemisi Wada, founder of Haven for the Nigerian Child Foundation, is also not comfortable with the government’s efforts so far, and also blames parents for contributing to the increasing number of street children across the metropolis. “The economy is so bad now even in urban areas, not to talk of rural areas that majority of these children come from; so parents often end up subjecting these children to street hawking. Often, these children run away to the cities in search of better lives. I think parents should pay more attention to children, and strive not to put them in situations were running away from home becomes attractive,” she said.

Street hawker
Street hawker

Onye Ogechukwu, president, Heart of Gold Foundation, HOGF, said that millions of children live on the streets in Nigeria. Thus, she wants the federal government to include skills acquisition in the curriculum for primary and secondary school education that would help focus on the plight of street children across the country. Ogechukwu said: “Street children with weak family ties are always forced to develop survival strategies. They rely on the streets as their main place of stay and for whom the street has replaced the family as a place for socialisation and face specific major risks.”

Ogechukwu, therefore, called for a new thinking in expanding the career choices of youths, particularly those unlikely to pursue education. According to her, establishment of skills acquisition and career centres for primary school pupils would help children in their formative years to find alternative career choices. “Very dear to the heart of HOGF is self reliance driven education. This is the present day reality of our country. Nigerians, including millions of our youths are graduating from school with no hope of gainful employment. Therefore, HOGF believes in skills acquisition and career centres to harness early period in a child’s life and give them a desired future. It is obvious that there are a lot of skills, which need to be developed, but which are often under rated, as unattractive career option. There is need to change this narrow perception that one can only make it through certain job areas.”

All the analysts, who spoke to Realnews, attributed the social menace to family breakdowns such as marital problems, instability in the home, poverty, hunger, insecurity, abuse and violence from parents. Also identified as causes include displacement caused by clashes in the community, insufficient parental care, death of one or both parents, inadequate family income, unemployment of one or both parents, lack of or limited opportunities in education, abandonment by parents, housing difficulties, among others. The analysts also called on the government and other relevant authorities to be proactive in the fight against the menace of street children, saying it is a fertile ground for breeding social miscreants.

Children hawking sachet water
Children hawking sachet water

According to a report published by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, more than 7.3 million Nigerian children of school age were not in schools. It warned that the ugly statistics has its grave social consequences, including the spiralling rate of illiteracy and the dramatic rise in crimes committed by homeless street kids in Nigeria’s major towns and cities. The report said that many children living in the street of Lagos were victims of trafficking and poverty. But it also warned that many of the children could be vulnerable to exploitation, violence, drug use and recruitment into gangs.

Sara Beysolow-Nyanti, chief of UNICEF’s Lagos field office, said that the challenge of reducing the street children in the state has always been very difficult because of the challenges in tracing their families. “Often, family reunification is in the child’s best interest. UNICEF supports Child Lifeline and Child-to-Child Network, as well as the Child Protection Network, which operate throughout Nigeria. These groups collaborate to protect children from abuse and exploitation, and work together to find children’s families. But census and planning data are missing and the population is moving all the time. In Lagos, the number of people on paper and the number of people in the streets is not the same. You have thousands of children who are not documented and so, officially, do not exist. When it comes to providing basic social services, that is a huge challenge,” Beysolow-Nyanti said.

All the efforts to get Lagos state ministry of women affairs to speak on its plans to eradicate the scourge of street children proved abortive. But Enitan Badru, special adviser to Governor Babatunde Fashola on youth and social development, said the state had started working with the relevant authorities to end child-hawking in the streets of Lagos. He said the state government had also developed programmes meant to sensitise people in Lagos on the existence of the Child’s Rights Law and the consequences of non-compliance.

“The law prohibits children from child labour and we, on our own part, patrol the streets and rescue children that are hawking or doing menial jobs. We try to go through the Family Social Services Department to trace the guardians or parents, warn them and when they persist, we may prosecute them. In our kind of society, it is not so easy to prosecute because we have to look at the best interest of the child,” Badru said, adding that whenever the government rescued a child hawking on the streets, the parents would be invited, counselled and enlightened on why it is illegal to ask the child to hawk on the streets and then release the child to their custodians.

Street boy
Street boy

Realnews learnt that the growing number of street children in Lagos State was one of the reasons that the state government decided to start the deportation of persons to their respective states in the country. The most recent are the deportations of 46 people to Oshogbo, Osun State and 72 people to Onitsha, Anambra State. The state promised to continue the exercise irrespective of criticisms of its actions. It claimed that the exercise would rid the state of beggars, and the mentally-challenged people. Badru said so far, 1,708 beggars and destitute persons had been expelled from Lagos. just as he admitted that normal international standard requires the state to reunite them with their families.

“The end result is to reunite them back with their families. We are not repatriating them out of Lagos, we are reuniting them with their families because once we rescue them, we cannot, as a government, hold a child under the age of 18 in custody without parental or guardian’s consent. We found out that a lot of children on the streets of Lagos, come from outside the state thinking that Lagos is an Eldorado. It is unfortunate that many of them are underage and very vulnerable because they can be introduced to so many vices,” Badru said.

According to Badru, in the last one year, a total number of 3,114 beggars, destitute and mentally-challenged have been rescued in day and night operations with 87 percent of them taken to the Rehabilitation and Training Centre, Ikorodu, Lagos, where the state government has made provisions for facilities to help in turning their lives around, while the mentally-unstable are given medical attention.

Getting the children off the streets and giving them education are major problems of the federal government. Nyesom Wike, minister of state for education, said that one of the challenges facing the federal government was the number of children of school age begging in the major cities in the country. He said that about nine million were children of beggars, fishermen and other less privileged parents. Wike warned that the high increase of street children poses a great threat to the security of the nation.

Child bus conductor
Child bus conductor

To ameliorate the situation, President Goodluck Jonathan has directed the ministry of education to establish special schools in the North, South-East and South-South  and South West regions mainly to cater for the educational needs of such kids from disadvantaged homes. Jonathan said although the establishment of Basic Education was one of the primary duties of the states and local government councils, the federal government would like to attach more importance to the educational sector for the sake of the street children. The federal government is also building schools in the North, to remove Almajiris from the streets and give them proper education.

Whatever plans the government may have for these streets children, if does not include the likes of Obi, Okechukwu, Yusuf, Mordi and Ibrahim of this world whose future looks bleak, the country itself is facing a serious danger. The streets are known for breeding all sorts of criminals and other social misfits who constitute the real threats in form of armed robbers, thugs, drug abusers, drunkards, prostitutes and all other social ills that give a bad name to the society. But from all indications, if there is any effort at all to get rid of the social stigma, it is not really showing. Who then will save the Nigerian street child?

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