Struggle to defend children’s right and for a better society
May 27 this year is children’s day in Nigeria. It is definitely another day on which capitalist politicians will cry and wail over the horror millions of the world’s children go through while doing nothing about it until the next year.
Children’s day is celebrated on different days in many countries of the world. In Nigeria, the day is marked by the government and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). Aside holidays declared for school children, barely nothing is done by the government to use this day to highlight the real social program needed to tackle the myriads of problems children face. Usually it is always just another occasion for governments and politicians to engage in fanfare while leaving the problems untouched until the following year. Even most NGO’s supposedly advocating children’s rights often fail to use this day to draw out a program of a campaign to fight for real improvement in the social condition of children.
According to the CIA Fact Book, 42 percent of Nigeria’s population is made up of children. Under the brutish condition of life vast majority of Nigerians live, children constitute a large vulnerable social group who are particularly endangered.
Especially since the onset of neo-liberal and anti-poor policies in mid 1980s, only a few people, mostly children of the rich and highly placed, can look back and say they had a happy experience growing up.
Older generation that grew up in the 1970s and early 80s can still have some fond memories of growing up. To the new generation, such memories seem like fairy tales. This is unconnected with the poor conditions of life which most parents and families now face in Nigeria. Except for a few happy moments which working class families try to create for their children, there is hardly anything provided by government to make growing up a happy time.
Nigeria holds many challenges for children just as it does for adults. The pains and pangs of capitalism and the highly unequal society it has created are brutally felt by most children from working class and low-income families during the years of growing up. The scars left by malnourishment, sicknesses like polio and meningitis, poor housing conditions, poverty, abuse, rape, lack of access to education, healthcare and other basic needs are always carried indelibly into adulthood.
Nigeria has a very high infant mortality rate, 93.93 per 1000 births. This compares to 6.31/1000 births in the US. This is attributable to the collapse of public health care. A majority of child births in Nigeria take place in churches, herbalist shrines and other unsafe places because most poor families cannot afford the cost of private hospitals. This explains why there are no accurate birth data because a majority of births actually take place in other unsightly places aside the hospitals and clinics.
The collapse of public healthcare means children’s health gets increasingly compromised. Findings by the National Malaria Control Project, Federal Ministry of Health show that about 300,000 Nigerian children die of malaria annually while 4 out of every 10 children are infected by malaria parasite. Nigeria is also the World’s most endemic in the mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. According to the Executive Director of Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Mr. Mitchel Sidible, "we have today 70,000 babies born every year with HIV in Nigeria" (This Day, 29 April 2012). There is also an estimated 1.8 million children orphaned by AIDS in Nigeria.
This horrific condition children confront could not have been otherwise in a country where over seventy percent of the population live below the poverty line and have no access to good homes, electricity or pipe borne water, despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the world’s leading oil producers. Low income families are often unable to afford the most basic food, health care, education and social needs of their children.
The condition of children is also a reflection of the oppression women face under capitalism. The situation is much worse with single mothers who are often unemployed. Due to lack of organized state-funded crèches and children’s homes to help low-income or single mothers with the challenge of catering for their children, the incidence of abandoned babies is increasingly on the rise in Nigeria.
For abandoned children, surviving the first sensitive years can be quite a challenge. Paradoxically the government has abandoned the care of abandoned children to non-profit institutions, religious bodies and individual philanthropists which mean that only a few abandoned children often are fortunate to get picked up and catered for. Many die on the street corner and footpaths where their mothers – who are mostly single mothers or those having husbands not taking responsibility for their children’s upkeep – have abandoned them in the hope that a Good Samaritan would be kind enough to pick them up.
Child Labour and Abuse
Aside this is the phenomenon of child labour which is increasing daily in Nigeria. In Nigeria alone, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) estimate, over 12 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 who are forced into domestic servitude or prostitution. It is not surprising that this figure almost corresponds to the total estimated number of children out of school in Nigeria. Lacking access to education, children are exposed and become vulnerable to forced labour.
However the rise of child labour is closely linked with the attacks on the incomes of working class and low-income families. This fact, politicians of the major anti-poor ruling political parties like the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), like to gloss over by placing the blame of child labour on parents. Sometimes some state governments have threatened or even tried to enact laws to penalize parents whose children are found hawking on the street.
However, the problem of child labour would have been long solved if it could just be wished away by some laws or decrees. Actually the cause of child labour can be found in the abandon of the funding and provision of social facilities by government and the poor living conditions of the mass majority of working class parents and low-income families. And only policies that are targeted at improving the living conditions of working parents can actually begin to improve the condition of children as well.
Parents who lose their jobs or whose pay is too small to take care of the barest needs have often had to create for themselves small retail businesses to boost the family income. In such cases, their children (some as young as 5) are made to sell wares on the streets after school hours. Some children can even be found during school hours hawking on the streets – a clear sign that they are not in school. Why this practice leads to poor academic performance of children, it also ensures they are overworked and their spirit sapped as they are deprived the normal play and rest time which their age-group requires to grow as normal, boisterous and happy children.
There is also the menace of child abuse and trafficking. Poor and ignorant parents of children who are forced in to human trafficking are often lured with promises of a "better life". A lack of organized social services and proactive government leave them with few options, they are easily deceived by the fake promises of the traffickers.
Child abuse especially in the family and also outside of the family is on the rise. Because of the poor housing condition in Nigeria where working class and low-income families live in cramped condition in a single house that could have 5 to 10 other families and without private toilets and bathrooms, children often lack the space to grow securely. Often and especially at the time they enter their teens, they fall prey of older adults often living in the same building or compound. Sometimes this also happens in schools.
Occasionally, the public have been astounded by media reports of child rape and assault. Sometimes, children are abused sexually by close relatives and/or neighbours. For instance an official of the organization Advocacy Officer of Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN) in Port Harcourt, Mr. Michael Gbarale, disclosed that over a period of six months, not less than 18 cases of rape were recorded in Port Harcourt alone. Gbarale, however, lamented that only two of these 18 cases were charged to court. He said the investigated 18 cases "include a girl of 13 who was raped by a group of boys, a man who sexually assaulted two sisters, aged six and three and a girl of 10 who was raped at gunpoint" (Vanguard, March 10 2012).
There is a culture of silence brought about by the social stigma associated with rape. Such abuse of children is often not reported leaving the child-victim to live with the psychological effects. In some parts of the country, hundreds of children accused of being "child witches" are locked up in dingy cells by spiritual institutions. They are often tortured for days on end. The police are often ineffective in responding to cases of child abuse including assault and rape. Sometimes all they can do is to catch the assailants or rapists but there is always no provision in terms of medical and psychological help for children who are victims. The societal implication is a mass of traumatized children who having experienced one form of abuse or the other carries this trauma into adulthood.
Laying the blame where it really lies
The cause of the horrific condition of children is capitalism and the inequality, poverty amidst plenty and insecurity of life it has created for mass majority of working and poor families. According to National Bureau of Statistics, over 100 million Nigerians live on less than 2 dollars a day out of an estimated population of 170 million.
Vast majority of the population lack access to basic things required for providing a decent childhood for children like decent homes, gainful employment, electricity, education and health care. Government policy of under-funding of the education – in order to shift the burden on parents and private sector – has meant that over 12 million children of school-age are not in school. A big proportion of these are girls.
Although education, as enshrined in the Child Rights Act is a right of every child, in Nigeria children are deprived of this right. In Nigeria, the 2003 Child Rights Acts signed into law by the federal government is meant to ensure that the rights of children are protected. The Article 1 which is about right to life fully backed by Article 7 and 8 which ensures that the Nigerian child’s right to quality education and good health care is protected. It clearly states that the government should make basic education compulsory and free for all, as well as encourage equal access to education for all sections of the society including children with disability. Unfortunately, this act has not been implemented by governments at all levels. This same situation of government disregard and abandon of providing basic social amenities can be found in the case of health care provision.
The girl child and disabled children are often times more likely to be out of school due to poverty and lack of adequate facilities that are needed for the education of disabled children. In a country like Nigeria, where doctors and teachers go on strike due to the fact that government at different levels are not talking their welfare as well as that of other workers seriously, quality education and health care is not guaranteed.
Governments at all levels through their fraudulent "public-private" partnership policies have left education and health care in the hands of private individuals who have in turn commercialized them. Parents are at the mercy of these private school owners because the government-owned schools are ill-equipped and under-funded. Unfortunately even many of these private schools, despite the huge prices they charge, are mere sheds lacking ordinary spacious playground for young school children to learn and develop mental and physical fitness as well as to engage in sporting activities.
Putting Children at risk for Profit
Under capitalism, this situation is bound to get worse and only a socialist alternative can improve the condition of children in all ramifications. This is because capitalism prioritizes profit over people’s welfare, including the condition of children. The legendary 15-year legal case against Pfizer – The world’s biggest pharmaceutical company – underlines this.
In 1996, an outbreak of measles, cholera, and bacterial meningitis occurred in Nigeria. Pfizer representatives traveled to Kano, Nigeria to administer an experimental antibiotic, named trovafloxacin or Trovan, to approximately 200 children which reportedly killed 50 children while many others developed mental and physical deformities. According to reports, "researchers did not obtain signed consent forms, and medical personnel said Pfizer did not tell parents their children were getting the experimental drug".
In 2001, families of the children, as well as the governments of Kano and Nigeria, filed lawsuits regarding the treatment accusing Pfizer of ’using the outbreak to perform unapproved human testing, as well as allegedly under-dosing a control group being treated with traditional antibiotics in order to skew the results of the trial in favor of Trovan’. It took 15 years of lawsuit and public outcry, in Nigeria and internationally, to compel Pfizer to pay compensation to the families of the victims.
This case highlights the rottenness of the Nigeria’s corrupt ruling elite in providing no safeguards and regulations for the use of new drugs and medical experiments. Where the laws and regulations exist, they are routinely ignored or obeyed in the breach by health ministry bureaucrats who are always in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies. This is similar to the unregulated manner multinational companies in the oil sector engage, with the knowledge of government officials, in sharp practices and unsafe production methods which destroys livelihood, source of drinking water, fishing ponds, farm lands and the environment in the Niger Delta.
Against the background of collapsed public health sector and the legendary corruption of top officials in the health ministry and government, Nigerians are more or less sitting ducks of multinational pharmaceutical companies who respect nothing, not even human live, in their frenzied hustle for profit. A recent published research by Nigerian scientists from the University of Lagos shows a huge percentage of standard-issue malaria drugs (products of big multinational pharmaceuticals) are substandard! Despite the hue and cry the report provoked, all it achieved were series of official denials, remonstrations and buck passing.
All this shows that the same kind of devastating and unwarranted death of children caused by Pfizer could still be repeated in the foreseeable future.
A decent life is possible for Children and Adults
There is the need for the trade unions, right advocacy groups and pro-masses’ organizations to come up with a program of action to fight for the right of children including the right to education, decent life, health care and a future.
While many governments have often talked tough about reducing "child hawking" – a notorious form of child labour in Nigeria – they have always got it wrong by threatening to go after poor parents who ask their children to hawk wares for sale in order to gain extra income for the family. Meanwhile the real reason for child labour is the condition of mass poverty afflicting millions of low-income and working class families as well as the capitalist neo-liberal policies of education underfunding and commercialization.
This is why a campaign for protecting of the rights of children has to also energetically take up the demand for the provision of free education at all levels and free health care as well as state-funded and organized social service like orphanages for abandoned children and special care service for single mothers all under the democratic control and management of parents, workers and the community. Only the provision of these kinds of social services and their expansion on a national scale including into the rural areas can begin to guarantee some decent life for Nigerian children.
None of the political parties in Nigeria has any programme to liberate children from the horrific conditions they experience while growing up. It is the same way these parties have no programme to solve any of the crises of underdevelopment, mass poverty and inequality ravaging society. Indeed the policies of privatization, commercialization and deregulation which all existing ruling parties are implementing across the country are helping to worsen the situation by destroying the last vestiges of social program like education and health care thus compounding the social problems afflicting children.
It is time to build an alternative political party of workers, youths and the poor that can proffer real pro-poor policies to tackle the social problems afflicting children and other vulnerable people in society while also offering a way out of the condition of mass poverty amidst plenty which vast majority of Nigerians face.
Real solution to the social condition of children can only begin with the nationalization of the key sectors of Nigeria’s economy under the control and management of working people. With this it will be possible to take over the stolen wealth of the 1% and begin to invest this to restore decayed social infrastructures and provide education, health care and everything needed to provide a decent live for children while growing up and a decent future for them when they become adults.
This means the struggle to defend children’s rights and sustain the future generation will only be fully victorious when capitalism and its anti-poor policies are defeated and Nigeria is restructured along democratic socialist lines.