Let’s talk about Nigeria’s not-so-hidden child rights crisis

The headline above should not surprise you if you have come across recent newspaper headlines and social discourse in the last couple of weeks.

From an excessive bullying situation at Lead British International to a case of pedophilia and now the proposed mass marriage of 100 Niger orphan girls, these stories underscore a troubling disregard for child rights in the country.

According to UNICEF, six out of ten children in Nigeria experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse before the age of 18, with half experiencing physical violence. Abuse has also occurred in religious settings, such as within Protestant denominations and amongst Muslims who practice polygamy.

This alarming situation may stem from ignorance or simply a high-strung negligence of the law. Whichever the case, it is clear that we all need a re-education on what the rights of a child truly are in Nigeria. Let’s start with the basics:

Life before the Child Rights Act of 2003

Nigeria’s history with child rights is complex. During colonial times, the well-being of children wasn’t a major concern. While there were laws like the Criminal Code Act (punishing crimes) and the Prison Ordinance (separating young prisoners), there wasn’t a dedicated child protection system.

The first step towards child protection came in 1943 with the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA). This law wasn’t very comprehensive, though. It mainly focused on handling court cases involving children but lacked a broader scope for managing a child’s well-being.

In 1989, the United Nations created the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a major turning point. This document outlines the basic rights all children deserve. By 1996, almost all countries had agreed to follow these guidelines.

Nigeria ratified the convention in 1996, but there was a catch. International laws don’t automatically apply in Nigeria. To make the Convention enforceable, it needed to become a Nigerian law.

The first attempt at a child rights law in Nigeria happened in 1993. However, this bill faced opposition from religious groups and traditionalists who worried it clashed with their beliefs. The bill was ultimately rejected in 2002, with the minimum marriage age being a major sticking point.

Civil society groups pushed back against this rejection, and finally, in 2003, the Child Rights Act was passed.

But here’s another twist: Nigerian law requires each state to adopt federal laws individually. So, the Child Rights Act wasn’t automatically active everywhere. As of today, only 25 out of 36 states have adopted the Act. This means the remaining states are still relying on outdated child protection laws.

This situation creates a gap in child protection across Nigeria. It highlights the ongoing challenge of ensuring all Nigerian children have the rights and safeguards they deserve.

Discovering the Child Rights Act of 2003

Over two decades ago, Nigeria passed into law the Child Rights Act of 2003 to domesticate the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Child Rights Act of 2003 expands the human rights bestowed on citizens in Nigeria’s 1999 constitution to children. Although this law was passed at the federal level, it is only effective if state assemblies also recognise it.

The bill was first introduced in 2002 but did not pass because of opposition from the Supreme Council for Shari’a. The act was officially passed into law in 2003 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as the Child Rights Act, in large part because of the media pressure that national stakeholders and international organizations put on the National Assembly.

The contents of the Child Rights Act include:

Survival and Development: This includes access to proper nutrition, shelter, and healthcare.

Name and Nationality: Every child has the right to a name and the right to belong to a country.

Family Life: Children have the right to live with their parents whenever possible and to maintain positive relationships with their families.

Freedoms: The Act guarantees freedoms like thought, conscience, religion, association, movement, and expression.

Protection: Children are protected from discrimination, violence, abuse, neglect, and harmful practices like child labor, trafficking, and hazardous work.

Education: Free, compulsory, and universal primary education is a right for all children.

Leisure and Culture: Children have the right to participate in recreational activities and cultural life.

Special Protection: Children with disabilities or in need of special care have additional protections under the Act.

Unborn Child: The Act even protects unborn children from harm.

 

But despite the creation of this Act, various factors still act as a barrier for effectively enforcing this legislation.

Challenges Hobbling the Child Rights Act in Nigeria

The Child Rights Act of 2003 was a significant step forward in protecting Nigerian children. However, the full impact of this law has yet to be fully realized. Many Nigerian children continue to face issues like child marriage, child labor, and other forms of abuse. Here’s a closer look at the factors hindering the effectiveness of the Child Rights Act:

The Grip of Poverty

The Child Rights Act is a legal framework, but it cannot single-handedly solve the deeply entrenched issue of poverty in Nigeria. Nigeria’s challenging economic situation fuels poverty, which in turn creates problems for children. When parents struggle to meet their children’s basic needs for food, shelter, and education, they may be forced to make difficult choices. In some cases, this might mean pushing their children into unsafe or undignified work situations to contribute to the family income. As long as poverty remains a pervasive issue in Nigeria, it will be difficult to safeguard Nigerian children.

Cultural and Religious Biases

Some cultural practices deeply ingrained in Nigerian society directly contradict the protections offered by the Child Rights Act. These practices include child betrothal, female genital mutilation, and tribal marking. Despite the Act’s existence, these traditions persist in some communities. Additionally, there are debates about the compatibility of the Act with certain religious beliefs. For example, some interpretations of Islam may oppose the Act’s minimum marriage age of 18. Similarly, corporal punishment allowed under Sharia law in some northern states conflicts with the Act’s protections for children. These cultural and religious biases pose a significant challenge to the full implementation of the Child Rights Act.

Lack of Government Action

While the Child Rights Act exists as a law, the Nigerian government has not taken all the necessary steps to fully implement it. This lack of action includes failing to create the essential institutions and properly train personnel needed to effectively enforce the Act. A clear example of this is the concerning number of children still found working or begging on the streets of Abuja, even in the heart of the Federal Capital Territory. This situation highlights the need for the government to take a more proactive stance in implementing the Child Rights Act and ensuring its protections reach all Nigerian children.

Recommendations for a Brighter Future

To successfully implement the Child Rights Act and create a more secure environment for Nigerian children, several key recommendations can be made:

Combating Poverty

A comprehensive program aimed at reducing poverty in Nigeria is crucial. This program could encompass initiatives like improved access to education and healthcare services, as well as the provision of essential social amenities. By supporting struggling families, such a program could empower parents to better care for their children and reduce the factors that might lead to child abuse or exploitation.

Grassroots Education Campaign

Spreading awareness about children’s rights, particularly in remote areas, is essential. Educational campaigns can help change attitudes and encourage people to abandon harmful cultural practices that violate children’s rights. By reaching out to communities and fostering open discussions about child protection, these campaigns can play a vital role in shifting social norms and promoting a more positive environment for Nigerian children.

Harmonizing Child-Related Laws

There is a need to review and update other laws in Nigeria that pertain to children. For example, some inconsistencies exist with the Child Rights Act. The Immigration Act defines minors as under 16 years of age, while the Matrimonial Causes Act defines adulthood as beginning at 21 years old. These discrepancies create confusion and need to be brought into alignment with the Child Rights Act to ensure a more unified and effective legal framework for child protection.

Establishment of Essential Institutions

The government needs to establish the Family Courts and specialized police units mandated by the Child Rights Act. These institutions are crucial for handling child-related cases in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Additionally, establishing mobile police units specifically focused on child abuse awareness would further demonstrate the government’s commitment to ending child exploitation and protecting Nigerian children.

Nationwide Implementation

All 36 states in Nigeria must adopt the Child Rights Act formally. This Act offers relevant and beneficial legal protections that are in the best interests of Nigerian children. By ensuring nationwide adoption and implementation, the Act can have a significant impact on improving the lives of Nigerian children and creating a society where their rights are respected and safeguarded.

Author

  • ChiAmaka Dike

    Chiamaka is the Features Editor at Marie Claire Nigeria. She is a woman who is passionate about God, women, and top-notch storytelling in all formats. Send all feature pitches her way - chiamaka@marieclaire.ng

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