Children, Youth and Environments
Vol 13, No.1 (Spring 2003)
ISSN 1546-2250

Street Children: The Core of Child Abuse and Neglect in Nigeria

Socio-economic factors

Nigeria is the largest black African country with, according to a recent census, a population of 88 million people. It is said that every fourth African is a Nigerian. There are several ethnic groups, but three major tribes comprise the majority of the people: the Igbo in the East, the Yoruba in the West and the Hausa in the North. Nigeria plays a leading role in determining the future of Africa both at the global and regional levels.

Although endowed with rich natural resources and extensive human resources, Nigeria has not developed the necessary technological, industrial, managerial and political know-how to pull its resources together in a sound economy to take care of the basic needs of its population. As a result, poverty and hard living conditions are prevalent, affecting children in particular. The country faces social upheaval, cultural conflict, gradual industrialization and imperfect attempts at westernization.

Traditional culture has been greatly affected and a major source of the maintenance of this culture, namely the extended family system (which promoted a philosophy of "I am my brother's keeper"), is disintegrating. Consumerism, an attitude of "get-rich-quick", and westernization, have led to rural-urban migration and the emergence of the urban poor. These migrants take on menial jobs and form the bulk of the traders in the streets and markets.

Neglect and abuse of children 1

Children in urban areas are quickly caught up in the daily struggle for survival and material gain. A situation analysis of child abuse and neglect in Nigeria, undertaken through the medium of Nigerian newspapers, found that child abandonment, sexual abuse, child neglect, vagrancy , kidnapping and hawking were the most reported forms of child abuse-and neglect.2

In many instances young girls and boys are sent from rural areas to families in the cities to serve as house-maids and house-boys. A 1975 study,3 which examined house-helps, found them to be of below-average intelligence and of lower intelligence than the children they looked after. This is thought to be due to the breakdown of the traditional foster culture which erodes children's avenues for personal growth. Children who work as house-helps may also be required either by their parents or by the families they serve, to sell items of food, clothing and general merchandise on the streets. Thus they become part-time street traders and subject to many of the damaging aspects of street life.

In the eastern and western parts of Nigeria children may attend morning or afternoon school and hawk goods out of school hours, though there are some children who trade on the streets the whole day. Their income helps their families or house-madams financially or pays for school fees. Although most Nigerian children return home at the end of the day, a growing number, including girls, subsist and exist on the streets.4

In northern Nigeria where the Moslem religion is predominantly practised and begging is allowed, young boys and girls lead handicapped adults about on the streets to beg. They receive a pittance for their services. Apart on from this, because many parents believe that good parenting means that children should be brought up strictly and with religious training they send mostly male, but also some female children, to the so-called Koranic Millams who are versed in teaching the Koran. Many of the Mallams are not educated in the western sense. Some parents, having entrusted their children to these religious teachers, never visit them or inquire about them subsequently. The Mallams consequently live off the children, sending them onto the streets to beg and to forage for food on refuse dumps. The Mallams often move from city to city and when they die, or if the beggars whom the children help, die, the children reportedly become delinquent street dwellers if male, and prostitutes if female.5

The Moslem religion which prohibits girls from becoming pregnant before marriage encourages early marriage, recommending that a girl should take a husband before her second menstruation. The tradition of early marriage is very difficult to change and has led to abusive practices which are condoned by parents. Many parents send their children out to the streets to trade in order to make enough money for their mothers to buy household goods for them when they marry. It is recognized that children may thus be exposed to suitors6 and "careful" mothers lubricate their daughters' vaginas before sending them onto the streets so as to prevent serious injury if they happen to be sexually assaulted.

Hawking by boys and girls is thus widespread and parents clearly recognize that the practice holds dangers for children. According to Nzewi a systematic survey of cases of sexual abuse of children in three major towns in Nigeria indicated that 60% involved girls below the age of 12 years. Abuse occurred on three levels: exposure to overt genital seduction, exposure to genital stimulation and witnessing adults in the act of sex. Nzewi7 found in her study of 600 street and 600 non-street children in the three towns that street hawking is a major factor in all three levels of abuse.

Men may lure young female hawkers by buying up all their wares and giving them money in addition to this or they may pay them to run errands. The girls may be shown pornographic pictures in magazines or pornographic video films or the sexual organs of their would-be assailants.8 Since the girls have been driven through poverty in the home to sell goods from door to door, their parents "are happy to receive money. .. which may in certain instances be vital to the family survival".9 The girls learn to beautify themselves daily to draw interest and begin to look forward to hawking. Parents are unable to intervene since the girls keep their liaisons secret because of societal taboos against sexual behaviours.10

In an intensive study, 100 female hawkers and 100 female non-hawkers aged between 8 and 15 years were interviewed.11 The average age of the girls was 12 years with a standard deviation of 3,4 for hawkers and of 4 for non-hawkers. Of the hawkers, 50% had had sexual intercourse during hawking, while 9% of the non-hawkers had been forced into sexual intercourse while out on errands or walking to or from school. This difference is significant.

Nigeria

Of the 67 girls who were sexually abused, only seven reported the event to a parent or guardian and only one case was reported to the police but did not lead to arrest since the assailant escaped before the police arrived. Some of the reasons given by the girls for not reporting sexual abuse were: firstly, fear of stigma and ridicule, and a fear of reducing their chances of getting married if the abuse was made public. Secondly, abusers are sometimes relatives and family friends or familiar people and may be powerful people with widespread connections: 80% of the girls had seen the assailant before the day of abuse. Thirdly, rejecting enticements and inaccurate reporting of enticement could be termed disobedience and disrespect.

Half (50%) of the sexually abused girls were involved in ongoing sexual relationships with their abusers; 7% had been exposed only to minor molestations such as body touching. The small number of girls (3,5%) who had resisted sexual abuse gave the following reasons for doing so: firstly, they feared pregnancy and STD (sexually transmitted diseases). Secondly, they heeded their parent's warnings and were afraid that if they succumbed to enticements to sexual intercourse this would be discovered by people familiar to them. Thirdly, some had strong religious convictions. And lastly, they did not like the assailants.

In summary, it is clear that exposing young girls to hawking in Nigerian cities means that over half of them will either be raped or enticed into sexually compromising situations and virtually all of them will be sexually molested through touching and/or visual and verbal enticements to sex.

Street children

As will be clear from the above section, when we speak of street children in
Nigeria, we are speaking predominantly of "working street children" rather than of children whose sole means of subsistence and existence is the street. Although the latter are found in Nigeria, they do not form the majority of children found on the streets.

A nationwide study was embarked on by ANPPCAN (African Network on Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect) in recent years, led by the author of this article, to obtain an overview of the nature and extent of child abuse and neglect in Nigeria. There were three facets to the study: a street child density assessment, a survey of adult attitudes towards child abuse and neglect and a child attitude study (under-taken in junior secondary schools).

The street child density study was undertaken as follows: fieldworkers were posted to the busy streets of Kaduna (in the North), Ibadan (in the West) and Enugu On the East). An actual count of children below the age of 16 found working on the street was made. Those who were merely passing by or who were accompanied by adults were not included. Counting was done from Monday to Friday for one hour each morning and one hour each evening. Over a one-week period, 414 children per street were counted in Enugu, 1959 per street in Kaduna, and 1931 per street in Ibadan. Considering a two-hour count per day for five days, this means that there is a street density population of 44,4, 195,9 and 193,1 working children per hour per street in Endugu, Kaduna and Ibadan. There was a 1: 1 male/female ratio in Endugu; there were 20% more girls than boys in Kaduna and there was a 1:2 male/female ratio in Ibadan. In Enugu more children were observed on the streets in the evening, indicating that more children attended school in the morning and traded in the evening to supplement family income. In Kaduna and Ibadan there was no marked contrast in the number of children working in the mornings and evenings. This seems to indicate that a large number of children do not go to school at all but are engaged all day in active trading.

Attitudes and perceptions of adults with regard to child abuse and neglect

In the absence of reliable or available and accessible statistical figures from the ministry of social welfare, the police and the hospitals, it was decided to conduct a questionnaire survey among Nigerian adults. Amongst other matters they were asked whether they were aware of child abuse and neglect in their environments, whether they had actually seen or experienced child abuse and neglect and if so, what types. Bearing in mind the areas of child abuse and neglect already ascertained by previous studies, the questionnaire was designed to probe attitudes, perceptions and behaviour with regard to: general beliefs, physical punishment, hawking, early marriage, sexual abuse, handicapped children, house-helps/child minders, child abandonment and child begging.

Six hundred questionnaires were distributed, 200 each in Endugu, Kaduna and Ibadan. Of each 200 questionnaires, 50 were circulated to civil servants, 50 to professionals (doctors, lawyers, lecturers, accountants, etc), 50 to teachers (in primary and secondary schools) and 50 to traders (market men and women). Traders were interviewed and the questionnaires were completed on the spot, while others had to be filled in and returned.

The vast majority of respondents (80%) were aware of child abuse and neglect as a growing problem in Nigeria. Indeed, 76% cited specific instances of child abuse and neglect known to them. Despite this high level of awareness, there are still traces of apathy and ignorance. For example, 11% of the respondents said that they would ignore the sight of a child being abused or suffering neglect while 69% said that they would choose to discuss the problem with the parents or close relatives rather than to report it to the authorities meant to handle such cases, and 40% said that children are sent by God to help their parents economically.

The implications of these findings are twofold. Firstly, these viewpoints may be a reflection of cultural traditions that problems should be settled within the family unit so as to protect the family against public shame and humiliation. (Earlier in this article it was noted that a reason given by young female hawkers for not reporting sexual molestation was the stigma and shame which accrued to them personally following such molestation.) Secondly, the findings reflect the ineffectiveness of institutional responses to a growing social problem. The welfare agencies have not been able to assert themselves effectively as an extension of the family problem-solving process, hence the reluctance of the public to turn to them for assistance.

Responses appeared to reflect some ambivalence with regard to physical punishment, 26% of respondents believing that this was the best way to handle children who misbehave and 85% admitting to beating their children in such instances. On the other hand, beating and excessive physical punishment are cited first, fourth and sixth in the three study zones as cases of abuse.

While the renowned discipline of the African child might be a valuable attribute in this age of unbridled liberalism, these child-rearing practices should probably be re-examined in the light of the brutality and injuries inflicted on young children in the name of discipline. It should also be remembered that excessive or unwarranted "discipline" can drive a child from home to live on the streets if there is no recourse available.

In the area of sexual abuse, twice as many respondents in Ibadan and Kaduna as those in Enugu felt that sexual abuse is a frequent occurrence. This could be attributed to the practice of early marriage in the north and the high rate of street trading by children in Ibadan. Seventy-five per cent of all the respondents said that street hawking occurred in their areas.

Handicapped children were believed to be particularly neglected.12 While 90% of respondents felt that they should be given special attention, 61% attributed perceived neglect to the burdens a handicapped child placed on the family, financially and in terms of time, and 18% of respondents (28,5% in Ibadan, 17% in Kaduna and 19% in Enugu) felt that handicapped children constitute a shame to the family. While 52% found mental retardation difficult to manage, 12% found the same for blindness and 10% for epilepsy. No Enugu or Kaduna respondents reported feeling it was right to abandon a child if it was born handicapped but 3% of Ibadan respondents did.

A handicapped child abandoned to street life would presumably suffer far more intensely than other children. The prevalent negative attitude to handicapped children would suggest that this population is suffering silently from neglect. Only 7% of the respondents admitted to having handicapped children but 83% said that it was a good idea to send them to special institutions. Although 29% disagreed, 66% agreed that it was of no use to send such children to normal schools.

There are very few special institutions for handicapped children in Nigeria. One deserving of special mention is the therapeutic day-care centre, Abakpa Nike Enugu, which caters for about 200 mentally retarded and severely disturbed children. Rub by Mrs H Ebigbo (wife of the author of this article), it has a nursery and primary school, and an ultra-modern sheltered workshop and social education section. It was commissioned by Her Excellency, Chief Dr Mrs Maryam Babangida, the former First Lady of Nigeria. This institution plays an important role in the prevention of abuse and neglect of disadvantaged children and of expulsion from their homes to the streets.

The highest incidence of begging by children was reported by the Kaduna respondents (65%), followed by Ibadan respondents (57%) then Enugu respondents (38%). Handicapped children beg on their own on the streets. This was reported by 17% of respondents from Kaduna, 12% from Enugu and 9% from Ibadan.

These findings lead us to the following conclusions:

• Child abuse and neglect constitute a serious problem in Nigeria.
• Cultural practices and traditional attitudes are, to some extent, contributory factors.
• Institutions assigned the role of family and child welfare have failed to meet the challenges posed by this nationwide problem.
• The practices of hawking, beginning and abandonment all place children at extreme risk of physical danger and sexual abuse.
• A number of handicapped children roam the streets without care.

Child attitude study

This study was undertaken in schools from the three zones chosen for study. Care was taken to select schools with pupils from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Fifty students in primary six and the same number from classes one to three of junior secondary school were specially targeted so that they could be asked to complete the questionnaire unaided by fieldworkers. The questions were designed to give the consultants some understanding of the type of chores children are expected to perform before and after attending school, how they view physical punishment by teachers and parents and what they feel about nutritional standards.

It was found (94% of the responses) that once a child attended school it was very likely that he/she would receive three meals per day. Parents who are able to afford the extra expenses associated with education such as school books and uniform, also seem able to feed their children regularly. However, it would be worth while at a later date to investigate the content of the three meals in order to make some assessment of the nutritional content.

Sweeping the house before going to school is a common activity for most children. In Kaduna, some may even be expected to wash clothes and dishes and do other chores before leaving home for school. Just over half (52%) of the children reported spending from two to four hours per day on domestic chores after returning home from school. However, a fair number (20%) spend more than four hours onsuch tasks which may include washing clothes and dishes and cleaning their school uniform as well as preparing the evening meal.

These results differ somewhat from those obtained in the adult survey, where the majority of adults (77%) felt that it was good if the child was made to do domestic chores or agricultural work for one to two hours daily. Thus, while many parents may have good intentions concerning the number of hours a child should spend on domestic chores, the reality is somewhat different.

In Ibadan 20% of the children hawked after school yet most of them (76%) felt that they still had time for recreation. Recreation in Ibadan comprised playing with friends and playing football; in Enugu children mainly played and read. In Enugu and Ibadan children are likely to be scolded (40%) or beaten (37%) by their parents if they do something of which the parents disapprove. The same is true in Kaduna but to a lesser extent (23% and 18% respectively) although many (25%) will be given extra duties around the house as a punishment. About half (53%) of the children surveyed thought the punishment was sometimes too severe and a fifth (22%) have been seriously wounded through beatings by their parents. Most (89%) children who have been beaten by a teacher consider this to be acceptable. Very few (9%) requested treatment as a result of this.

The use of hard drugs did not appear to be a major problem in the schools surveyed; very few children (6%) reported that they had experimented with drugs. This is not to say that drug use is not growing and it may be a serious problem at a later date especially as almost half (49%) of the adults in the attitude survey believe that hard drug use is a problem for Nigerian children today.

The role of ANPPCAN

The African Network on Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) came into being formally in Nigeria in April 1986 in Enugu, with a workshop on Child Labour in Africa sponsored by Unicef the University of Nigeria and the Anambra State Government of Nigeria. This followed on a famous pre-conference in Nairobi in 1985.

The 1986 workshop noted with deep concern amongst other serious situations of child abuse and neglect the various forms of child labour in Africa which carry with them multiplte forms of child abuse and neglect. Child labour in itself constitutes a form of abuse and neglect since it is exploitative and does not cater for the overall moral, physical, mental and emotional well-being of children.

The situations discussed in this article show the need for ANPPCAN to be vigorous in the pursuit of its role in filling the gaps left between child rights, family welfare, government responsibility and public perceptions. To meet the urgent need for action with regard to the street life of children ANPPCAN has decided to found an institute for street child study and programmes.

As has become clear from this article, ignorance and poverty appear to play a major role in putting children out onto the streets either as child workers or as permanent street residents.

About 4,5 million Naira will be necessary for the establishment of the institute, which would consist of seven different departments:

• Sexual abuse prevention studies
• Exploitative child labour prevention studies
• Street existence prevention studies
• Data banking and networking
• Communication, social mobilization and advocacy
• Counselling and rehabilitation of street children
• Administration and legal action with regard to the rights of street children.

The major role of the institute will be the widespread dissemination of evidence to the Nigerian people of information obtained through research, on the following:

• accident rates of children while on the streets
• incidences of sexual abuse (whether of adult to child or child to child)
• incidences of child abduction and child killing
• disease rates (specifically with regard to sill and Aids contracted by children on the streets in comparison with other children)
• drug abuse rates of children on the streets in comparison with other children
• living conditions of children who have taken up permanent residence on the streets
• labour conditions of those who work as house-helps.

In addition the institute will

• develop models for the alternative safe, and even creative engagement of children
• compute success rates of children
• produce advocacy materials addressing such issues as stressors in the community such as poverty, alcoholism, substance abuse, unemployment and poor living environment, punitive child-rearing practices and child vulnerability in the family situation, and the perpetuation of power imbalance between males and females.

All of the above-mentioned contribute either overtly or covertly to the abuse and neglect experienced by children, and especially by those who work and/or live on the streets of Nigeria. Further areas of activity of the institute will be to look into the pitfalls in law as it affects children and to insist, through research seminars and publications, that the rights of the child as stipulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the rights and welfare of the child, must be implemented in Nigeria. The institute will also help to disseminate various aspects of the Convention to help win attitudinal support from the society for it.

In the UN Convention the developmental thrust for the child has to be amplified. The history of the action for children by Unicef, starting in 1940, shows initial accentuation of humanitarian help for children. However, over the years such concepts as a Zone of Peace for children have emerged from a growing new ethic of care and concern for children. Consequently, it was declared that children must have the first claim on society's resources and through the UN Convention this emphasis has fallen on survival, protection, development and participation.

The ANPPCAN institute would help various NGOs working in the area of rights for children, especially with regard to street children. This would be facilitated by the involvement of the international organization, Childhope, which is specifically concerned with street children. As vice-chairman of the executive board of Childhope, it lies within the author's power to campaign actively for the acceptance and implementation of the articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, throughout Africa. The establishment of a network of concerned agencies in this area should help to achieve popular participation in the acceptance of the Convention, as declared in the Arusha Declaration of the Unicef NGO Forum in 1990.

And finally, the institute would devote itself to social mobilization. Important personalities will be pressured to speak-up for street children.

Liaison with the media should help to ensure that eventually everybody in Nigeria will come to realize that there is no gain in sending children out onto the streets. Rather, much is to be lost.

Notes and references

1. Also see P o Ebigbo, "Psychosocial aspects of child abuse and neglect in Africa", in Peltzer and Ebigbo (eds), Clinical psychology in Africa (south of the Sahara), the Caribbean and Afro-Latin America: A textbook for universities and paramedical schools, Nigeria, 1989, pp 401--424.
2. P O Ebigbo "Situation analysis of child abuse and neglect in Nigeria: Making use of Nigerian daily newspapers", Journal of African Psychology, vol 1, 1989, pp 95-101.
3. G I Izuora and P O Ebigbo, "Assessment of house aids in Nigeria using the Draw-a-person Test", The Nigerian Medical Practitioner, vol9, no 1, 1975, pp 21-23.
4. B Oloko, "Children's work in urban Nigeria: A case study of young Lagos street traders", Unicef Staff Working Paper4, 1989, pp 19-30; P O Ebigbo and G I Izuora, "Child labour in market places in the city of Enugu", in Bwibo and Onyango (eds), Children in especially difficult circumstances, Nairobi: ANPPCAN, 1985.
5. M N Kisekka (ed), Children in Kaduna State, Nigeria; Problems and needs, Ahmado Bello University, Zaria: Department of Sociology and Kaduna: Kaduna Child Welfare Committee, 1981.
6. CfB Oloko, op cit.
7. E N Nzewi, "Street hawking: An etiological factor in the sexual abuse of children", paper read at the Second Biennial ANPPCAN National Scientific Conference on Child Abuse, Neglect and Survival in Nigeria, October 1988.
8. P O Ebigbo and S Abaga, "Sexual experienceof street trading girls in the city of Enugu", paper read at the ISPCAN 8th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in Hamburg, Germany, September, 1990.
9. P O Ebigbo, "Psychosocial aspects of child abuse and neglect in Africa", in E Nwogugu (ed), Laws relating to children in Nigeria, Enugu: Cbuka, 1988.
10. Cf also M N Obiako, "Sexual abuse of children: The Nigerian styles", paper read at the launching conference of ANPPCAN, Nigeria, October/November, 1986.
11. P O Ebigbo and S Abaga, op cit.
12. Also see H M Ebigbo and P O Ebigbo, "Neglect of mentally retarded children in Nigeria: The therapeutic day care centre and boarding school experience", in H M Ebigbo et al (eds), Child labour in Africa, Enugu: Chuka, 1986; and T C Okeahialam, "The handicapped child in the African environment", in The Child in the African environment. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1975.