children-on-d-brink

Children on the Brink

Geneviene Magazine May 2012. Sonia Publication
On the occasion of Children’s Day on May 27, Genevieve goes on the street on an investigative piece on the worrying phenomenon of street children – Kelvin Keshi

A dark-complexioned boy with a small body frame emerges from the makeshift gate of Kuramo beach with a sheepish grin. He’s wearing a dirtied, black armless vest and a worn out jeans. At first glance, he looks like he’s 11-year-old, but his slowly forming biceps and demeanour hint he might be older than his size suggests.

Chinasa – the boy’s name – is actually 16 and is one of the many street children at the beach usually loitering about, playing football or helping traders carry their wares for peanuts during the day when other children are in school.

For helping a trader carry his wares between the short point it’s discharged from the vehicle and the point of sales, a street child is tipped N50 or N100. Chinasa’s specialty is bags of sachet water (locally referred to as ‘pure water’); and it’s immediately obvious to me that got his rippling muscles – abnormal for his size and child – from hard child labour.

“I make between N300 and N500 daily,” he says coyly. “It’s just chop (feeding)money. But when these task force people come here to raid and take us away, we run away and I hardly make any money for that day.”

Maybe running away is Chinasa’s other specialty, although he could hardly be blamed for the first incident. After his father died in his village in Enugu, Chinasa’s uncle brought him to Lagos with a promise to his mother that he would complete his education in the city. That was in 2008 and Chinasa was just starting secondary school in the village.

But his uncle had other agenda. “He started maltreating me and didn’t send me to school. So I ran away,” he tells me.

His story is similar to 18-year-old Ukeme, who was brought from Oron to Abeokuta by his aunt. “She gave me fufu to hawk,” he tells me wistfully. “After about two years, I complained to her that that was not what he promised my father; but she got angry and told me I have to work for the money she’ll use to put me in a school. One day I decided to run away.”

22-year-old Odun’s case is even more complicated as he doesn’t know his mother, although he says he was told she lives somewhere in Ilesha. “She brought me as a baby to my father in Lagos. But he never cared for me and was only womanizing; so I ran away. Even if I see my mother on the street today, I can’t recognize her,” he recounts, betraying no emotion.

Mrs. Ngozi Ekwerike-Okoro, child protection expert and the National Coordinator of Child-To-Child Network, an NGO that caters for street children, says the main reason these children run away is their parents’ separation.

“When a couple decide not to marry again, they don’t put these children into consideration. Either they give them to their grandparents and go their separate ways, or the father takes the children with him and his new wife starts maltreating them and vice versa. Then the child gets fed up and runs away from home,” she says.

She says her NGO goes to look for the children on the street in areas they’re usually loitering about, particularly at Oshodi, Apapa, Ketu, Ojota, Ojuelegba and Kuramo beach. “They come from different parts of the country. Some of them just follow their friends and board interstate buses to the city. We’ve even had a case of three children from the same father on the street. Some of them beg, clean car windshields, wash plates at restaurants or just scavenge. They help people to wash plates,” she tells me.

She reveals that, sometimes, older street urchins, called Area Boys sell these street children, luring them with food and money. “They (Area Boys) wait at interstate bus parks; when they see a child alighting unaccompanied they know he ran away from home. They call them O’sanle. They put the child somewhere and buy food for him. In the morning, people that want to buy the children for different reasons would line up.

“The day we went to Oshodi and wanted to talk some street children, the Area Boys said we should bring money. A boy told us he was sold to a family in Ilupeju, but he ran away from there. They also send some of the children back to the village, give them some money and tell them to bring other children with them back to the city. Another boy told us he came with 12 other boys from the village and they were all lured with money and stories of a better life by an older boy, who was also from the village but had been to the city before. When they arrived, all of them were sold.

Organizations like Child-To-Child Network try to re-integrate street children into society through psychosocial counseling.

“After interacting with them at our centres, we find there are those who might be willing to go back home. They probably ran away because of pressure, so we try to reconcile them with their parents or guardians. But at times, some of them say they don’t want to go back home. And if we know that the home the child ran away from is not safe him or her, we take them back to the home for street children. For even those we reconcile with their parents or guardians, when there’s a little problem they run back to the street. So we work with the parents too and counsel them on how to avoid such scenarios. We tell them little things irritate those children because they’ve been on the streets,” Mrs. Ekwerike-Okoro says.

According to a report by Unicef titled: The State of the World’s Children 2012, hundreds of millions of children today live in urban slums, many without access to basic services. It states that although many children enjoy the advantages that urban life offers like access to educational, medical and recreational facilities, too many other children are denied such essentials as clean water, electricity and health care- even though they may live close to these services.

“More than half the world’s people already live in towns and cities, and even greater numbers of children are growing up against an urban backdrop. Their urban childhoods reflect the broad disparities that cities contain: rich beside poor, opportunity beside struggle for survival,” the report states in its executive summary.

As I round off my interaction with Chinasa, Ukeme and Odun, I instinctively glanced beyond their disheveled frames and stories of trauma and noticed how the skyscrapers and big luxury hotels in the background tower above them like a colossus, bringing to a sharp focus the concept of street children in an urban world.

Charles Anyawike, my tour guide and Child-To-Child Network’s Programme Assistant notices the irony too and tells me the contrast in the quality of life of these ‘neighbours’ has a way of sustaining itself. “These children scavenge for food from disposals from big hotels. They sometimes warm the food and eat.”

He continues: “You won’t believe it, but there are kids here as little as 8 and 9 years old just wandering about and slaving for others around these beaches. At night, they just lie on the beach and sleep, exposed to cold and all weather elements. But during the rainy season, they migrate to Oshodi so they can sleep under the bridges for shelter from the rain at night.”

Of course I believe it; it’s just that sometimes it’s hard to reconcile.

An uneducated mother is linked to the issue of street children – Unicef Assistant Country Chief, Mrs. Sara Beysolow-Nyati

Who are street children?
They are children who are vulnerable. They live on the streets of the city and find sleeping places when it is dark in areas where people usually walk freely during the day like sidewalks, the beach and under bridges. They have no home. Some of them run away from the home. Some of them chose to live on the streets. Some of them make a conscious decision to run from abuse and different scenarios, depending on their home situations. Some of them are just enlisted, so to speak, by some cartels or groups of older children who feel they have something they want them to do on the streets. So it’s a mix of things.

Who or what is responsible?
It’s a collective responsibility. Again, the parents are in the frontline. But there are underlining causes which affect families like poverty and illiteracy. A mother who is not educated would not know the benefits of good health care or have access to health care. She would probably not have a healthy child, would probably not have food to feed the child and would probably not have opportunity to send that child to school. Poverty, again, is one of the underlining causes of lack of education. It’s a vicious cycle.

What are the consequences of the phenomenon of street children in cities and urban centres?
The consequences are increased crime and competition for limited space. They affect infrastructure that have been put in place and they can affect security of a nation.

What’s the solution?
It’s going to take the efforts of everybody. Of course the states have responsibilities, but there are many sectors involved. It’s not just a matter of taking children from the street and putting them in homes. They probably won’t stay in homes because they’re used to their freedom. They’re not used to having any barriers or restrictions. They don’t know the law; and even when they know, they won’t abide by it because they are so free and that freedom is so intoxicating. So, it’s a tough group of people to work with. Having said that, you have those who are responsible for psychosocial support because it requires some psychosocial counseling to do it with street children. It requires resources to have them transited and rehabilitated in terms of their thinking, their mindset and orientation. And then there are special educational programmes. Some of them have been out of school for a long time. How do you get them back into the formal school system? Some of them, whether we like it or not, will never be able to cope with the formal school system. Formal school structures are the structures ready to address may of those issues. Some of them have been on drugs and need drug rehabilitation. No matter where you put them, they will continue abusing drugs and will affect other children. It’s very complicated.

What is Unicef’s role in fighting this danger?
We provide technical and financial support to NGO’s like Child-to-Child Network and governments to strengthen their own programmes. Our role is to advocate for the fulfillment of the right of children, to remind those who are responsible of their obligations to the children, and technical and financial support where we can to those duty bearers who have the responsibility to help them strategically identify interventions that are necessary.

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