The poet Oscar Wild, wrote these moving lines: «Children begin by loving their parents. After some time, they judge their parents. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them». It is a well known fact that the well-being of today’s children is inseparable from the peace, progress and prosperity of tomorrow’s world. It is, therefore, important that children be nurtured in an environmentally sustainable pattern to promote national and global peace and progress. The importance of their welfare was underlined during the World Summit for Children in September, 1990, held under the auspices of the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF) where world leaders maintained that «unless the investment in children is made, all of humanity’s most fundamental long-term problems will remain fundamental long term problems».
Put succinctly, children are a country’s most precious assets and they demand the highest priority on both national and international investments. In spite of this open acknowledgment of the importance of their survival to our collective global future, evidence abounds that children are facing the worst tragedy in the world today. In a recent seminar organised by the United Nations non-government liaison services in Geneva, participants at the seminar from more than 120 countries were in agreement that «millions of children around sub-Saharan Africa live under especially difficult circumstances where special protection measures are required to enable them enjoy fulfillment of their basic rights». These children in addition to being poor, are exploited, abused, abandoned, neglected, disabled and deprived of liberty.
The greatest manifestations of child abuse, exploitation, deprivation and neglect are very obvious in situations where children are used as a veritable source of cheap labour, soldiers, and prostitutes against their innocent and passive will. Many children seldom report cases of such abuses against them and most child abusers rely on this fact to continue in their wicked acts. Child labour thrives in our societies today mainly because some employers consider it cheaper to employ and over-work children who have very weak resistance to exploitation and oppression than adults. Such employers often betray and take undue advantage of the innocence of children’s dependence and trust. Families also use child labour to make additional income. While some of the hapless children are engaged in domestic duties of hawking goods, others are made to do hard labour meant for adults. Some Non-Governmental Organisations, (NGOs) have continued to express their concern over this unfair practice that is conducted not only in Nigeria, but also in other countries of the world. In an interview granted to a newsmagazine, Mr. A.C. Onukwue, a director of Media Environment Initiative (MEI) in Nigeria said that «children as young as eight years old are being subjected to a bland agreement by their parents to serve as slaves all their childhood and youths in the name of apprenticeship».
Those working as domestic servants are the most exploited and most difficult to protect. Most of them are girls who live with their employers and are totally dependent on them. The United Nations Organisation (UNO) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) have made some legal provisions in their bid to checkmate this growing monster. Article 32 of the United Nations Convention of the rights of the child and article XV of the Organisation of African Unity Charter on the rights and welfare of the child, unanimously condemn child labour in all its ramifications. The two articles recognize «the rights of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous, or to interfere with the child’s education or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social developments». In Asia, South America and some migrant communities in the United States, it has been reported that children even as young as five years of age are forced into what can be termed «slave labour». They work like little robots in dreadful conditions that damage their immature bodies and minds. Most of them have no education, are homeless and deprived of parental love and care.
Children as Child-Labourers
Most people have argued that the main cause of child labour is poverty. Others are economic and social inequality, war, unemployment, broken homes and juvenile delinquency. The merchants of children peddle stories of pleasurable life awaiting the kids in the cities in order to entice their victims from their poverty-stricken parents. Most poor parents swallow such stories hook, line and sinker and so inadvertently release their children to the slave merchants. Because of the nature of their minds, children believe what they are told by adults without reservation. Some of them on hearing such false stories of bright future awaiting them at imaginary lands, sometimes sneak away from their homes to be taken away without their parents’ knowledge. Most of them also follow child merchants because their parents find it difficult to feed, clothe and train them in school. Though many children in the advanced industrial nations and in some urban centers of the Third World countries enjoy good care and welfare, yet it is obvious that majority of them in some rural and urban areas whose parents are living below subsistence level are more often exposed to this risk. The situation has been considered dangerous enough that it was brought to focus in 1997 at a forum organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF) for jourlalists in Lagos to deliberate upon. The theme of the forum was The Impact of Child Labour on Development. Participants at the forum agreed that child labour exists in Nigeria as in other parts of the world. It is interesting to note that most of these unsuspecting children lured from their homes in Nigeria are taken to Gabon in Central Africa and other neighbouring countries where they are subjected to the highest form of child abuse.
Children as Articles of Trade
But how widespread are cases of child abuse? Let us at this stage, embark on a historical excursion in order to reveal the extent of abuse and danger our children had been exposed to. On May 30, 1995 when 330 Nigerian deportees arrived in Calabar from Gabon, 109 of them were children below 16 years of age. Again, in March 1996, four students of Ikono Ibom Comprehensive Secondary School, Ikot Aya, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria were cajoled into embarking on a trip to Gabon by a fellow student. But these students, made up of three girls and a boy whose ages were between 10 and 14 years were lucky as they could not reach their destination. As fate would have it, officers of Nigerian Immigration Service intercepted their boat at the Oron Creek. And in January 1997, 150 Gabon-bound children were rescued from a camp at Mkpanak near Ibeno. Among the children aged between 11 and 18 years were 20 Nigerians. The rest of them came from neighbouring Togo, Benin Republic and Ghana. In February 1997, 86 under aged children were freed after a raid on an uncompleted building at Ibeno, Akwa Ibom State. It was reported that the nefarious dealers on children had intended to ship them to Gabon before they were rescued. A breakdown of the rescued children’s nationalities showed that 25 were from Nigeria, 23 from Togo while 38 were from Benin Republic. Of the 86 kids, 46 were girls.
It is also sad that not all of these children had been lucky. The hapless ones do not get to their destinations and do not live to tell their stories. In January 1996, more than 200 persons perished in the high seas of Ibeno Beach. About 73 per cent of the victims were school children, some of whom were in their school uniforms. These difficult circumstances represent serious hazards and risks to the survival and development of our future generation.
Children as Sex Tools
Apart from child labour and trafficking, sexual harassment is another area of high risk that confronts our children. Convincing indication of the enormity of this crime was tendered at the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1996 which was attended by representatives of 130 countries. For instance, it was documented that in several parts of the world, there are millions of young girls, some even as young as 10 years of age who are constrained to work as call girls. After years of physical, mental, and emotional molestation, these girls are scarred for life. In most cases, they surrender to this atrocity simply because they want to eat and stay alive. The option is like choosing between six and half a dozen. As a result of such abuse, some children develop social and psychiatric problems later in life. Furthermore, the activities of pedophiles who occupy influential positions in our society do not help matters. Pedophile refers to a psychological disorder which causes adults to be sexually attracted to children whose sexual experience is nil. In August 1997, a Dublin Chief Judge, Cyril Kelly, committed Reverend Berndan Smith a 72 -year old Roman Catholic priest to 12 years imprisonment for a case involving 74 count charges of indecent and sexual assaults against children. Rev. Smith who admitted to a 36-year career of sex offenses against a total of 26 children in the Republic of Ireland, pleaded guilty to the charges. The Daily Telegraph of June 2, 1998 carried a report on a 44-year old soccer coach who used his position of trust to abuse young boys. He was jailed for nine years after pleading guilty to 23 specimen charges against children. The Chester Crown Court was told that from 1978 to 1992, the coach invited boys from the North West and Midlands to stay with him or go on holiday to North Wales and Spain where the offenses took place. According to The Daily Telegraph: «Benndell would take the boys into his trust by offering them the chance of not only training with his teams but also an occasion at Grewe Alexandra and Manchester City».
Children As Child Soldiers
Compounding the tragedy further, there has been an increase in the use of child soldiers in guerrilla armies. Children are easily kidnapped, separated from their parents and siblings and conscripted into the army to fight wars. In such situations they are systematically brutalized, at times by being forced to watch gruesome murder. Some have been ordered to kill their own parents, brothers and/or sisters. Where they find it difficult to carry out these bloody assignments as a result of their innocence, such children are encouraged and compelled to take drugs in order to heighten their killer instinct. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, child soldiers whose innocence had been destroyed by the crimes of a protracted civil war resolved that they were not going to hands-off arms. They took the resolution in October, 1998 when Carol Bellamy the then UNICEF’s head in Sierra Leone, asked them in Bo to surrender their weapons. The child soldiers belonged to the hunter militia group known as Kamajor. In addition, children generally suffer a high death rate during civil or international wars. Most of them die of hunger or hunger related diseases such as kwashiorkor. Because they are fragile and defenseless, they are easy victims in war situations. On August 31, 1997 about 21 children fell into a swimming pool in panic and got drowned in Nsele, 60 kilometers east of Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo when some armed troops tried to maintain order in the area. In Northern Uganda, rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), headed by Joseph Kony, who have been fighting against the Ugandan government have continued to carry out atrocities against children in that country.
It is interesting to note that children are gradually becoming aware of the injustice and oppression against them by the adult world. In July 1997, Eric Ndelema, a councilor from Kaziso, West Rand, was stoned to death by an irate mob of about 200 primary school children. The mob also set his house ablaze. Mary Martins, a sergeant and South African Police spokesman, confirmed the incident that occurred in Johannesburg but said that the motive for the attack was not yet known. If the cause of the attack was not known, perhaps the peaceful demonstration that was carried out by children from January 5 to June 4, 1998 is enough proof that children are gradually getting fed up with the whole game. Pakistan played host to the global march against child labour in April, 1998 as part of a campaign to draw world attention to children’s rights. The campaigners, numbering about 45,000 children from various countries, walked through Manila, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Geneva into the boarder town of Wahgah, 25 kilometers from Lahore, capital of Pakistan, amidst cheers from the citizens. Kailash Trithay, the leader of the demonstration said his group was carrying a message from every working child that «the world should be free of child abuse».
In spite of the above facts, which are by no means exhaustive, it appears that not many countries of the world have taken definitive stand against this global monster of child abuse which is threatening to turn our God-given children into slaves and make this world an unsafe place for those who are undoubtedly our leaders of tomorrow. The situation quickly calls to mind, the admonition of an erudite scholar, Martin Luther King, who once remarked that «the world is full of evil today not because of those who do evil, but because of men who keep silent and watch evil being done».