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Broken girls and boys – Trapped in Covid-19 lockdown – Part 1

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Four-year-old Sefiya was sitting under the shade of a tree with her mother, grandmother, and two other relatives in Ikorodu when she spotted a bricklayer passing by and shrieked. Tugging on her mother’s clothes, Sefiya blurted out in Yoruba: “My Mummy, My Mummy! See the man who pulled my pants yesterday!” Sefiya’s mother, Mariam, looked at her daughter, unsure she heard her right. But Sefiya kept bouncing restlessly on her feet, her hands stretched out, her fingers pointing at a man.

The man, 35-year-old Taofeek Egunleye, is familiar to the family. He worships with them at the mosque that doubles as a madrassa (religious education) school, Darul Taleem, in Ikorodu. When I interviewed Sefiya and her mother, they vividly described to me what had happened.  Sefiya described in graphic details how she had got out of her class to get a drink of water from a container just outside the door. She said Egunleye approached her, promised that he would buy her sweets and zobo if she accompanied him… Sefiya left with him. But instead of heading to the shops where she hoped he would buy her the promised sweets and zobo, Egunleye dragged her to a toilet where he assaulted her.

Egunleye is currently remanded in Kirikiri Prison Lagos until court proceedings will begin after lockdown has been lifted. Getting justice for minors and teens under lockdown is a delayed process since Covid-19 became a national emergency. 

In the second week of lockdown in Ejigun Agbede in Ogun State, The Child Protection Network and Childhood Advancement team intervened in a child abuse incident. Narrating the case, Prof. Olubunmi Ashimolowo said it was an example of ‘transferred aggression’ on a minor that occurred.  During the incident, a 33-year-old mother poured hot boiling water on her 11-year-old son for spoiling her phone. The incident would not have been reported by the mother had neighbours not raised alarm and called an NGO to intervene. According to Prof. Ashimolowo whose network, Gender Development Initiative (GDI), receives regular reports of child abuse, she says that “Incidences of maltreatment is getting higher as the statistics of documented and undocumented report keeps stacking up. 

Neglect of children by their parents who leave them hungry, ignored, unattended to, and abandoned is now seen as normal.” With access to government palliative not reaching the most vulnerable and where food gangsterism has become commonplace in areas where palliatives are distributed, many children cannot fight their way alongside adults to get their share. The school feeding programme by the federal government of Nigeria has been marred with reports indicating that many more children are left hungry and abused under lockdown. 

 

Little Sefiya is among half of Nigeria’s 94 million children who suffer different forms of abuse and violence from adults every year. Of this number, over nine million children under the age of eighteen are exposed to sexual violence every year. This social epidemic that has been pushed into the shadows is perhaps worse than the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of scale, number, and lifelong impact.

According to the 2017 revision of the world population 2016, Nigeria was 185,989,640 population strong. Out of this number, 85 million are children. In 2020, Nigeria’s population increased to 206,139,587. Of this number 46% of this population are children – that is the equivalent of 94 million Nigerian children Of this number, over nine million children under the age of eighteen are exposed to sexual violence every year. Little Sefiya is among this number who suffer different forms of abuse and violence from adults every year. More than 23 million girls are victims of early marriage. Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa 

According to Dr Kemi Da-Silver Ibru, Nigeria records 10,000 daily reports on violence against girls and women (VAGW) incidences such as rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking among girls and women across Nigeria. 

The Violence Against Children Survey (2014), the first of its kind in West Africa conducted by the National Population Commission and UNICEF revealed that 1 out of every 3 Nigerian girls experiences sexual abuse before she turns eighteen; while 1 in 10 boys in Nigeria experience sexual violence before they turn eighteen. It is estimated that the figures may be closer to 1 in 6 boys. Two-thirds of these children who face violence and abuse never speak out, and only 4 out of 100 received any form of support. Sadly, more than 70% of these children experience sexual violence not once, but repeatedly, often for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years and often multiple types of violent abuse. The study also revealed that the cumulative loss of earnings as a result of productivity losses across different types of violence against children in Nigeria was 967 billion Naira (US $6.1 billion) accounting for 1.07 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP

Despite The Children and Young Persons Act, the juvenile justice system in Nigeria exposes children to horrendous abuse, extreme violence, and maltreatment while in police custody and remand homes according to a report by Prof Isabella Okagbue.

In the wake of unprecedented deaths documented in Kano since the Covid-19 lockdown, busloads of young children, almajirai, usually ages 6-17 or older, have been relocated to other states in Nigeria. These runaways were not tested before moving them, neither were provisions for testing made available in the villages, towns, and cities they were relocated to in the south-south, south-east or south-western parts of Nigeria. The numbers of children could be the largest recorded Covid-19 carriers to flee from a high-risk zone in Kano State, which has recorded the fastest recorded number of death cases since the first Covid19 case was reported in Nigeria on 27th February. 

As the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic led to full or partial lockdown in many countries around the world, there has been a spike in reports received at the Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC) in Nigeria. The Coordinator of The Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, Titilola Vivour-Adeniji says the centre recorded a 10% rise in physical child abuse cases received on its 3 hotlines in March, averaging 13 calls per days during this period involving children and adult victims. 

She adds that “Prior to, and since the lockdown, the conversation on incidences of child abuse, women are responsible for the increasing number of incidents of domestic child abuse.” She explains that underlying factors could be the case of these women who may be experiencing some domestic violence or reacting from a place of other trauma resulting in the transfer of aggression on children, which results in physical abuse of minors and teens. However, she is emphatic: “Irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator, the law is not gender-biased whether it is a man or woman who perpetuates any forms of violence against children.”

At the Mirabel Centre, a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) has since its inception in Nigeria in 2013, recorded over 5,400 cases. The centre has over 30 counsellors who are trained on forensic medical examination for sexual abuse victims as well as provide psycho-social support. Data collected at the centre since the Covid19 lockdown is revealing.

Types of child abuse children experience since the lockdown cuts across physical, mental, emotional, sexual abuse, child labour, neglect of children, maltreatment, and economic abuses. Before, and during the lockdown, several children have been raised in highly sexualized environment or homes, including being exposed to, or be at the receiving end of sexual, harassment, indecent exposure, denied access to education based on culture and religion, acts of intimidation, humiliation, manipulation, and threats, forced or conditional separation from families. And in the extreme incidence, cases of detained children born in jail exposed to harsh prison life. Use of trickery, physical force, threats or emotional manipulation to elicit cooperation have been reportedly common not to mention peer sexual pressure and abuse, especially among adolescents.

Physical Abuse
Thirteen-year-old Temi has just finished mopping the floor when her aunt, her mother’s eldest sister, walked into the parlour to inspect her work. Temi was lying on the floor when she walked in. Expressing her disapproval at the quality of work done, Temi’s Aunt threw a fit. She dashed into the kitchen and came back with boiling water. Standing over Temi she poured the hot water on Temi’s lower torso burning 90% of her skin off. This incident was narrated by Mrs Oluwatoyin Ndidi Taiwo-Ojo, Chief Executive Officer of Stop The Abuse Against Women and Girls Foundation who received the S.O.S call from concerned neighbours who heard Temi’s screams. Taiwo-Ojo says she has become extremely concerned by the rising number of child abuse incidents perpetrated by women since the lockdown was effected.

 

Children who are physically abused are often: whipped, beaten, kicked or sometimes scalded with boiling water or hot oil; other times they are, pushed, flogged with hardwood, or inflicted or wounded in their private parts with the use of knives, blades, peppers, etc. Physical abuse of children is commonplace among children taken into homes of their guardians as houseboys or housemaids; in some other cases, the parents or guardians are responsible for the abuse.

 “Reports from Alimosho local government suggests an average of 20 domestic violence cases are reported per month, where child abuse was initially averaging 3 per month before Covid-19 lockdown. In extreme cases, schooling was affected even before the lockdown was put into effect,” says Foluke Ademokun, a committee member of the Child Protection Network Alimosho and attributes this to lack of access to resources and support for such children.


Ademokun says that more children have died from hunger than Covid-19, and says government policies should not ignore access to basic needs even as it implements its anti-Covid19 measures. The WHO estimates that over 400,000 children in the North-East Zone of Nigeria require humanitarian aid while Food Aid International, a non-governmental organization says an average of 3,000 people die of hunger and poverty in Nigeria, with 40 million going hungry daily and half of this number being underfed 

Prof. Olubunmi Ashimolowo explains that the rise of child labour has been on the rise since the lockdown. “Parents are using underage children to do vocational jobs, making them the primary economic provider. We got a report of a parent who entrusted the entire workload of vulcanizing to their 8-year-old child. That’s child labour. That’s child abuse.”

Minors and adolescents who experience child labour are often turned into primary or partial economic providers doing odious work that puts undue physical strain, pain, and injury to their bodies and physical wellbeing in addition to exposure to harsh environmental elements, abusers, and kidnappers. Many are exposed to street hawking, working in mines without safety gear, denied the opportunity to attend school, trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, children in armed conflict, exposed to physical fights, or dangerous cars on the go while selling on highways and the streets. According to the International Labour Organisation Nigeria has one of the worst forms of child labour.

Dr Gabriel Oyediji, National Secretary Association, Orphanages, and Homes of Nigeria, explains that during the lockdown, other variables have led to an increase in domestic and physical abuse against children: “In most cases, children seem to be the cause of disputes between parents. What the mother considers the best interest of the child, the father, on the other hand, looks at it as aggression. What the father sees as the best interest of the child, the mother sees it as indulgence. So when indulgence marries aggression it becomes a big problem. The tragedy of it all is that intervention is becoming difficult due to restrictions. When I look at the calls we are receiving we also look at the restrictions pattern because there are no vehicles on the road when you need referrals to get to the hospitals. Now you have fewer doctors, a large number of patients, and you see a little disorganization in the hospitals. Response-based intervention is even a big problem to serial cases that is inundating my office as a child protection coordinator for the local government here.”

In homes where children often experience domestic violence, there are several key indicators to watch out for. Titilola Vivour-Adeniji explains that “We must remember that domestic violence thrives because one party wants to control or dominate the other. You have instances where because there’s a lack of control, you now have the violence that is meted out in the form of physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, economic, or otherwise.”

Emotional Violence
Twelve-year-old Emmanuella was 9 years old when she was sent from the village in Ibusa to live with a woman she had never met before in Asaba. When she arrived, she was shown her bed space at the back of the door. When night falls, that is where she places her plastic mat after she finishes her daily work. Her usual bedtime is 11 pm. At 5:00 a.m. each day, she rolls up the mat and starts the day’s chores. While other children of her age might enjoy an afternoon siesta, this is a luxury Emmanuella cannot imagine as she has never had time. Her list of chores does not give her a moment to relax. After cooking, washing, cleaning, and doing the dishes, Emmanuella has no time. After school, she works at the provisions kiosk run by her ‘Madam’, who reminds her constantly that without paying her school fees at the public school she attends, Emmanuelle would become a failure in life. Her sick father in the village cannot help her. She says her Madam abuses and calls her all sorts of names and shouts at her all the time. Sometimes she threatens Emmanuella she will stop paying her school fees. Emmanuella lost her mother when she was 3-years-old. I met Emmanuella at the public school she attends in Asaba during an event to mark The International Day of the Girl organized by the Ministry of Women Affairs, Nigeria Women of Journalists Delta, and Working Fingers International Initiative. She told me she was planning on running away someday. Emmanuella is repeating JSS2 for the second time. 

The nature of emotional violence is usually in the form of verbal abuse and treatment directed at reducing the self-worth and identity of the child. The goal is to demean the child whether intended or not. When done repeatedly, and over time, it is no longer tough love; rather such treatment erodes a child’s self-confidence, self-belief, capacity, and adversity quotient.

Children who often experience emotional violence are repeatedly told statements like these: 

  • “You better know your position in this house.” – , A guardian to a house help
  • ‘You are useless and worthless.” – A father to his son.
  • “You’re not my child….” – A stepmother to her 9-year-old stepson
  • “You can join your mother in her grave.” – A father to his son.
  • “Please don’t walk with us to school. You’re disgracing us.” – Stepbrothers to step-sib
  • “You are lazy! You can’t even do your homework right!” – Teacher to student houseboy.
  • “You are nothing! You don’t have a mother.” – Stepmother to a stepchild.
  • “If you don’t know your place in this house, I’ll dump you out into the streets.” – guardian to house help
  • “You’re too stupid to be in school.” – Students to another student.
  • “Get out of my sight, you stupid boy!” – a mother to her son.
  • You’re just like your father – fat and lazy 
  • When daddy or mummy hits, it is for your own good

Whenever someone makes any of these statements above to a child repeatedly, one is guilty of causing or inflicting emotional abuse or emotional violence on another human. Many children grew up in homes where emotional violence was mostly dished out on women by men. The Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal published Curse, Invocation, and Mental Health Among The Yoruba to show an emotional correlation between emotional abuse and mental health.

Sexual Violence: The Hole in My Child – The Face of a Monster
Minors being targetted for sexual abuse by men is also a concern that has been on the rise, according to Oluwatoyin Ndidi Taiwo-Ojo, Chief Executive Officer of Stop the Abuse Against Women and Children Foundation (aka Stop the Abuse). She said her foundation has handled cases relating to children between 2 to 17 years-olds. The most targeted group she says are those between 11 and 15 years who are just coming into puberty. One of the most disturbing cases she has handled was that of a disabled child who was pimped out by a caretaker entrusted to look after her when the mother was at work. For two years —from when the girl was 12-years-old until she was 14— the girl suffered at the hands of the numerous men who assaulted and abused her with the knowledge and consent of her caretaker.

“I handled this case in Sango Ota in Ogun State where the child was raped serially by different people in the neighbourhood. The girl was pimped out by the neighbour a Mama Bimpe to 6 different men ages 16, 19, 21, including an elderly man who was not only a grandfather but was also a church pastor. When the mother of the girl reported the incident and sought justice for her daughter, the whole community ostracized her to the extent that the landlords association directed the local bike-men not to carry the woman and her child. They tagged her ‘Iya Maruwa’ because she spoke up and demanded justice for her child who was slow due to her mental disability.”

Foluke Ademokun, Executive Coordinator of Ajoke Ayisat Afolabi Foundation, and a Committee Member of Child Protection Network Alimosho said there was “ a surge’ in cases of child sexual exploitation. 

“Reports from Alimosho local government suggests an average of 20 domestic violence cases are reported per month, while child abuse cases are 3 reports per month before Covid-19,” she says. She also cites an increase in the number of incidents where mothers are exposing their children to adult sexual acts. A case in point is the incident during the lockdown in Kaduna where a woman was lured into offering herself and her child for sex with a man. The woman was offered money in return for silence when her child has been molested. 

In an interview with the Founder, Save A Child Mission, Jane Ugwumadu, she narrates how 16-years-old Linda who moved in to live with her aunt and her husband in December 2019 was raped by her aunt’s husband not long after she started living with them. When Linda told her aunt about the rape, her aunt threatened her and warned her not to tell anyone about it. Thereafter, each time Linda’s aunt travelled for business, her aunt’s husband would rape Linda. This continued into 2020 and just before lockdown until Linda got preemptive support from the Mission. Jane Ugwumadu and her coordinator were in the process of getting Linda out of her aunt’s home in Calabar when the government declared lockdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19. Now Linda is trapped—living in the same house with her abuser and enabler until the lockdown is lifted.

Every day, according to Ugwumadu who gets regular reports on how Linda is doing, says it is tough for Linda because she is scared. She does not have enough sleeping hours because she has to try and stay awake during the night to ensure her uncle does not assault her. The Save A Child Mission has however been keeping an eye on her assisting Linda virtually to fight off her oppressor with techniques and survival tools that have proved successful thus far until she is relocated to live with another of her aunt in Akwa Ibom. The mission’s counsellors have been able to get Linda confident enough to shout at her abuser if he dares come any close to her to say: “Stop It! I will report you if you touch me! I will scream!” Now, Linda’s abuser, afraid of going to jail, has so far, as at the time of filing this report, not laid hands on her. 

In Delta State, Chairperson of FIDA, Barr Stella Mejulu said the federation has been handling an increasing number of rape of minors, particularly by high profile persons.  Reports of patricide have also been on the rise in lockdown, she explains and cites instances where sons have beaten their frail and aged fathers or denied them food.  According to Delta FIDA, it’s Statistics on Cases of Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Reported to International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), collated from Nigeria, Delta State Branch, during the period of December 2017 – July 24th, 2019 documented the following cases before lockdown:

Ivovi D. Aruoriwo, the Public Relations Officer at the Ministry of Justice, Asaba, explains that the Department of Public Prosecution recorded in 2019 a total number of 3,436 Criminal cases covering among other crimes, issues regarding rape, defilement, attempted murder, and wounding with intent.

The unit in 2019 handled at least 312 rape and defilement matters pending in the High Court of Justice across the State. Following the creation of the DPP Unit, 5 convictions have been secured in respect of sexual related cases.  Regarding domestic violence, aggressive violence, or behavior within the home, the unit received at least 9 (nine) petitions from victims.

The most devastating effect on children is the impact on their emotional, psychological, physical, and mental health; including exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies for girls. Many die in silence because they do not know where to go to, or are afraid to seek help because of the threat to their lives and their families. The culture of silence and stigma wrongly attached to violence done on children leaves many of them traumatized for years or until the end of their days. But this does not need to be the case. 

Many NGOs and CSOs agree that the it-takes-a-village approach is the collective strategy that must be employed in society to fight against this social epidemic in Nigeria. Social norms and traditions inimical to the welfare of children, customs, traditions, laws and religious teachings that promotes the dehumanization of minors as witches and of no consequence in society need to be overhauled. The vicious cycle of abuse and violence against children must end.

The Mirabel Centre provides first responder support to children of all ages who need support to get medical, forensic and legal support needed to prove their cases in court, where providing undisputed evidence on the kind of abuse done to them is the only chance they get in having justice.

This Outbreak story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Code for Africa‘s WanaData women data science initiative


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