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Broken Girls and Broken Boys – Trapped Under COVID-19 Lockdown (Part II)

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A week before the lockdown was declared in Abuja, a 16-year-old girl was beaten with a knife and stabbed repeatedly with a pair of scissors by her aunt, Juliet Nnadi, an officer with the Nigeria Civil Defence Corps (NCDC). The 16-year-old, according to neighbours, was brutalised by her aunt and went through untold hardship.

“Many of the neighbours told us that the screams of Uloma being beaten daily usually woke them up,” Taiwo Akinwade, the Coordinator of Stop The Abuse Against Women, a non-governmental organisation based in Abuja, explains to me. Akinwade said she and her team visited Lugbe, the neighbourhood in Abuja where Nnadi lives to investigate the case.

“The locals cannot believe the teenager is a niece to the perpetrator because oftentimes the officer denies Uloma from going to school and makes her stand under the sun,” says Akinwade.

Oluwatoyin Ndidi Taiwo-Ojo, the chief executive officer of Stop The Abuse Against Women, corroborates her colleague’s narrative. “Juliet Nnadi, an aunt to the victim, meted out untold savagery on her niece. She was arrested at the Lugbe police station but later released pending the lifting of the lockdown in Abuja when she would be charged to court.”

Picture: Physical Abuse of Uloma. Source: Stop The Abuse Against Women and Girls

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During interrogation, Juliet Nnadi told police officers at the Police Divisional Headquarters in Lugbe justified the abuse. Nnadi claimed the teenager steals and lies a lot. She said the same to this reporter during a phone interview.

Figure 2: Interrogation of Juliet Nnadi at Lugbe Police Station, Abuja. Source: Stop The Abuse Against Women and Girls

This story is a reflection of the reality of many children in Nigeria. Born in poverty, their parents send them away to live with relatives. According to responders to the case, Uloma’s father, a resident of Imo state is without a steady income, hinges his hope on his younger sister to send his daughter to school. He has not seen his daughter for over two years.

Stop the Abuse of Women and Girls say the girl’s father tacitly supports capital punishment and abuse unleashed on his daughter. When news of the abuse became a police case, Uloma’s father pleaded that his sister should not be arrested; he hasn’t even gone to see her Taiwo-Ojo, CEO of NGO says.

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The 16-year-old is currently at the Police Family Unit Gender Shelter in Abuja. As a matter of policy, she is not allowed to receive visitors even from her family members, Taiwo-Ojo says. She adds that this is also a way to manage the spread of COVID-19 during the lockdown.

“From practice, we insist on the children staying at the shelter until their trial is concluded. If the children are allowed to go back, the parents may not release the children for the continuation of trial, the children may be pressured to retract their initial statements,” Taiwo-Ojo tells me.

Ike Jacinta Ngozi, Gender Specialist Desk Officer of the FCT Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Response Team Abuja, in a phone interview, tells me.

“Uloma is safe and doing well. Her father has been calling, saying that his wife has been asking to have their daughter released even while the lockdown is still on. But that is not how it works.”

Broken Boys and Girls – Life Under Lockdown
On March 29, when the Federal Government announced the lockdown in Lagos, Abuja, and Ogun states, it took many Nigerians by surprise and disrupted the lives of many. Several persons who had travelled out of their homes before the lockdown found themselves trapped or stuck in homes or environments they had not planned for.

On the third week of the lockdown, another young girl woke up crying of pains in her lower torso. When her mother, Sophia, checked to see the cause of the pain, she was shocked by the hole she saw in her daughter. Her daughter had been assaulted.

When Sophia asked her daughter to explain what happened, the little girl narrated that the culprit was her mother’s friend who had been staying with them because of the lockdown. The man had lured Sophia’s little daughter to his room and sexually abused her.

“There has been an increase in sexual assault cases since the lockdown began. In February, we recorded five cases, in March, we recorded six cases, we had eight cases in April, and in May we have had three cases. These sexual abuse and offences are still on the rise despite this lock-down,” the Administrative Officer of the RAYUWA Sexual Abuse Referral Center (SARC) Center, Mrs Anne Nwakpuda in a reported interview says. she continues “we have had cases of perpetrators who go back to raping girls after being released because they had not been taken to court. Most times, it takes months and even a year before a case is heard in court,” Nwakpuda says.

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The Director-General of NAPTIP, Dame Julie Okah Donli in an interview with me says “we have registered 40 reported cases of domestic violence, rape, sodomy, incest since the lockdown began in April till date. We have filed charges and will be filing in court as soon as court resumes after lockdown.” Donli also added. “We successfully rescued one trafficked person, a girl from Oman. The trafficker has been remanded.”

Since the lockdown commenced in Nigeria, children experiencing abuse of all forms have been badly hit. Rescue centres, like Naptip, haven’t been operating fully. And places to escape are either non-existent in their area, or too far away to run to.

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Also, many homes and shelters have refused to admit children for fear of contaminating the other kids with Covid-19 infection. The non-availability of Covid-19 testing centres in many localities and states has compounded the case.

This difficulty is one of the myriads of issues raised by the webinar put together by Women Advocates and Research Development Centre (WARDC), Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Lack of Shelters – Nowhere to Run To
According to social workers, counsellors, including other field reporters working with the ministries and departments in charge of child protection in Lagos, there are only 10 government shelters and at least more than 50 or more private-run shelters scattered across the state. These shelters serve a population of over 2,952,614 children between the ages of 0-14 years, the age bracket often targeted by perpetrators of physical abuse and sexual violence.

According to sources in Lagos State Ministry Child Protection Centre, government-owned shelters include three motherless homes for children based in Lekki, Ketu, and Ogba, while there are two rehabilitation centres for girls (teenagers) located at Idi-araba and two remand homes for boys in Oregun and Yaba.

There is also a rehabilitation centre for people for recovering drug addicts Isheri at Ojudu Berger. Although the capacities of these government and private-owned shelters differ, field workers, explain that “most of them are full beyond their capacities.”

Social workers, field officers and NGOs who work directly or as responders alongside the ministry who preferred not to be named, also expressed other concerns. A source, who spoke anonymously, said “lack of policy implementation is one of the greatest challenges we face when it comes to stemming the tide against an increase in child abuse cases. The challenge of direct access to funds, misappropriation of funds, and misuse of funds are one of the key systemic issues regarding the management of government-owned shelters.”

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According to this source, “budgets, often approved, are not properly disbursed to key areas of operation” that facilitate expedited approach to handle the severity of child abuse cases and emergencies.

“Other offices that get larger budgets with fewer activities are better off than the department who needs these funds more.” Field officers say they need all the support they can get. Although “education districts,” according to field officers “are under the responsibility to provide these funds to safeguard officers, we do not get these funds to make our jobs easier. Monies given to departments are not accounted for,” One source says she is shocked that in 2019, the department got N60,000 released towards the end of the year.

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The field workers say it takes 2-3 days turnaround time to file and process a child admittance into a shelter. While they applaud the need for due process, they also expressed concern that a 2-3 days turnaround time often exposes children to being stranded at police stations, or worse, returned to the environment where the abuse occurred and back in the hands of their abusers.

Some responders and social workers I spoke with explained that on the average, it takes a minimum of N30,000 per child to process the entire child protection procedure from when the child is abused. They have to go to the victim’s homes or schools; report the case to the police and oftentimes have to pay the police to effect the arrest of a perpetrator. They then move on to getting the forensic report from Mirabel and placing the child in a shelter. Social workers also have to refer to gender unit, charge the culprit to court and wait till the judgment is served and the abuser sent to jail.

“This cost does not include repeated appearances at every court sitting, usually 2-3 times a week” a field worker explained. Stop the Abuse Against Women say the cost hovers “on an average of ₦23,000 to ₦30,000 and could be more if it’s outside the state you are based in”. So, the exact cost estimate is impossible because states and the cost of transportation vary. “I have boarded a plane before for a matter.”

In an interview, Ms Grace Ketefe of Cece Yara Foundation explained that the cost of forensic intervention for children, including access to police, access to justice, and other processes requires between N100,000 and N150,000. The help of in-house lawyers helps avoid the cost of paying external lawyers. Cece Yara Foundation is the only free child helpline in Nigeria that parents, children, and other helpful individuals can reach out to.

In Abuja, Julie Okah Donli, Director General of National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, says her organisation operates closed shelters in 9 locations and Abuja. The locations are Lagos, Benin, Osogbo, Enugu, Uyo, Kano, Sokoto, Maiduguri, Makurdi”. She says that “NAPTIP works with other shelters under the Network of Civil Societies Organisation against Child Trafficking, Abuse, and Labour (NACTAL) which are open shelters.” While the capacities of each shelter differ according to location and states, the total shelter capacities available of NAPTIP is 338.

For example, in Abuja, the capacity is 38, Lagos 60, Benin 40, Uyo 45. While Enugu, Kano, and Sokoto each have a shelter capacity of 30. Maiduguri has a shelter capacity of 20, while Makurdi and Osogbo have a capacity of 25 and 20 respectively. Feeding per meal in each of these centres is N250, the equivalent of $1.52. According to NAPTIP, the challenge shelters, including its agents, face from time to time are often “Inadequate funding, victim’s initial reluctance to cooperate with.

NAPTIP officers and counsellors, high cost of hospitalization when treated at hospitals, and inefficient implementation of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and Trafficking in Persons Prohibition and Enforcement Act (TIPPEA).” Currently, NAPTIP has 120 counsellors and field officers.

Child Safety End-To-End Process:

1. Victim reaches out either from home or at school via school counsellors.

2. Case is reported to police.

3. DPO assigns police officers.

4. Police officers usually 2 in number asks for money to effect arrest where culprit is located and remanded.

5. Medical report is quickly gotten from Mirabel Centre.

6. Victim is removed from environment where abuse happened and taken to shelter.

7. Case is referred to Gender Unit.

8. Culprit is charged to court.

9. Formal judgement is reached.

10. Perpetrator goes to jail.

According to field officers and responders, they say each of the end-to-end processes involved in safeguarding the child in activities 1-10, requires spending money if they hope to see each case reach a swift and logical conclusion.

Trauma and Emotional Stresses Field Officers, Counsellors and Interveners Face When Trying to Save a Child In an interview, a field officer (who responded to a case but doesn’t want to be named), describes in detail an incident of a 14-years-old girl who was raped by her sister’s husband since she was ten. The case of the girl was brought to the field officer’s attention at 6:00 p.m. As the investigation unravelled, the responder explains that “it was also discovered that the girl’s sister also assaults her physically daily. Because of how severe the case was, it took police intervention to get the man arrested around 8:00 p.m. By this time most shelters are closed for the day.” Stranded, the responder “begged the DPO repeatedly to keep the teenager overnight at the police station but the DPO refused, explaining that they have no facility to keep the girl. With nowhere else to take the victim to, I had no choice but to allow the girl’s sister to take her back home to spend the weekend until they return to the police on Monday.”

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When Monday arrived, the field officer went on to explain that when the girl returned to the police station, she reversed her story. “She had been brainwashed by her relatives who came with her to the station to alter her story. Rather than the police to stick to the earlier recorded story, which I have where the girl spoke, I discovered that the family had settled the police officers and they, in turn, were now ready to change the charge sheet and accepted the altered the story the girl told out of fear and pressure from relatives.”

The field officer explains that had the DPO been very helpful at the outset, “the girl would not have been taken home to be exposed again to more abuse and manipulation.” The field officer narrates.

Besides, field officers and social workers mentioned that, although most of the police officers at the gender unit affiliated with the Family Support Units are UNICEF trained, “corrupt practices and corrupt attitudes of IPOs” is a recurring complaint received from several responders who say these behaviour are often exhibited by some IPOs assigned to such cases.

This is a key part of some of the challenges they face in their fight seeking protection and justice for children.

A social worker says “Some of the IPOs alter charges, collect bribes from perpetrators or families who want to bury the crime committed to set the perpetrators free rather than remand them. But the law states that when caught and accused of the crime, you must be remanded in police custody until the case is resolved by the court with a final judgment.” the responder explains. According to sources in the know of the matter, “there are just a few exemplary IPOs but the corrupt ones are more.”

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Describing how frustrating the entire process can be for responders in the field who are on the rescue clock 24/7, Mrs Taiwo-Ojo expressed the same concern: “bureaucrats and non-field workers, some as high up as level 14 officers, do not tell the government the truth of what’s out in the field. The government needs to create more shelters.”

In Delta State, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, Mrs Kevwe Agas she says.

“We have had a couple of incidences, like rape, but the numbers are not out of the ordinary or caused as a result of the lockdown per se. We do not have recorded cases of abuse between parents and children, like fathers or mothers mistreating their children. What we have recorded during this period is domestic abuse of wards by those they are living with like in cases of house helps.

And when we rescue these physically abused children, we put our resources together and facilitate the reconciliation with their families and send them to their parents.” When asked why this was the case rather than put them in shelters, Mrs Agas said, “we do not have government-owned shelters in Delta State due to funding issues.

That is one area we have a shortfall. Also in Delta as of today, we don’t have any government-recognised private shelters except they are working independently of government.” She explains: “We have a child’s right Committee in the state. And they deal more with victims of rape and all of that.

So the committee members are broad-based with members drawn in from different aspects of the society. If it’s a police matter, police handle their beat, if it’s a case to be charged to court, ministry of justice handles that.”

When asked to provide dataset collated since the lockdown she says “Maybe by the middle of the year, we may be able to do data comparing what it was before Covid-19 and during lockdown to know if there was an upsurge or not. Since we’re not working as at now due to the lockdown, as only level 12 and above are coming to work at present, we don’t have that information.”

A member of the child protection committee who prefers not to be named says “since the committee was inaugurated in January 2020, funds have not been 6released. We deep into our pockets to follow up on child abuse cases dropped on us. “Government needs to be committed to this fight.”

This lack of political will, many responders say is at the heart of spikes in domestic and sexual-gender based violence. Grace Ketefe of the Ketefe Child Helpline Nigeria says, “During the lockdown, I felt the impact, the feeling of helplessness.

Since January this year, we have had over 69 cases. To uplift my spirit, I speak to our therapist. We need to talk to our therapist.”

Describing how frustrating the entire process can be for responders in the field who are on the rescue clock 24/7 trying to save abused children from their abusers and their environment, Mrs Taiwo-Ojo expressed the same concern as some field officers and social workers I spoke with expressed saying a situation

“where bureaucrats and non-field workers, some as high up as level 14 officers do not tell the government the truth of what’s out in the field, further compounds the issues,”

“Government needs to create more shelters and more isolation centres for children to be accepted and quarantined then transferred to proper shelters. We cannot handle the testing of children who needs help personally.”

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This lack of connection by bureaucrats and officers who do not get involved in fieldwork, don’t know the realities on the ground or are disinterested in protecting children compounds matters. Since many shelter offices close by 8:00 p.m., it also makes it difficult to save some children who are abused late in the night or who can only get help during such late hours.

She adds that “none of the shelters was willing to take the children, in this period.” Concerns about the possibility of the abused children who, asymptotic now, could end up being carriers trails after them. She goes on to say that “without the resources to cope, taking them in will be exposing the entire shelter to more harm as they do not have isolation rooms to keep the victims for the required quarantine period.” The need to build strong social systems and institutions to absorb all these layers of child protection areas is a decision government across Nigeria needs to build fast, and now.

Ms Juliet Olumuyiwa-Rufai explains that at Mirabel Centre, the challenges regarding child protection they generally face dealing with external field officers, counsellors, NGOs, police and the judiciary, often “includes pressure from community members on survivors, victims, and their parents/carers of survivors (victims).”

She adds that at initially these requests are subtle but then becomes“ progressively aggressive to drop charges against abusers,” in addition to “stigmatization of survivors, which eventually affects reporting.” She says they have also received “complaints from some survivors/carers that some Police Officers, possibly not adequately trained, ask them for money to facilitate arrest and prosecution of offenders and delay in justice dispensation.”

Mrs Oluwatoyin Ndidi Taiwo-Ojo, explains that even when she reached out to top government officials designated to handle such cases at referral centres, “they often don’t pick up their calls and when they do, they stop picking up my calls after listening to my request.”, leaving her with the burden to bear.

She adds: “I was told by some shelters that they had been given ‘verbal circular’ where they had been warned not to accept any child without approval from the government child protection unit or risk having their operational licenses revoked.”

At this point she became caught between breaking professional protocol in deciding to take the children to her home or leave the children to their fate and return them to their abusers. Opting for the last resort she reached out to the police at Abule-Egba to handle the cases for some of the victims then made another decision to have one of the victims to be returned to the relative, who is also the abuser. But before she did

that Taiwo-Ojo says “I gave her a stern warning informing that if she commits the offence again, human rights organization will come after her. Often, this helps to quell the abuse to some extent as many are afraid to be pursued by the law.”

Tackling The Issue – Saving Minors
According to NAPTIP, child protection has become such a societal epidemic in Nigeria “due to rising incidences of child abuse and trafficking and economic frustrations.” To mitigate these, NAPTIP recently published the names of prosecuted sex offenders in the public sex offenders register

The Agency highlights that here is need to also create increased awareness of Trafficking in Persons Prohibition and Enforcement Act (TIPPEA) and Violence Against Persons Act (VAPP Act). To achieve this, NAPTIP explains that “the laws and most importantly the enforcement of these laws with increased funding for operation and rescue will help address child abuse issues in Nigeria.”

Since the welfare and safety of distressed victims often lie in how counsellors respond to, and treat each case, to manage the stress counsellors face in the course of their duties when handling cases of victims and the abuse they face, DG NAPTIP, Okah Donli says “we ensure that they are accompanied by armed carrying operatives (police) during rescue and re-verification of victims and also provide guard duty at the shelter. Also, ensuring prompt payment of salaries to them often help to mitigate some of these challenges.”

Ms Juliet Olumuyiwa-Rufai of the Centre Manager of Mirabel Centre explains that the end-to-end process in managing the process of “safeguarding and protection starts with the immediate family, the school, immediate communities and the larger communities, including religious organizations.” She says sensitization, education and engagement are necessary ingredients. And that “managing child protection incidents start with making safe reporting and accessing medical aid”. Mirable centre, she adds also provides “psycho-social support, arresting and prosecuting offenders and justice dispensation” are very important too.

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While necessary precautions are needed to protect vulnerable children in shelters, interveners are asking that special isolation centres during the lockdown and also as a post-COVID-19 measure, needs to be created specifically for children so they can be taken away from where they are abused while undergoing quarantine in these isolation centres before being transferred to shelters for proper care and support.

This Outbreak story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Code for Africa’s WanaData Women Data Science Initiative

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