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Saving our children in pandemic times

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Around the world, children are showing us their strength and leadership advocating for a more sustainable world for all. Let’s build on advances and re-commit to putting children first. For every child, every right. - UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Globally, the United Nations in 1954 declared 20th of November each year as Universal Children’s Day. But each nation is requested to celebrate it on a day they deem fit. In Nigeria, it is celebrated on May 27th. It is a day to honour/celebrate childhood. It is a day dedicated to reaffirming the protection/ safeguarding of the rights of children. Omiko Awa in the Sunday Magazine of “The Guardian” (26th May 2019) writes that the Reverend Charles Leonard of the Universalist Church of the Redeemer, Chelsea, Massachusetts, first celebrated Children’s Day in June 1857 and dedicated every second Sunday service in June to celebrate children.

In spite of the preceding, it was not until August 1924 that 54 representatives of different countries at Geneva, Switzerland made the “Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child.” Consequently, this led the United Nations (UN), General Assembly, in 1954 to declare November 20 as the Universal Children’s Day, as noted by Awa.

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This year’s celebration of the Children’s Day in Nigeria is being celebrated as the world battles COVID-19. It is tragic to note that on 13th May 2020, UNICEF reported that, “An additional 950 Nigerian children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts routine services and threatens to weaken the health system.”

Reporting further, UNICEF stated that, “In Nigeria, these potential child deaths would be in addition to the 475,200 children who already die before their fifth birthday every six months – threatening to reverse a decade of progress in ending preventable under-five child mortality in Nigeria.” Outside these grave challenges mentioned by the UNICEF, there are other problems confronting Nigerian children before and during this pandemic.

One grave problem that children are plagued with is child labour. Children are exploited and trafficked to do injurious and harmful work by some ignorant parents and greedy groups. Go through Nigerian waste yards and neighbourhood refuge dumps and you see poor Nigerian children picking food and items from the dumpsite. You see children hawking groundnuts, soft drinks, and other provisions on busy roads/highways, being subjected to the dangers of both the atmospheric elements and the cars plying the roads. Some Nigerian children are being used as child soldiers by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups. There is equally the challenge of the Almajari system in which some of the children are simply exploited as beggars and many are sickly, dirty and broke due to no fault of their own.

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There are bases to make a preferential option for the children. The sacred scriptures of Christianity, African traditional culture, the UN 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child (DRC), the UN 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), and the 2003 Nigerian Child’s Rights Act (NCRA) provide impetus to struggle and fight for the wellbeing of children. A terse insight from each of these is important here.

Foremost in the teaching of Christianity is Jesus’ affirmation that the children should be allowed to come for spiritual blessing, that their angels are always in the presence of the father in heaven, and that anyone who makes children stumble should have a milestone tied around his neck and cast into the sea. Children are well cherished in African culture and are socialized to become good adults to fulfil their responsibilities.

The DRC (principles 8 & 9) enunciates children have “the right to be among the first to receive relief in all circumstances, and the right to protection against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.” Painfully in these pandemic times, many Nigerian children of poor parents are dying of hunger. The palliatives promised by various governments in the land are yet to reach the hands of many poor/distressed persons. Corruption and lack of vision on the path of many Nigerian leaders have created a land in which there are no good adequate health facilities to meet the needs of children and mothers.

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The CRC (art 24) recognizes that children have a right to standard health facilities and medical assistance; and they are to be protected from hunger, malnutrition and other harms. The NCRA/ACRWC equally enacts that children are to be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation, exploitative labour.

As the world fights this COVID-19 pandemic and is moving to a post-COVID-19 world, we should map out strategies to help our children. These strategies should include the followings among others: having adequate health facilities in the land for parents and children, giving priority in pandemic and times of emergencies to ensure every child is well-fed, having social welfare schemes to take the children away from the streets and the hands of terrorists, rescuing the children kidnapped and abducted by kidnappers such as Boko Haram and other terrorists, ensuring equal access and free educational development of all children, etc.

Finally, as we celebrate this year’s children’s day let us remember the dignity and inestimable worth of children. This piece is not unmindful of the many initiatives and efforts on the part of the government and other individuals and groups to ameliorate the precarious situations that children face in our land. Greater zeal is needed to make those efforts more fruitful because the challenges are great and grave. We have to journey with our children to enable them to face the realities of today’s world. Whatever is done for the children is for the good of all and the good of the society. The children are our future, so let us save them from these pandemic times.

Fr Ikeke teaches Philosophy at the Delta State University, Abraka.

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