Spotlight on Nigeria’s Stunted, Malnourished Future Leaders

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Last Monday, Nigerians, government at all levels, and many institutions celebrated Children’s Day with special attention given to the leaders of tomorrow. But amid the funfair lies the neglect of the most vulnerable group in the country with over 11 million of them stunted, 2.5 million others malnourished and over 10 million out of school, among others. Martins Ifijeh writes on need for full implementation of the Child Rights Law as key to addressing the neglect

“Our children are the future of tomorrow. We will improve on our primary healthcare services and educational system so that they can become the true leaders of tomorrow we desire them to be. No child deserves to go to bed hungry. Malnutrition will soon be a thing of the past. Our administration will ensure every child is protected.”

These are some of the annual recitations of governments at all level once it is May 27, which is slated for Children’s Day celebration in the country. For this year, it was more instructive, given that it was themed “End Malnutrition”.

It is the day governments suddenly realise children are the most vulnerable group in the country. It is the day they talk about all the moribund and non-implemented laws they had put in place to protect the rights of children. It is the day organisations share free food to the millions of starved children in the country. It is that special day government officials sit in expanded football fields to watch children who are priviledged to be in school display their talents in march past and quiz competitions.

But that is where it ends. A day after, millions of these children are back on the streets with plates in their hands to beg. They become lonely again ready to face hunger the best way they know how – begging. For those who are unable to beg, they take to street hawking. From Lagos to Kano, Edo to Taraba, the scenario is the same.

Widespread Nutritional Neglect
This widespread nutritional neglect has resulted in the stunting of over 11 million of Nigerian children with at least 2.5 million Nigerian children currently malnourished in the country, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) specialists during a two-day media dialogue on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) @ 30, held in Lagos recently.

The Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Lanre Tejuoso in an earlier interview with THISDAY had said that Nigeria might not meet its target of becoming an economically developed nation if it continues to churn out stunted children, noting that in the next 15 years, these children would have grown into adults and must have been expected to man civil service and other areas of the economy, but that stunting would negatively affect their capacity to raise a thriving nation.

UNICEF Statistics
The annual recitations on promises upon promises by government has not changed the out of school indices in the country. About 10.1 million children of school age do not attend school in Nigeria, according to presentation by a Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF, Denis Onoise during the two-day media dialogue. He lamented that these children may not be able to optimally contribute to the country’s economy in future, in addition to not being able to improve their own family finances when they become adults.

Onoise said as of 2009, there were an estimated 17.5 million orphans and vulnerable children in Nigeria, including approximately 9.7million orphans, adding that of these statistics, about 2.4 million children were orphans as a result of HIV/AIDS.

He said: “An increasing number of children serve as caregivers for siblings and relatives. Boys and girls engage in multiple forms of work to support their households. 40 per cent of females in Nigeria are married at 15 years or younger, 44 per cent married before 18 years of age.”
He also quoted the National Population Commission figures of 2009, which shows that 28 per cent of women reported experiencing physical violence at some point since they reached the age of 15 years, with 45 per cent reporting the perpetrator to be their husband or partner.

Onoise said: “These children also suffer the accusation of being witchcrafts. This is a commonly reported issue in Akwa-ibom State in the South-south and other parts of South-east region. Such children face multiple forms of abuse and violence and stigmatisation,” he quoted this from the Cimpric, 2010 study.

On Almajiris, he said in Northern Nigeria, these children between ages seven to 15 years are sent to live with Islamic school masters, adding that in 2010, the Federal Ministry of Education estimated that there were 9.5 million almajiris in the North. He said these children are subjected to harsh living conditions and are forced to beg to support themselves and their schoolmasters.

These are few among the numerous inhumane conditions Nigerian children go through despite being tagged the future leaders of tomorrow. It is Nigerian children against the world. Their crime is that they live in a country where their rights are only remembered during Children’s Day celebration. They did not plan their existence, but they have no choice than to survive.
They are the most neglected. They have social rights they do not benefit from. They have right to good healthcare, including nutrition, but millions do not benefit from this. They have right to education, right to shelter, right to basic amenities of life, but they are too vulnerable to fight for themselves.

Lack of Access to Health, Nutrition
But the new Country Director, UNICEF, Mr. Peter Hawkins believes there may be hope at the end of the tunnel if all hands are on deck, adding that if Child Rights Law is implemented across the country, the Nigerian children will no longer suffer as the current situation suggests.
Hawkins lamented that while there have been recent many innovations, Nigerian children were still not accessing health, nutrition, education and other amenities as they ought to.
“Sadly, it is the most disadvantaged children who are suffering the greatest challenge in having their rights fulfilled,” he said.

UN Convention for Children
This year’s Children’s Day falls on the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is being commemorated this year around the world.

As part of the celebrations, UNICEF also launched a “Passport to Your Rights”, a copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in child-friendly language.

UNICEF said its target was for every child in Nigeria to have a copy by 2030, the deadline for the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

“Thirty years ago, something incredible happened. World leaders came together in a moment of unity for the world’s children. They made a promise to every child to protect and fulfil their rights, by adopting the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. We want to see every Nigerian child have that kind of childhood.

“On this Nigerian Children’s Day, we must look ahead to the future of childhood in this country, and re-commit to urgent, specific actions to protect the rights of every child – now, and in future generations,” Hawkins said.

Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF, Sharon Olajidi during the two-day media dialogue organised by UNICEF and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture emphasised that despite the obvious benefits it portends for children, 12 states in the country are yet to pass the Child Rights Law.
The states are Kano, Sokoto, Adamawa, Kaduna, Yobe, Borno, Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi, Gombe and Jigawa.

She said: “Children are individual human beings totally dependent on adults. So, as adults, we must be responsible for how they are treated. Healthy development of a child is crucial to the future and wellbeing of any nation,” she said.

How long will the Nigerian child suffer neglect? How long until governments at all levels in Nigeria give priority to the leaders of tomorrow? Thus, until their rights are restored, any celebration done every May 27 will amount to more torment on the young citizens.