Together, Let’s End Violence Against Children in Nigeria, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Children are our biggest assets and our biggest investments. Yet, everywhere, in the home and outside it; in schools and in places where they should be protected; as individuals, institutions, community and country, we violate, fail and endanger them.
Yearly, millions of children in Nigeria suffer violence – physical, sexual, emotional. The effects can be traumatic, life-changing, sometimes even fatal. Yet few ever get to be held accountable for these acts.
Violence against Children (VAC) is costly – in lives, and futures. It is also economically costly. It is worth between two-eight percent in lost GDP earnings.
The Nigeria Violence Against Children Survey (VACS) is an act of acknowledgement and courage for which the Federal Government deserves commendation. The survey assembles the most authoritative information on the pathologies of violence against children ever put together in our country.
The methodology of the survey is rigorous. It addresses violence of the most serious kind, often involving acts against children, which, if they were to be prosecuted, could easily be felonies – sexual violence, rape, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm, endangerment, homicides. Its findings make grim reading:
• Violence is a significant problem in Nigeria affecting over 60 percent of children;
• Up to 25 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys suffer sexual violence;
• Violence against children is rarely isolated and tends to be systematic. We tend to tolerate it with cultural alibis;
• For most children who suffer it, violence begins early in their lives; its effects can be fatal and for the children who survive it, the adverse consequences can last a life time and beyond;
• Perpetrators of VAC are overwhelmingly people of authority in the lives of children: family, teachers, elders. Bonds of trust are broken and children who survive can have difficulties forming trusting relationships through life;
• We lack the mechanisms in our society to acknowledge that these happen; we discourage children from speaking out. When they do, we don’t believe them; and for the children who are believed, support skills and services are lacking.
It takes honesty and courage for any government to acknowledge the kind of findings in this survey. These findings do not say we are bad people; they show we have work to do.
Violence against children is not someone else’s problem. It is a problem for all of us in Nigeria.
At the National Human Rights Commission, whose Governing Council I chair, VAC is the greatest single category of violations we receive. It is also the one that we appear least equipped to deal with and in respect of which we have the most need to upgrade the skills of our staff.
The limitations we see are replicated every day in other institutions that deal with child services and survival around the country: healthcare providers, social services, law enforcement and security services, prosecutors, schools, faith institutions, political leaders, courts, traditional institutions, providers of leisure services, NGOs, and communities. We need a common vocabulary to understand and tackle VAC.
That is why it is time to take action together to end VAC. The plan of action launched on September 1, 2015 highlights some of the actions we can take and the streams of partnership required.
As the Goodwill Ambassador as well as a parent and uncle, I take the responsibility to advocate for this plan seriously. It’s personal.
The things we need to do are many. We may need to adopt new laws in some places or find new money in others. But for the most part, the plan of action requires us to care, to take responsibility and to show that we do. It requires us to:
• Create a protective environment for children not for those that abuse them;
• Be less tolerant of violence towards them, and not tolerate their abuse;
• To encourage children to speak up, not shut the up;
• To improve the quality of support services for children and make institutions for their care work;
• To ensure accountability for acts of abuse of children and prioritise all these.
• To make social media a responsible and safe place for children by using it as a medium for positive values and by eschewing hate and violence.
We may not have the best of everything but we have a duty to make the best of everything we have.
To achieve this we need a different kind of lens on how we view children: to see them as people like us, a little more vulnerable, perhaps; capable of getting hurt but, perhaps a little more so. We owe them a collective duty of responsible action.
Above all, this plan of action requires us to foster a responsible country and government. Such a country is one that commits to promoting the dignity, worth and wellbeing of every child as citizen without discrimination on grounds of race, ethnic origins, faith, sex, status, circumstances of birth or other irrelevancies. It is a country in which hate has no place in politics and in which every child counts and is counted.
Over the next year, we will take this message across the country. We will seek partnerships to promote it. We will invite your personal stake holding in getting across the message that to secure our tomorrow, first we have to secure our children’s today. This is why we need to take action together to end VAC. Let’s do it… Together!
Chidi Odinkalu is Chair of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission (NHRC).