Left to Die: We the People Presents New Report on Abuse of Children in Calabar, Cross River State
At a Town Hall Meeting in Calabar held on the 22nd of November 2021, We the People publicly presented its latest research publication focused on the phenomenon of street children in Calabar, a phenomenon which has achieved atrocious notoriety. The report which is the product of painstaking research over a period of 1 year makes profonde recommendation on tackling a menace which questions our very humanity.
In Calabar, the capital of Cross River state, hundreds of children, some of them younger than 9 years live on the streets without any adult supervision and care, fending for themselves in any manner they see possible, with any means available. They band together at recreation parks, street corners, shopping malls, fast food outlets, ATM cashpoints and anywhere they believe they can extract a bit of charity from members of the public. The number of these kids have continued to increase without any apparent government backed efforts to check the situation.
In the last decade, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of street children in Calabar. These kids are exposed to the most horrendous conditions of existence, conditions that can only be described as atrocious. To survive each day, they depend only on what they can scavenge from refuse dumps, leftovers at restaurants, what they can steal and the occasional goodwill of a few individuals and organizations.
Research by We the People contained in its new publication ‘Left to Die: Forgotten Street Kids of Calabar’ indicates that all the kids have glaring signs of diseases of the epidermis, some in advanced stages of decay and permanent skin damage. Almost all of them have visible signs of malnourishment and exposure to narcotics including marijuana, codeine, tramadol and adhesive glue which they sniff regularly. Their sunken eyes reflect their level of addiction, a result of years of substance abuse.
The kids have developed strategies for survival which include the use of organized violence, stealing, deception, etc. The lack of care, supervision, support system and any kind of moral and positive behavioral guidance, coupled with alarming exposure to and interaction with adult criminals has goaded them to extremes of criminal behaviors. Unfortunately, this particular reality of street kids has shaped the rather narrow public perception of them. To most residents of Calabar, these kids are social vermin that need to be expunged from society by any means necessary. They are treated with disdain and often abuse. When possible, they are exploited through forced and unfair labour, through sexual abuse or just beaten for the ‘crime’ of their existence. There is a mood of lethargy surrounding street children in Calabar despite the mind-boggling realities that surround their existence. Many persons and institution with the capacity to champion the cause of addressing the issue, are lackluster towards it. In bizarre irony, the victims- children as young as nine years old- are blamed for the abuses they suffer and the fact that their society has consistently failed to protect them. They are regarded as pests, parasites and pollutants of social good that need to be eliminated, definitely not helped or supported. Exposed in this manner, and driven farther away from any kind of social care or support, they have become victims of a growing mob of abusers including criminal masterminds, serial physical abusers and pedophiles; including a cartel of middlemen and women whose enterprise is the abuse and exploitation of children.
In Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, a brand of Pentecostal Christianity mixed with traditional practices and spiritualism is the main culprit in the phenomena. The high points of this variety of Christianity include belief in the power of witchcraft and demons to possess human bodies and through them, bring misfortune to loved ones and family members. The other is that those possessed can be ‘saved’ through extreme exorcism which most times involves physical torture including flogging, branding with hot metals, burning, starvation, restraint through chaining, exposure to extreme weather, denial of sleep and prolonged incarceration. It is common practice for these churches to pronounce people witches and wizards. It is however interesting to note that it is very often young children that are branded witches and wizards. The reason is because these are the weak and vulnerable who cannot defend themselves. It is held that about 15,000 children have been branded witches and wizards in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. Survey revealed that in some areas, up to 85% of street children were out of their homes on account of witchcraft branding.
Other drivers include the practice of handing children over to relatives or total strangers for the purpose of serving as ‘houseboys’ and ‘house-girls’ in exchange for apprenticeship or formal education. Parents willingly enter into verbal contracts with people they hardly know, and give away their kids to a life of servitude in exchange for an education and occasional financial payments. Exposed in this manner, kids end up in homes where they are abused and exploited with no formal or informal systems in place to protect them. Sometimes, faced with intense life-threatening abuses, they run away. Unable to trace their villages and parents, they inadvertently end up on the streets.
We the People research reveals that some of the girls take up employment as sex workers in many of Calabar’s brothels where they hire bed spaces in dimly lit, damp and putrid rooms. In these rooms, they offer ‘short-time’ sex (lasting anything between 30 minutes and 1 hour) for as low as N500. In the brothels, they are sexually exploited by an average of 11 male clients every day. Much of that income is paid to the brothel owners for accommodation.
Our findings show that the inability of the Cross River state government to implement its own Child Rights Law is the single most important reason the street child phenomenon continues and escalates. Similarly, there is a mood of inertia surrounding street children in Calabar. Many persons and institution with the capacity to champion the cause of addressing this issue, are lethargic towards it. In a bizarre irony, the victims- sometimes children less than 10 years old- are blamed for the abuses they suffer and the fact that their society has failed to protect them. They are regarded as vermin, parasites and pollutants of social good that need to be eliminated, not helped or supported. Exposed in this manner, they have become victims of criminals who specialize in converting them to a life of violence and crime.
Unfortunately, the responses of the government has mostly been punitive, the key one being the formation of ‘Operation Skolombo’. These approaches do not take into consideration the deeper and more far reaching issues including how the kids got on the street in the first place, and what needs to be done to reverse the trend.
Only the government can effect the changes wish are required to address the problem in a far-reaching manner. Accordingly, we recommend the following measures;
1. The government must establish frameworks to ensure the full implementation of the state’s Child Rights Law. Implementation should include creating the institutions necessary to ensure that children enjoy the rights contained in the law, as well as prosecuting violators of those rights.
2. The government must establish centres for the rehabilitation of street children. These centres should include counselling services as well as drug recovery and rehabilitation services.
3. The government must ensure that it takes punitive actions against religious bodies and traditional institutions that promote the labeling and stigmatization of children.
Children are growing-up on the streets of Calabar without any support from family, society or government; without morals, care or concern and without skills, learning or opportunities.
Their vengeance on society in the future can only be imagined.