Day of the African Child: Interrogating policies, programmes on internally displaced children

Children1

As the world commemorates the International Day of the African Child on Thursday, June 16, 2022, with the theme, Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice since 2013, there is a need to expand the conversation around harmful practices against children with a focus on Nigeria. This discourse becomes necessary with the increasing number of internally displaced persons, especially children, resulting from conflict as well as other pull factors across the country.

Already, there are harmful practices, such as “House girl syndrome” that are widely practised all over the country. These girls are mostly below the age of 18, which is the age recognised by different international frameworks as the adult age. There have been reports of gross abuse of these boys and girls by their hosts and relatives without many programmes in place to address their peculiar needs. This is in addition to a large number of children that have been exposed to different forms of vulnerabilities as a result of conflict and other push factors. Therefore, the elimination of harmful practices against children in Nigeria requires that we also discuss the problem in the context of internally displaced children.

To have a full understanding of the problem, it will be appropriate to answer the question: What and why in terms of the meaning of harmful practices against children. Harmful practices are cultural or traditional practices that put the child at risk. The practice includes child marriage, female genital mutilation, skin marking, breast ironing, female infanticide, forced feeding and house help syndrome, among others. However, considering the context of this discussion, we shall limit the conversation to child marriage and FGM, which are the most common.

According to a 2021 report by UNICEF, about 1.4 million children below 18 years old are internally displaced in North-East Nigeria, with most of them settling in host communities and many more living in IDP camps within Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states respectively. It must be noted that this figure is only derived from those directly affected by insurgency; children that have been displaced due to banditry, farmers-herders conflicts and other forms of insecurities in other parts of the country are not covered here. Putting this in perspective, it is the opinion of this writer that about 2 million Nigerian children may have been internally displaced. Hence, this makes them vulnerable to various risks, including traditional and cultural harmful practices, rape and other forms of gender-based violence. As noted earlier, the most common harmful cultural and traditional practices that displaced children are at risk of are child marriage and FGM. Hence, girls especially are said to be the most commonly abused by these practices. It is important to note that child marriage is particularly common in the northern region of the country where insurgency and the associated displacement is prevalent. Therefore, some factors that may come to play that make IDP children vulnerable to child marriage may include economic hardship that displaced parents are exposed to; parents may be tempted to send their girl child into marriage (this is to reduce the financial burden of catering for many children as well as the financial gains). Similarly, relocation to a new environment and community, where the practice of child marriage is common and accepted, may further put displaced children, especially the girl child, at risk of this practice.

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FGM—the cutting of the clitoris of the female child—is a traditional practice that negatively impacts the health of the girl child. Displaced children may become vulnerable to this practice as a result of a change from their original environment to a new one where the practice may be common (or even in the IDP camps where there are people with different values and norms interacting and sharing culture with one another). Again, the fear of teenage pregnancy in the IDP camps may account for why parents give out their children in marriage inside IDP camps. As a fallout, these parents resorted to FGM as a cultural practice to reduce the sexual urge of their daughters while in the camp.

The question arises, therefore: What are the policies that protect displaced children in Nigeria against harmful practices?

Nigeria has since 2003 developed policies that protect children from harmful practices, including child marriage and FGM—The Child Rights Act 2003 (Article 21 against child marriage and Article 24 against skin markings); the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015 (subsections 6 against FGM and subsection 20 against harmful traditional practices). Similarly, section 3.1.4 of the National Policy on IDP (2012), which was launched in March 2022, focuses on the rights for internally displaced children and ensures the protection of children below 18 years from early and forced marriage. Although this part of the policy does not have protection against FGM, however, chapter 3.1.3 of the policy, titled “b”, notes the rights and dignity of all IDPs are protected, including from any form of mutilation.

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Therefore, three major policies have been formulated since 2003 that protect displaced children from harmful practices in Nigeria. However, the implementation of these frameworks remains a huge challenge. These challenges could be further narrowed to the limitation in the scope of the policies, for example, the CRA 2003 does not clearly define the issue of FGM while the VAPP Act 2015 does not cover the issue of early child marriage; the domestication of the policies by some states in Nigeria, an example is the CRA 2003 that is yet to be domesticated by 11 out of 36 states in Nigeria (these 11 states are mostly from the northern part of the country that is averse to most of the content in the Act); and defining clear mechanisms in the policies to ensure the protection of internally displaced children from early child marriage and FGM for example, the IDP policy that is meant for the protection of IDPs, does not include mechanisms that will ensure that displaced children either living in IDP camps or host communities can be adequately protected from such harmful practices.

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From the above discussion, ensuring the protection of internally displaced children from harmful practices in Nigeria, the CRA 2003 should be reviewed with a section dedicated to the protection of children during conflicts, insurgencies, crises or natural disasters. Similarly, the CRA 2003 review should include another section dedicated to the protection of children against all forms of harmful practices including FGM which is presently not clearly defined in the Act. Furthermore, the VAPP Act 2015 should be reviewed to clearly define what acts constitute harmful practices; this should include early child marriage and FGM. The IDP policy 2012 should also be reviewed to clearly define Female Genital Mutilation. Consequently, all three policies, the CRA 2003, VAPP 2015 and the IDP policy 2012 should be reviewed to reflect a clear mechanism for the protection of displaced children from early child marriage and FGM. Lastly, the remaining 11 states should be compelled to adopt and domesticate the CRA 2003.

 Ndabula, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Research and Studies, National Defence College, writes from  Abuja

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