Children’s Day: ‘There’re Too Many Children On Akwa Ibom Streets’ — Activists

Story, interview by: Cletus Ukpong, Deborah John and Gladys George.

At a PREMIUM TIMES round table, Uyo, to mark the Children’s Day, three young women – Sifon Udo, founder, Smartmothers Foundation, an NGO tackling teenage pregnancy in Akwa Ibom; Uduak Ekong, chairperson, Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ), Akwa Ibom State; and Imaobong Akpan, a blogger – discuss challenges facing child development in Akwa Ibom.

'There’re Too Many Children On Akwa Ibom Streets' — Activists
Street children in Uyo, Akwa Ibom

PT: Mrs Ekong, as a journalist, do you think we have sufficient platforms where child development and related issues are discussed in Akwa Ibom?

EKONG: I can’t say yes, I can’t say no. Why I would even hesitate in giving an answer to that is because, for a state that has a (Child Rights) law which is supposed to ensure that the rights of the child is respected, you still discover daily that so many children are passing through situations that ordinarily they should not go through. And so, you wonder what has happened to that law.

I am worried because for years, I have been expecting that we would see a reduction in the number of children who hawk on the street, for instance. But every day as I drive along the road, I notice that rather than a reduction, it appears to be a thriving enterprise. We have too many children on the street.

PT: How much of child development issues do we have people talked about on the social media these days?

AKPAN: Sadly, it’s one of the least talked-about challenges in the society. The child is hardly talked about on social media. People only talk about what directly affects them. Mothers are the closest to the children, and mothers are hardly active on social media. The active age are the youth, it’s easier for them to talk about politics, entrepreneurship, and even vices than things pertaining to children.

PT: Ms Udo, you run an organisation which deals with teenage pregnancy. How would you describe the condition of an Akwa Ibom child?

UDO: Vulnerable! They are vulnerable because they do not have the right information to guide them through their daily activities, and they are not being supported by their parents. And coming to the society, they are faced with a myriad of problems.

PT: Very often, we hear of poor children being accused of being a witch. But we hardly see children from rich and privileged background being labelled as such?

EKONG: People have linked such accusation to poverty, and it is usually in households where they are going through some tough phases – either the father is having hard luck, maybe he just lost a job, the mother is barely struggling to manage the little that is available – and suddenly this child that is obviously malnourished becomes the focus of attention.

And someone would just give a hint – have you looked at this child? And then the next thing, the child is thrown out from the home, as we have heard and read in the past.

I have never come across a story where a son or a daughter of one big politician is labelled a witch.

PT: Are Akwa Ibom children getting the right education?

'There’re Too Many Children On Akwa Ibom Streets' — Activists
Ms Imaobong Akpan, blogger

AKPAN: Yes, some who can afford the school that can provide the right education. But, unfortunately, for those who cannot afford to pay for private schools, I am not sure they are. But the public schools are what produced our current set of leaders and gave them quality education!

PT: Let’s talk about teenage pregnancy

UDO: From the demographic health survey in 2015, we have about 31.5 per cent teenage pregnancy rate in Nigeria, which amounts to about 20,000 birth rate per month in Nigeria. The situation is high in Akwa Ibom State, especially in a riverine area like Oron. Teenage pregnancy is on the increase in rural areas.

The key factor here is poverty, but there are cases of abuses, and parental neglects.

We have a case of a teen mother, she was raped by an uncle who stayed close to them. She wanted to tell her parents about it, but they didn’t want to listen to her. They chased her out of the house.

Another factor is, when these girls see how their friends are living big, they also want to be like them. They go for what they cannot afford and as a result give themselves out freely to men.

In the case of poverty, we have two of our teen mothers, between the age of 16 and 19, who got pregnant because they could not afford sanitary pad, so they slept with men who promised to buy them the pad. There’s another one who slept with a man because of sweet and got pregnant!

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They have given birth. Because they have not been given the right care, even when they give birth they still don’t have the right information to pick up their lives and move on, and so they run into multiple pregnancies. We have a case of a 19-year-old who has two children already and she is pregnant with the third one.

PT: The teenager who got pregnant because of sweet, how old is she?

UDO: She is getting to 17, she was 15 when she got pregnant.

These stories are real.

Most of the men who get these girls pregnant are the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members who probably leave the area after their service year. Others are just regular men on the streets.

In Obio Akpa, a developing community where you have a campus of the Akwa Ibom State University, young girls make it a competition to get pregnant – if I am your friend and I get pregnant, you are no more in my clique. I make you feel like you are no more in my class, I now have a kid, so I have many responsibilities. It’s like, look I have more money than you.

This thing is a cycle, a teen mom will probably have her own female child take after her and also get pregnant the same way.

PT: How is your organisation handling all this?

UDO: We try to give them some orientation. We also partner with some organisations. For instance, we are currently partnering an organisation called Sayuhair Academy to train them on wig-making.

PT: How about going after those responsible for the pregnancies?

UDO: The challenge we have is that most times, before these girls come in, it is already too late. Most of them don’t even know how to locate those who got them pregnant.

EKONG: When I listened to Sifon (Udo) talked about the riverine areas, what struck me is that it is the same in all the riverine communities; the children there are independent by the time they are eight or nine years old.

Because it’s a fishing community, they are doing one thing or the other to have their own little money, and they are not interested in school anymore. And some of them make friends with the fishermen. So, these are the children that start early to take alcohol, and their parents have no control over them.

PT: What’s the media doing about this?

EKONG: The problem we have in NAWOJ is having this information. Until somebody brings it to our attention, it’s a bit difficult to do some of these stories.

PT: You work with the AKBC-TV (Akwa Ibom State Broadcasting Corporation), does your TV station do this kind of story, go out there to do reports on the abuse of children?

EKONG: Yes, they do. But in all my years of working with AKBC, I cannot remember when it was an editorial thing – like it’s assigned to you, go and do this.

PT: Why?

EKONG: Commercialisation of news, I think, has really spoiled things. Because in AKBC, first and foremost, every news item is supposed to be paid for. But this particular type of reportage falls under special report, it’s painstaking, it’s time-taking, and you have to spend so much money to do it.

You may not also have reporters who have passion for this kind of report. When I used to do special reports, I used my resources to do it. These last two years, I have been on leave. I am hoping that when I go back, I am going to start doing those reports again.

PT: How do we tackle pastors who prophesy to parents that their children are witches?

AKPAN: It is a very dicey one because the parents or guardians who take these children to the pastors would hardly give information that could incriminate these pastors or prophets.

You may not have sufficient evidence, except it was captured in a video. Most deliverance services in these churches are often private sessions between the pastors, parents, and the child involved. If we have some people caught and then punished for it, maybe others would sit up.

And talking about witchcraft, I think society is defined by the level of exposure of its members. In Akwa Ibom, people watch a lot of Nollywood movies that tend to paint a picture of witches, and those pictures formed our perception generally – witches are supposed to look like old women, maybe, with bad teeth, going by pictures from Nollywood.

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Witches are supposed to look like children who are malnourished. Politicians’ children are not malnourished, so they don’t fit into the picture of a witch. A child in the village without proper nutrition fits perfectly into that picture.

PT: Now, let me ask you this, do you believe witchcraft is real?

AKPAN: Yes, I believe.

UDO: I come from a very religious background. But personally, I don’t believe it’s real. It’s a mind-set thing.

EKONG: It’s real. As real as the air that we are breathing!

PT: Okay, but you know, having the belief that witchcraft is real is actually the foundation which sustains the suspicion that other people are behind your travails in life?

AKPAN: I believe physical problem needs physical solution. So, spiritual issues should be tackled spiritually. It is not enough to…. I don’t even think children should be accused of witchcraft; children need love. It’s wrong to kill children in the name of witchcraft.

PT: How far has the state been able to tackle the trend where children from Akwa Ibom are sent out to go serve as domestic help in Lagos, Abuja, and other cities in Nigeria?

AKPAN: It is still happening. It is just that it is not being talked about. Some people are still deliberately going out there to serve as helps just to escape poverty in their homes. The difference is that people are now more exposed as not to treat them in a more inhumane manner.

PT: Sifon, what help is your NGO getting from the government?

UDO: We are still trying to reach out to the people in government, but we’ve not been successful.

PT: Talking about sexual abuse, what age is a young person expected to have sexual relationships?

UDO: You are allowed to get married at 18, it’s the official age of adulthood in Nigeria.

PT: Are young people getting the right mentoring?

EKONG: I think the problem lies with young people identifying the right people whose lives they can emulate. These days, people no longer listen to what you say; they look at what you do. So, to be a mentor, you have to live a life that makes you an ideal role model.

Since last year, we’ve been talking about mentorship in the state, we’ve been going to schools to talk to young girls – our focus is on the girls. And sometimes I feel for the young boys because I just noticed that every foundation is talking about the girls, I am yet to see one for the boys.

I don’t know why I have this feeling that the young girls do not even have people that they admire and look up to. As a young girl then, I used to admire Ruth Benamaisia Opia of NTA, the way she used to cast news.

Even now, at my age, I still have older women that I admire from a distance and I keep wishing that one day I will get close to them. But when you talk to the young girls today, you discover that a lot of them do not watch news channels; the only thing the watch is Nollywood movies.

What do they learn from African Magic? They don’t read newspapers, they don’t read magazines. So, where you have a generation coming up that do not have access to the platforms that would give them these people that they need, then it is difficult. Where they don’t know them (the role models) and they don’t have an idea of who they would want to be like when they grow up, then I don’t know how the mentorship thing would work.

PT: Everyone seems to be saying that the labelling of children as witch has a lot to do with poverty. But poverty is widespread, across Nigeria. Why is witchcraft so pronounced in Akwa Ibom?

AKPAN: I do not know exactly where we missed it as a people. But, I have realised we hardly have commonness of some basic values that define us as a people positively. Something we can hold on to like people in the west, they have respect for the traditional system, for fathers and mothers. They have an unwritten value for education and for helping one another.

If I look at my state, I hardly see something my parents, my elders talked about as something positive that we are known for that unites us.

You have asked a question on mentorship, I don’t see a deliberate succession plan for the people.

The Igbos have a culture of business and a succession plan even in the businesses they do. In Akwa Ibom, we have very many brilliant people who are working individually in different sectors, but there is no deliberate effort to bring these people together.

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'There’re Too Many Children On Akwa Ibom Streets' — Activists
Ms Sifon Udo, founder, Smartsmothers Foundation

PT: What is happening to the child right law in Akwa Ibom?

AKPAN: I have not seen much of its implementation in the state.

PT: Is social media helping or destroying young people?

UDO: The negative side of it far outweighs the positive side. Most teenagers just want to join Facebook, for instance, because their friends are on Facebook; they don’t even know why they are on Facebook. So, they get to meet the wrong people, they get to learn the wrong things.

PT: We have heard reports about kids who go to school with phone and spend time watching pornographic materials?

EKONG: I am not aware of that.

UDO: A volunteer in one organisation shared a story about a child of a wealthy man…. She’s in primary five, she was caught in the school watching pornography with a boy. Seriously, it is happening, I am in the know.

EKONG: So what happened after they were caught?

UDO: Their parents were called in by the school.

PT: Should we believe that the government of Akwa Ibom is aware of these challenges facing child development in the state?

AKPAN: Yes, I think they are aware. They live in the society, they meet with people every day, and people knock on their office door to share information with the officials of government.

PT: Have you been properly informed about government policies and programmes for young people in the state?

AKPAN: No. The government is not talking. On the contrary, it is foundations like the one Sifon Udo is running that is doing the talking.

PT: How can we take the Children’s Day beyond mere ceremony we have been used to over the years?

EKONG: Who even does the ceremony? It’s the government. But should the government really be blamed for what is happening to our children? Yes, there’s so much to expect from the government, but I think child development largely begins from home.

You know, some parents just take their children to school and drop them there for the teachers.

How many parents have time to attend PTA meetings? How many parents read their children’s books and actually go through their notes to find out if they are copying their notes? How many of the parents interface with the teachers to find out how the child is doing?

Sometimes, the schools try to drag the parents along in the task of raising the children, but most times the parents are the ones who would make nasty comments. It’s one thing to pay fees for your child in school, it’s another thing to follow through.

PT: What has happened to the traditional family setting where parents and the kids have meals together on the dining table, while real family discussion takes place?

EKONG: I am not aware it happens anymore. Because you know the hustle is real, but the hustle should not be the reason why bonding time should be removed from the family. But sadly, in most families, this is not happening.

'There’re Too Many Children On Akwa Ibom Streets' — Activists
Mrs Uduak Ekong, chairperson, Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ), Akwa Ibom state

The fathers are hardly there.

Even when he is there, he is more interested in watching his sports channels and does n’t want to be bothered. I think the men, over time, have left the children upbringing to the mothers.

PT: Let’s talk about the sudden increase in the rate of suicide among young people.

AKPAN: Except for those ones who just came face-to-face with a sharp painful experience like emotional heartbreak they could not handle, I believe suicidal persons are persons who have come to a point where they see no positive picture in their future. It seems all they see is hopelessness. So, talking about young people in Nigeria who think about suicide, it means these people have gotten to a point where they cannot hold on anymore.

PT: Drug abuse is a big problem among young people.

UDO: Yes, substance abuse in Akwa Ibom is really high.

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