The Akwa Ibom Debacle On Child Rights

Sunday, December 21, 2008

AGAINST widespread reports of child abuse and stigmatisation in the state, the decision of the Akwa Ibom state Government to enact a law on Child Rights should be commended. For too long, religious profiteers and self-acclaimed exorcists have capitalised on the pervasive poverty in the land to stigmatise children as witches or wizards; and then go on to abuse them under the pretext of exorcising demons.

We urge the Akwa Ibom state Government to implement the new law strictly, fish out offenders and sanction them as appropriate. However, although the state has taken the initiative in enacting the Child Rights law, the social vice of child abuse is widespread. Other states which in the last eight years have refused to pass the Child Rights Law, on the unjustifiable ground that it violates cultural and religious beliefs, should emulate the Akwa Ibom example and do so.

Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Child Rights, 1989 which at least 24 states of the federation are required to endorse through their domestic laws. So far, about 18 states have embraced the convention. In view of the Akwa Ibom experience, and the likelihood of more bizarre situations in other parts of the country, there is need for urgent proactive measures against child abuse at national and state levels. But more important is the need to apprehend and sanction violators of the law.
Both the Akwa Ibom House of Assembly and Governor Godswill Akpabio of the State resorted to the law in apparent response to the recent broadcast on UK Channel 4 of a documentary titled 'Saving Africa's Witch Children.' In the documentary, which gave a detailed account of sheer cruelty towards children, one Bishop Sunday Ulup-Aya claimed to have "killed" 110 child witches. Upon his arrest by the Police, following sustained public outrage, he modified this to mean that he did not kill the children physically, but the demonic spirit in them.

Two Non-Governmental Organisations, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN) and the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) have applauded the Akwa Ibom state Government's swift response to the documentary and the concern that it generated. Stigmatising children and branding them 'witches' and 'wizards' is certainly an unacceptable practice in this day and age. Its representation by the documentary casts a big slur on Nigeria's image abroad. Besides the fact that witchcraft cannot be proven scientifically, stigmatizing anyone as a witch and discriminating against such persons is an outright abuse of human rights.

It is lamentable that centuries after the legendary Mary Slessor rescued twins in the Eastern part of the country from being labelled as 'evil' and disposable, a similar belief and practice still exists across the country. We have little doubt that the Akwa Ibom episode is being regularly replicated in other parts of the country. Sometime ago, a television documentary showed how some children in Lagos had their hands burnt on account that they allegedly harboured evil spirits.

It is equally worrisome that some churches, which are supposed to preach the messages of peace, love and forgiveness are in the forefront of the rituals of exorcism and hate. We are confounded because the Scriptures do not recommend the methods of physical and mental torture adopted by these churches for expelling evil spirits. Socially too, such practices negate the standards of counselling and rehabilitation of persons that may have been identified as deviant.

In any event, since the law does not recognise witchcraft, anyone purporting to abuse a child, or inflict bodily harm for that reason, should be made to face the music. In the absence of a standard means of verifying a claim of witchcraft, it will be dangerous to tolerate exorcism anchored on deliberate bodily harm and death. An innocent person could well become a victim of such heinous acts as has been the case in Akwa Ibom state.

Under the Child Rights law, passed by the Akwa Ibom state House of Assembly and signed by Governor Akpabio, anyone involved in any form of torture, trial by ordeal or inhuman treatment of a child, purportedly to cure, purge or exorcise such a child of witchcraft would be liable to 10 years imprisonment without an option of fine. To ensure speedy trial of offenders under the law, the Governor further announced the establishment of a special family court to determine matters related to children. These measures are welcome.

As future leaders, children must be protected from acts capable of eroding their confidence and self-esteem. It is noteworthy that the Akwa Ibom Child Rights law makes it mandatory for parents and guardians to send children to school under the government's free and compulsory education scheme. No effort should be spared to ensure conformity with the law.

Beyond this, there is need for public enlightenment. We share the concern of the SSN programme Director, Gary Foxcroff that that the vast majority of Akwa Ibomites including commissioners, legislators, policy makers, police and social welfare teams, and even ordinary persons believe that children can be witches. Some people even tend to associate ailments such as epilepsy with witchcraft. The abuse of child rights is likely to continue for as long as this superstition endures. There is need for a government-private sector partnership, to launch a widespread and relentless campaign to educate

Guardian Newspaper (Nigeria)
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