|© UNICEF Nigeria/2009|
|UNICEF Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador Nwankwo Kanu with children at the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network Centre in Esi-Eket, Akwa Ibom State, located in the South-South zone of Nigeria.|
By Geoffrey Njoku
ESI-EKET, Nigeria, 2 July 2009 – Paul, a young man whose father heads a school, has been living at the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) centre in Esi-Eket for about two years now. His father visits him at the centre occasionally but is not willing to take him home due to the stigma associated with ‘child witches’.
Paul was accused of witchcraft by his stepmother. She took him to a church where the pastor pronounced him to be a witch; then she drove him out of the house. “I felt so bad when my stepmother called me a witch,” said Paul. “I could not play or talk with people.”
The ‘child witch’ phenomenon is based on the notion that children exercise supernatural powers to negatively control people and events. It involves sorcery and magic, and is rooted in traditional beliefs. Accused children suffer the worst forms of deprivation of their rights – including rejection and abandonment by their parents, physical and psychological abuse and, in extreme cases, even death.
Lifting children’s spirits
Paul and the other residents of the CRARN centre had something to cheer about when UNICEF Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador Nwankwo Kanu recently visited them. Mr. Kanu’s visit – marked by his clear affection for the children and distress over their fate – brought hope and lifted the spirits of the children.
Esi-Eket is a beautiful country village in Akwa Ibom State in the South-South zone of Nigeria. Since 2003, when CRARN coordinator Sam Ikpe Itauma rescued three abandoned children, a small block of houses among the lush vegetation have become home and school to about 186 children dubbed ‘witches’.
CRARN President Sam Ikpe Itauma explained that the centre takes in 10 to 15 new children every week. The children have been abandoned or sent there by their families for ‘cleansing’. Some families believe that if children go to the centre, they are cleansed of their powers.
Community’s role in protection
Mr. Kanu’s visit spotlighted the need to support children housed at the centre. UNICEF Representative in Nigeria Dr. Suomi Sakai took advantage of the event – which drew high-level policy makers, community leaders and villagers – to remind everyone of society’s role in protecting children.
“These children need the protection and care of all of us in the community,” she said. “They are all our children.”
Dr. Sakai praised the state government for its adoption of a Child Rights Law and for taking measures against offenders who abuse children. She also called for even stronger implementation of the law to ensure that children are systematically protected in the state.
It was a visit that moved hearts and might have changed some minds.
Support for child rights
In advance of the visit, UNICEF had struck a private-sector partnership with Zenith Bank, one of Nigeria’s leading financial institutions, resulting in a donation of $85,000 to build child-friendly facilities at the CRARN centre. When the facilities are completed, the children will have decent accommodations and space for counselling, recreation and study.
UNICEF has helped various non-governmental organizations, as well as CRARN, to provide effective rehabilitation, care and protection for rejected children accused of witchcraft. In addition, it has drawn on a range of social mobilization strategies to build consensus on the evil of the ‘child witch’ stigma and the need to eradicate it.
UNICEF also helped civil-society organizations lobby for passage of the Child Rights Law. Enacted in 2008, the law criminalized the practice of accusing children of witchcraft and imposed stiff penalties for offenders, several of whom have already been prosecuted and jailed.