In Lagos, Nigeria, marginalized children face exploitation, trafficking and abuse
By Alex Duval Smith
UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, was launched on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.
LAGOS, Nigeria, 1 March 2012 – Sex and drugs are readily available on Kuramo Beach, a stretch of sand along the Gulf of Guinea. Children play in the sand, not far from sex workers. Nearby, tough young men known as ‘area boys’ sit under battered beach umbrellas.
VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on efforts by UNICEF and partners to locate and assist children living on the streets of Lagos.
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It is also home to children living and working on the streets of Lagos.
Deprived of opportunities
Lagos, a chaotic and polluted mega-city built on swamps and reclaimed lagoons, is an economic draw for all of West Africa. UN agencies estimate that 10.2 million people live in the city, and 49 per cent of the country’s population is under age 18. This means a staggering number of children live in the dense metropolitan area.
Though the city presents a variety of opportunities, many children do not benefit from them. Some live in slums, others are victims of trafficking. Still others have been forced onto the streets by abuse or poverty. These marginalized children are vulnerable to exploitation, violence, drug use and recruitment into gangs.
“More and more children are running away,” said Ngozi Ekwerike-Okora, a coordinator with Child-to-Child Network and the Lagos State Child Protection Network.
“Many come from broken homes, which makes them vulnerable to peers who recruit them in their villages and sell them to be trained as pickpockets,” she said, describing rural children brought to Lagos by traffickers and sold to the ‘area boys’, who employ them as petty thieves and take their earnings.
Damilola Onalaja, 15, lived on the streets for 18 months. He is now training at a printing company and has reconnected with his family.
Many children and adolescents living on the streets of Lagos beg or hawk goods at traffic lights. Some offer their services as porters in the nearby Ikoyi business district; others work as conductors aboard the city's distinctive yellow minibus taxis.
One boy said he used to earn up to 1,500 naira a day [US$10] as a conductor but was regularly robbed by ‘area boys’, who would leave him with just enough to buy food.
Reaching those in need
Fifteen-year-old Chinasa Paul is an orphan from Ebonyi State, 500 km away. He lives and works on Kuramo Beach.
“What we do here is carry drinks [crates] from the gate to the other end of the beach,” he said. “In a morning, I get 200 naira [approximately US$1.25] for doing that. Then I buy food and we play football.”
It is the third time that workers from Child-to-Child Network, a non-governmental organization, have found him sleeping on the streets. The first time, he received three months of counseling and hot meals at the organization’s reception centre.
When he declined to return to the home of an uncle in Lagos, he was placed in a home for children, but he ran away after he an employee there treated him roughly. Child-to-Child Network then arranged for him to stay with another uncle in eastern Nigeria, but that situation did not work, either.
“People in that place, they talk to me anyhow and beat me anyhow,” Chinasa said.
Ngozi Ekwerike-Okoro, co-ordinator of Child-to-Child Network, is greeted by children.
Damilola Onalaja was 10 years old when his mother died and his father started beating him. He left home and spent 18 months on the streets of Lagos before discovering Child-to-Child Network's reception centre.
Child-to-Child Network placed him in a home, Child Lifeline. There, he found some of the stability he needed. He even calls the home’s matron ‘mummy’.
Now 15, Damilola works as an apprentice printer.
“Mummy asked if I wanted to go back to my father, but I said no,” Damilola said. “Now he comes and visits me and our relationship is okay.”
Challenges and obstacles
Often, family reunification is in the child’s best interest. UNICEF supports Child Lifeline and Child-to-Child Network, as well as the Child Protection Network (CPN), which operates throughout Nigeria. These groups collaborate to protect children from abuse and exploitation, and work together to find children’s families.
But Sara Beysolow-Nyanti, chief of UNICEF's Lagos field office, explained that tracing children’s families can be a gigantic task.
“Census and planning data are missing and the population is moving all the time. In Lagos, the number of people on paper and the number of people in the streets is not the same. You have thousands of children who are not documented and so, officially, do not exist.”
This lack of information can make it difficult to reach those children most in need.
“When it comes to providing basic social services, that is a huge challenge,” Ms. Beysolow-Nyanti said.