COVID-19: Children suffer violence during Lagos lockdown
With cases of violence against children increasing in Lagos State, UNICEF is supporting Partnerships for Justice to provide medical and psychosocial support to child survivors of sexual assault and to help them access justice
Thirteen-year-old Rose* had been sexually and physically abused by her father for as long as she could remember. Her mother had left when Rose was very young, leaving her and her father alone in their one-room apartment in a populated suburb of Lagos.
Things got worse when the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown in Lagos led to the closure of schools and the implementation other social distancing measures, as Rose’s father saw this as an opportunity to rape her every night. He would physically abuse her whenever she tried to stop him.
Her stifled cries during one of those nights caught her neighbor’s attention, which finally led to Rose’s rescue. The neighbour alerted the owner of the apartment building, who reported the case to Mirabel Centre, a one-stop centre managed by Partnership for Justice, a non-profit organization supported by UNICEF that provides medical and psychosocial services to survivors of sexual violence.
The father was taken into custody, while medical examinations carried out on Rose revealed a pregnancy. She is currently receiving medical and psychosocial help and lives with the family of the neighbour that rescued her.
Rose’s case is one of many that are currently being handled by the Mirabel Centre since the lockdown began in Lagos. “We are worried. The lockdown led to an over 50 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of sexual violence at our center. Up to 85 per cent of those cases were children,” said Itoro Ezeanaba, Executive Director of Partnership for Justice.
Nevertheless, Ezeanaba still suspects an under-reporting of incidents. “When this all ends and children are free to go out and back to school where they will be able to meet people they can confide in, we may witness an influx of cases,” she said.
Findings from the 2014 National Survey on Violence Against Children reveals that six out of every ten children in Nigeria have suffered one or more forms of physical, sexual or emotional violence before they reached 18, and that one in four girls and one in ten boys have experienced sexual violence. This violence often occurs in a place where the child is considered safe, such as their homes and schools, and fewer than five per cent of children who are victims of violence ever get the help they need to recover.
“It is worrisome that violence against children is often carried out by those known to the children, not strangers,” said Denis Onoise, a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist based in Lagos.
When the abuser is on lockdown 24/7 with children
Movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress all increase the likelihood of children experiencing and observing physical, psychological and sexual violence at home. The stay-at-home order has made it difficult for victims of violence, i.e. children, to avoid their abusers.
In addition to providing medical and psychosocial support and legal redress for victims and survivors like Rose, UNICEF is supporting the Mirabel Centre to protect children during lockdowns. This is being done through community dialogue and advocacy, especially in the local government areas with the highest number of reported cases, in order to sensitize communities on the dangers of violence against children.
Posters and flyers with messages on what to do to protect children, danger signs to look out for and phone numbers to call in case of abuse, have been produced in English and local languages and distributed at strategic points within the communities.
Rose and other children at the Mirabel Centre are receiving the counselling and medical help they need to enable them to cope with their horrible experiences. “UNICEF is working towards ending all forms of violence against children and continues to support individuals, families and organizations with effective child protection solutions to keep children safe at all times,” said Onoise.
For children like Rose, this help is often their only lifeline in very uncertain times.
*The name and photo of the child were changed to protect her identity.