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Nigeria: lifting spirits, rebuilding lives

© UNICEF/Nigeria/2009/Nathan
UNICEF Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador Nwankwo Kanu with children at the child rights and rehabilitation network centre in Esit-Eket, Akwa Ibom State South South Nigeria.

Abuja, Nigeria, 07 July 2009 - Paul Eme is the first son of his father who is the proprietor of a school. Paul was accused of being a witch by his stepmother. His stepmother took him to the Liberty church where the pastor pronounced him to be witch. His stepmother drove him out of the house.

Paul has been living at the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) Centre for about two years now.

Paul’s father visits him at centre occasionally but is not willing to take him home due to the stigma associated with “child witches.”

When asked to describe in his own words how he feels he said, “I feel so bad when my stepmother called me a witch. I could not play or talk with people.”

Bringing hope to rejected children
Paul and the other residents of the Centre had something to cheer about when the UNICEF Nigeria Goodwill Ambassador, Nwankwo Kanu recently visited the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network Centre in Esi-Eket.

It was Kanu’s first official function after he was appointed for a third term as UNICEF Nigeria’s Goodwill Ambassador.

His visit—and his clear affection for the children and distress at their fate—brought hope and lifted the spirits of the children who have been rejected and abandoned by their parents on the spurious grounds that they are witches.

Esi-Eket is a beautiful country village in Akwa Ibom State in South-South Nigeria. Amid the tropical lush green vegetation are a couple of unfinished blocks of houses.

Since 2003, when CRARN coordinator Sam Ikpe Itauma rescued three abandoned children, these houses have become home and school to about 186 children dubbed witches.

Mr. Sam Ikpe Itauma explains that the Centre takes in about ten to fifteen new children every week who have been abandoned or sent there by their families for “cleansing”. Some families believe that if children come to the Centre, they are cleansed of their witchcraft.

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.

Rebuilding lives
These children suffer the worst forms of deprivation of their rights including rejection, abandonment, physical and psychological abuses and in extreme cases even death.

The Goodwill Ambassador’s visit spotlighted the need for support to the children at the Centre. UNICEF Country Representative Dr. Suomi Sakai took advantage of the visit—and of the presence of high-level policy makers, community leaders, and villagers who normally won’t approach the Centre—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”. She praised the efforts of the State Government for its adoption of the Child Rights Law and for taking measures against those who abuse children.

She called for even a 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.

Ensuring protection and rehabilitation
In advance of the event, UNICEF had struck a private-sector partnership with Zenith Bank, one of Nigeria’s leaders, resulting in its donation of $85,000 to build child-friendly facilities at the CRARN Centre.

When completed, the children will have decent accommodation and space for counseling, recreation and study. 

UNICEF has supported various non-governmental organizations as well as CRARN to provide effective rehabilitation, care and protection for rejected children dubbed witches.

It has drawn on Community dialogues, Theatre For Development, and community viewing session strategies for social mobilization and building consensus on the evils of the practice and the need to eradicate it.

UNICEF also helped civil-society organizations lobby for the passage of the Child Rights Law in the State.

The Law, which was passed in 2008, criminalized the phenomenon and imposed stiff penalties for offenders, several of whom have already been prosecuted and jailed.

By Geoffrey Njoku



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