Ali Bello, only age four, confronts the ever-present challenge of surviving on the streets of the Sokoto Metropolis, situated in the northwest region of Nigeria. Desiring to cater to his needs, he begs his way from one location to another.
The young boy endured a lost childhood due to unfavourable circumstances resulting from the stress of securing sustenance during early childhood. Experts consider this period crucial for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.
“Early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the trajectory of a child’s holistic development and build a foundation for their future,” points out the United Nations Children Funds (UNICEF).
“For children to achieve their full potential, as is their HUMAN RIGHTS, they need health, care and nutrition, protection from harm and a sense of security, opportunities for early learning and responsive caregiving.”
Concerns are rife over the disturbing sight of street children, whose populations have swelled with an increasing number of girls proliferating across many northern states.
The Consortium for Street Children (CSC) describes them as one of the world’s most invisible populations, overlooked by government, law, policymakers, and many others.
CSC, a global alliance that acts as a voice for these children to promote good practices, challenge, and change the system that causes harm, speaks to street children in Nigeria.
“Research suggests that street children in Nigeria exist primarily because of poverty in their families and communities. They also may have experienced family disintegration, maltreatment, violence or displacement or been attracted to the urban areas,” CSC discloses.
“The Islamic migrant system of Almajiri is also a predominant reason for street children in Nigeria. Many Almajiri face challenging living conditions and spend a portion of their time begging and hawking to survive. This can leave them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and recruitment into armed groups.”
Pundits note the Almajiri system as a bastardisation of an old method of Islamic education acquisition where parents send their children to distant locations to gain knowledge of the Holy Quran.
An Islamic scholar, Mallam Abdullahi Muhammad, observes:” The surging wave of child destitution that typifies the present Almajiri reality is an explicit departure from an old system reputed for its scholarship.”
Today, many children who travel out of their communities to live elsewhere with a local teacher, popularly known as Malam, for knowledge acquisition end up on the street, begging, with their parents not following up on them.
Several children end up in the streets begging to cater for themselves and support their teachers, many of whom ironically rely on the handouts from these underaged for livelihoods.
President-General Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs Sultan Muhammad Saad Abubakar had swayed at parents who relinquished their responsibilities of catering to their offspring. He clarified Islam does not allow abandoning children to beg.
A former Emir of Kano Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, stresses, “If a child is found on the street, the father is responsible. Justice means that everyone is given his or her rights.”
“If a man takes the privilege of being the head of the family, he takes responsibility for being the provider of the family. You cannot take the privileges and abandon the responsibility.”
But Ali and several others of varying ages continue to flock to business areas, traffic points, schools, and other public places to beg for existence.
They live in the most vulnerable context, exposed to sexual and other forms of assault, kidnapping, drug abuse, trafficking, violent crimes, and health and other hazards.
They are among the 20 million children the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) data show are out of school in Nigeria.
The situation is so despite state, national and international laws and instruments guaranteeing children’s rights and relating to their protection.
Such include, among others, the 1999 Constitution, the Child’s Rights Act, Child Protection Law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC).
The education sector also has various interventions by the government, international partners and other non-governmental organisations. They include the Universal Basic programme, saddled with the responsibility of providing free, universal, compulsory basic education for Nigerian children aged 6-15 years, the Better Education
Service Delivery for All (BESDA), and the Alternate School Programme, among others.
In addition, programmes to increase access to quality education, such as the Northern Education Initiative, are in place in some states.
Sokoto, which is among over 30 states that have domesticated the Child Rights Act, is still facing the same old concerns.
When the State Government signed the Child Protection Bill into law in November 2021, many hailed it as a significant stride for children’s rights.
“This is a major step forward for children’s rights across the State and sets an example for the states remaining that have not yet domesticated the Child Rights Act 2003 to do so as quickly as possible,” stated Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria.
“It also sends a clear signal child rights measures should be implemented across the state and in all states to ensure the rights and wellbeing of all children, whomever and wherever they may be.”
The Sokoto state government had assured full implementation of the law to guarantee children’s rights.
“The rights of children, including that of education for all children in Sokoto, irrespective of their State of origin, is included in the new law, “Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Barrister Suleiman Usman SAN explains while commenting on the domestication.
“Violation of any child right in Sokoto State is now an offence punishable under the laws governing the State and will no longer be tolerated.”
A year later, it left a lot to desire with many children on the streets.
Abdul Ganiyu Abubakar, Chief Executive of the Save the Child initiative, notes the Child Protection law is good for remarkable development but complains about the implementation.
“Honestly, as a civil society practitioner, I am not satisfied with the situation of children; I am not satisfied with the level of implementation of the child protection laws,” he states
“Unfortunately, months after passing this law, a lot of children are still abused, molested and exploited, and a lot of them are still on the street, either Almajiri children or as children hawking on the street and a lot more are still out of school. So, I will say we have not started feeling the impact of the passage of this law.”
He recalls a lot that went into passing the law by the state government and international development partners, notable UNICEF and EU Spotlight Initiative, the State Ministry of Justice, the State Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, and civil society organisations in Sokoto and outside of the State.
“Now it is expected that the Child Protection Law would turn around the situation of children in Sokoto state. It would not only prosecute the cases of child abuse, exploitation and neglect, including violence, but it will also ensure the prevention and protection of children from such vices,” he stresses.
“The government needs to fund all institutions that will ensure adequate protection for children. The government would have to implement robust policy to reduce the number of out-of-school children drastically, the number of people who are supposed to be in school but are not in school.”
Abubakar points out, “Sokoto still rates high in the number of out-of-school children. It has to change. The state Universal Basic Education Board, the state Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, and the Local Government Education Authorities need to be funded to ensure systems and structures for children to be in school.”
“The Zakat and Endowment Commission of Sokoto State is among the most respected institutions by the traditional, religious class and the citizenry. It should come out clearly to play a role in ensuring that they reduce the rate of street children in the name of Almajirinci and out-of-school children,” the rights activist advises.
“Whichever way, children should not be on the street in the 21st century; children should not be on the street in a state that has signed the child protection law.”
Another child protection practitioner, Sani Dantumi, also notes: “Despite all interventions and the international instrument aimed at protecting them, the number of children on the streets keeps growing. That tells you there is something we are doing wrong.”
“With violence in the Northeast and Northwest Nigeria, many parents have been killed, their children are now orphans, they are on the street,” he notes.
“We are not even talking about the issues of exploitation, the number of Almajiri children in difficult situations, and children exploited for their labour or sex. ”
Dantumi, who is Sokoto State Coordinator Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, underscores the need for a radical, not cosmetic, approach to addressing it.
“We must use the whole -of -the society approach to address the issue. And that would include more engagement with religious leaders. Many of these children in northern Nigeria are Muslims, so the religious leaders should educate parents on their responsibility of parenting,” he says.
“Based on my experience as a practitioner in child protection, I realise that we have enough instruments and significant interventions at the national and international levels to address these out-of-school children, but the problem keeps aggravating. It means that the traditional and religious leaders must rise to the occasion.”
Dantumi, who laments the issue has assumed a crisis dimension, adds, “The leaders need to educate communities that this must stop, and it has to be in an unequivocal language that this thing must stop.”
He urges punitive measures for parents who throw their children on the streets while referring to a guardsman who recently revealed that he has about five children but does not know their whereabouts.
“He just produced the children, and since he took them to Almajiri school almost five years ago, he has not gone back to check on them. And this is the common practice in the north,” Dantuni notes.
“No matter the funding, as long as this attitude continues, the number would keep growing, and that is the reality of the situation in northern Nigeria.”
According to him, at the Almajiri Child Rights Initiative level, they have advocated for these children to enjoy the same rights as others. Still, they have not seen any concrete and tangible effort to address this issue.
“It would require the whole of the government and whole of society approach. Communities need to rise to the occasion, take responsibility, and own the problem because they are the people that produce these children and throw them out in the street,” he asserts.
He also identifies the need to boost interventions in the Almajiri schools, which he notes are willing to embrace formal education.
“There are interventions in place which supported the integration of Quran learning with formal education; they should scale them to have more learning centres so that these children would have access to formal and vocational education,” he suggests.
“The school system cannot provide all the solutions. The formal system cannot provide livelihoods to all the children, but at least a form of vocational education can help so that these children would not roam the street.”
Social care advocate Ann Thomas calls for effective interventions to tackle risks disproportionally affecting
children living in the most vulnerable context across Nigeria.
“Government and all stakeholders should ensure they guarantee street children the same right as every other child,” she says.
“These children should have access to resources, care, services, and opportunities as others.”
UNICEF describes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a vital agreement by countries that have promised to protect children’s rights.
“The Convention explains who children are, all their rights and the responsibilities of governments,” it stresses.
“All the rights are connected; they are all equally important, and they cannot be taken away from children.”