By Ngozi Onwuanibe
‘To every child – I dream of a world where you can laugh, dance, sing, learn, live in peace and be happy’ – Malala Yousafzai
Ngozi Onwuanibe is a UK registered social worker with over 15 years operational and strategic experience in the UK public and voluntary sector specialising in safeguarding (Child protection) children and family support. Ngozi also develops and offers safeguarding and leadership training to schools/individuals and organisations.
The season of joy is upon us with Christmas and the New Year round the corner. As ever, Nigerians remain optimistic about the future and what it holds for everyone. Whilst we look forward to this, I would want everyone to consider what it must be like for the average child/young person living in the country.
This is a country where we profess to love our children yet have no major plans as a government on ensuring that they have access to basic amenities – consistent electricity/gas/good roads/education/training. The education system we previously had, which although had its own issues, was much better than what we currently have, which is largely private and unregulated.
In western societies, there are safeguards put in place to ensure children feel safe and secure in their environments including school and at home. However, due to deprivation and limited job opportunities many parents work long hours and away from home.
They mostly have to rely on others to care for their children. How then do they ensure that they provide the necessities for the family whilst keeping their children safe at home with strangers and/or family caring for them or whilst in school boarding or day?
There was an unfortunate incident recorded in the papers some weeks ago where a young child, 13 year-old, Ochanya Ogbanje, was repeatedly raped by her charge, Andrew Ogbuja, a lecturer with Benue Polytechnic, Ugboko and his son, Victor. The response by the man’s wife was to send Ochanya back to her parents and only when there was an outcry from the public did the police and authorities take appropriate action. Unfortunately, Ochanya never recovered from the prolonged physical injuries and trauma she sustained and lost her life as a result.
As a human being, a woman, what would make a mother and wife treat another woman’s child this way? What would make her accept the actions of her son and husband? What kind of role model was Mr Ogbaja to his son, wife and other children? Why did he and his son think that it was okay to abuse Ochanja, in this way?
We all as a society need to ask ourselves why we knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in fostering an environment in which children are abused by adults responsible for them and why we allow this to happen. There is something inherently wrong in a society that does not protect its young.
I would like all of us as citizens of Nigeria to take some time to put ourselves in Ochanja’s shoes and to vow “never again”. This isn’t a case of hoping and praying that it does not happen to you as we like to do. We do have unrealistic expectations of our children sometimes without considering their ages and development and individual ability. I see children under the age of 13 on the streets hawking wares on behalf of their parents/charges with no thought of the danger they face daily from road accidents, kidnapping, and various types of abuse, physical, emotional, sexual and neglect. There was an incident which occurred some years ago where a 9 year-old girl was consistently and systematically sexually and emotionally abused by her half older brother, his friends and the security guard! The father was always away on business leaving the children in the care of the mother.
She did not notice anything was wrong with her daughter until a family friend brought it to her attention. The case was reported to the police and the girl’s father removed her from her mother’s care. Other than medical treatment, and removing her from the perpetrator no support was offered to the 9 year-old girl. The boy remained with the mother, however I wonder what support was given to him and action taken to protect other children from him.
Sadly these incidents are in no way unique and occur on a regular basis without any real support for the victims and/or the perpetrators who are left to pick up the pieces.
Most children who have been abused experience low self-esteem/feel suicidal and blame themselves for what has happened to them. They also find it difficult to trust anyone and if left without support and any treatment, may go on to normalise their abuse and go on to abuse other children.
It is very important to ensure that children who suffer abuse are offered treatment which could be in the form of psychotherapy/counselling/cognitive behavioural therapy and specialised counselling for the perpetrators and those involved with supporting them.
There are some simple steps/actions we can take which I would outline below and hope that you would find these helpful.
If we start from the premise that no parent would knowingly harm their child then there is scope for everyone to learn/re-learn some behaviour.
It is imperative to understand your children as individuals and to teach them to also understand the concept of stranger/danger and body safety. As parents there are some steps we can take to help our children navigate the world around them.
One of the first things to do is spend quality time with your child/children individually and together. To do this you need to spend quality time with your child means and be “fully present”. By this, I mean, not being on the phone and/or watching TV for example. It also doesn’t need to take hours on end.
The simple act of putting your phone down or stopping whatever you are doing to concentrate for 10 minutes or more with your child makes a huge difference. It shows your child that you care about what they have to say to you/it shows you are actively listening and that you respect them as individuals and guess what, they respond the same way when you want to talk to them too.
Children model what they see and hear around them so it is important that you also let them know when you are busy and agree a time to talk. It is also important that you reassure your child that they can talk to you about anything/nothing is off limits and that you will hear them out without judgement. Now I know this can be challenging especially when we live in a culture that is mostly patriarchal and there are things that are considered an “abomination” to discuss with your children or vice versa. Thankfully with the rise in social media and exposure to different cultures on television some of these issues are no longer as hidden. For example, discussions about boyfriends/period pain are some issues some parents still don’t want to hear about.
Hearing about your child telling you about having a boyfriend or finding someone cute helps you to understand some of the pressures/values they have and what other children in their school or friends are preoccupied with. It is the opportunity for you to gently advice your child on what options they have and to encourage them to know that you will be there to guide and support them.
Let us also be aware that abuse thrives in an environment of fear and lack of openness and most abusers are familiar faces, people you know, uncles, family friends, religious leaders/aunties/relatives/people in authority, etc. Because these people know that if a child says something to their parents/teachers no one will believe them as they are “Children” “seen and not to be heard” they continue to abuse and maltreat children with impunity. The children themselves are aware that they live in a society where they are marginalised and voiceless then feel scared to say anything.
One of the best things anyone can do for their child is to encourage them to have a voice, to have them know that they can have opinions and that these are valued as much as the next persons.
Teach your child to know that no topic of discussion is off limits with you. Let them know that they need to trust their instincts and if it does not seem safe then it probably isn’t and they need to leave the environment.
Observe your child’s behaviour when they are around people. Does he or she feel unhappy when that uncle/aunty comes around? Do they make excuses on why they do not want to say hello? For babies, does the baby cry a lot or look distressed when this particular aunty/uncle is around or plays with them.
Let your child know that their bodies are sacred and private to them. No one should ask to see or bath their private parts when they are old enough to bath themselves.
Does that family member/friend/stranger have an unusual interest in your child which you don’t feel comfortable with? Call it out! A friend spoke of how an uncle, a family friend would ask to carry her on his laps and then start fondling himself and her whilst she was sitting on his laps. She recalls he would do this whilst her parents were present though discreetly and because they would be absorbed in the conversation they would not notice.
She was 7 years old at the time! She would recall not wanting to say hello to this man when he visits although at times because he visits bearing gifts, sweets and biscuits she would go to him. It was only when an aunt visited and noticed she was uncomfortable whenever this particular family friend visited and asked her directly why she was fidgeting did she say he was touching her inappropriately.
The aunt immediately informed the girl’s parents and they confronted the family friend who denied this happened. They haven’t been friends since then. This young woman is one of the lucky ones with an aunt who noticed what was going on and parents who believed her and made sure the man never came round the house again. Most accounts I have heard and seen have ended with the victim being further traumatised as the parents don’t believe them when they tell them what has occurred. They also continue to have the person visit the home.
It is too painful and embarrassing for parents to hear a child has been abused or is abusing another child, making it a hidden issue and perpetuates the problem. Until we have open and honest conversations about abuse and the impact nothing will change. The impact on our children and society will be huge as they grow up dysfunctional accepting that abuse is normal and okay. It is not normal.
There has to be a system leadership change in our country as these things are often left to individual families and at best churches, mosques to deal with in isolation. Most of these are not equipped to address the issue. We need to acknowledge as a society that abuse does not happen in isolation and takes place across all sectors of society in different guises.
The change has to start with all of us. We can start having the conversation our homes/school, workplaces and religious institutions as safeguarding should be everyone’s business. Every school/public and religious institution should have safeguarding policies and procedures put in place and which are reviewed periodically. Safeguarding training should be provided to all staff and children taught about safety, who and what to do if they have been abused.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by any of the issues mentioned above or need some guidance on a way forward I would love to hear from you, so do feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org