The discourse of child rights reveals an interesting intersection of history, culture and norms. In all cultures, all climes, children are seen as “treasures”. In folklores, music, dance and names, across all the ethnic groups in Nigeria: Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ibibio, Efik and many others, these cultural presentations of children stand out.
This meeting of culture is the foundation of social and legal norms with regard to child rights. Curiously, however, actions and inactions of adults contradict this culturally embedded notions and norms, leaving many unanswered questions for a critical ethnographer: why is it that children continue to be vilified, sexually and physically abused by the very people they look up to as fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties, teachers, pastors and priests? Why is it that children, who carry human genetic continuity, are often treated as if they were less human meant to be seen and not to be heard? Why is it that children, the so-called ‘treasures’ are often placed at the lowest rung in the power equation of many paternalistic societies?
How do we explain the inequality, exclusion and creation of otherness, the central themes that continue to underlie the construction of childhood in many societies today with far reaching harmful effects on the lives and survival of children? Take the recent distressful case of the 13-year-old Elizabeth Ochanya, who according to ongoing prosecution’s case was sexually abused to death in the sanctuary of the home she shared with alleged predators, who were supposed to stand in ‘loco parentis’. Why should such a promising girl die so young under such avoidable circumstances? How possible was it that nobody, no teacher, no pastor, no neighbor, no social worker saw no signs and reported nothing until the very bitter end? There are many more questions that challenge our notions of humanity, equality and fairness in relation to how we construct and relate with children: our yesterday, today and future.
Disjuncture between our words and actions
The disjuncture between our words and actions in this regard pose a far more reaching analytical challenge. Could it be that adults create laws, sign up to laws, without any form of conviction as to the cultural and normative urgency for their actions? As we confront the valley of action/inaction, statistics are adding up quickly. Violence against children remains widespread, indeed. Nigeria’s ‘Violence Against Children Survey’ (2014), a collaborative effort of National Population Commission, UNICEF and United State’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that 6 out of every 10 children suffer one form of violence, sexual, physical and emotional before the age of 18. Place this evidence side by side with unreported/yet to be captured cases of abuse of children in many rural areas and the picture that emerges is that of a crisis of survival.
The Child’s rights laws, despite the best efforts of stakeholders continue to confront embedded negative social norms. A historical and conceptual analysis may help in tracing where we are coming from, where we are and where we ought to be and lay to rest the drawback claims of cultural imperialism and the havoc it often wrecks on universal norms and the convergence of opinions across language, history and cultures in relation to the personhood of children. This exercise, it is hoped, would aid us to consign to the dustbin the untenable claims of cultural relativism and design a more practical solution strategy to the crisis at hand, that is, the rising and damaging trend of objectification of children, brutal denial of their rights to life and the concomitant effects on the survival of us all.
Child Rights: A Historical Framework
What do we really mean by child rights? To what extent has historical movement impacted on our understanding of childhood and rights? Can we actually attach the attribute of ‘rights’ to children, who we associate, historically, with immaturity, weakness and dependence? These questions continue to range by words and actions of many Nigerians, fifteen years after Nigeria’s domestication of the UN convention on the Rights of the Child as the Child’s Rights Act, 2003. Questions like these display ignorance of the historical antecedents that grounded the Child Rights jurisprudence. Similar questions were raised in the 16th Century, which marked the first epoch in the historical trajectory of child rights. In that pre Industrial phase, there was no conception of children as distinct persons. This period was characterized by the ‘having mode’ of existence, hence, children were considered as mere properties of their parents/guardians. It was inconceivable then to attach the notion of ‘rights’ to children. Parents had all the rights to determine children’s future, without any social or legal qualms.
The objectification of children was rendered nugatory by the stark reality of the industrial phase that was between 19th to mid 20th Century. That was why this century was marked in literature as the Child ‘saving’ era. As a result of technological and economic transformation of that era, children were seen as endangered species. The pressures of immigration, industrialization and urbanization heightened the abuse of children, hence necessitating legal intervention to protect children from slave labour and channel efforts to their education. This period marked the first attempt to legislate for child’s rights.
The late 20th century was momentous, indeed as it marked the Autonomy phase of child rights. From this century, onwards, it was settled that children were not properties but persons, equal in right and dignity. From then onwards, Legal Frameworks were aimed at enhancing participation of children as persons equal in dignity and rights with adults.
Where do we position Nigeria, in the above historical movement? That was the precise question, this writer/facilitator asked participants in a recent forum on Child Rights Law. The generality of participants were of the view that Nigeria was still oscillating between 16th century and early 20th Century, with regard to how we construe childhood and child rights. Put differently, many adult Nigerians still view children as mere properties or at best as less human, lacking in full rights accorded to adults. It is immaterial that some may cloud this retrogressive viewpoint with their pontification/placards on child rights. This is because a careful examination of their actions and inactions, which speak louder than voice, reveal a clear denunciation of the view that rights are attachable to children, under the age of 18. The reason behind this reversing reality was traced to our power-conscious setting, where to be viewed as “weak” tantamount to absolute discrimination, that is the case of two cities in one country. If you are unfortunate to find yourself in the Weak City ‘B’, whatever you get to survive have to be morsels from the high table of the powerful people that occupy the Power City ‘A’. The way “weakness” and “strength” are conceptually understood in the Nigerian context will go a long way in deepening our knowledge of the competing paradigms in the discourse of child rights, thus enabling us to take the right step in saving the many “Ochanyas” in our families and neighborhoods before it becomes too late.
Child Rights: A Conceptual Framework
It is interesting to note that the above historical trajectory is intertwined with the dual Conceptual Frameworks that help us to map out the discourse of child rights. The conceptual frameworks over protectionism and personhood underlie the historical evolution of Child rights. The Yale Prof. Stephen Wizner’s Commentary on Child Rights is instructive here.
The first conceptual framework of child rights could be termed over-protectionism
This framework is founded on the traditional view of children as weak, dependent, less-persons, whose rights must be limited to the rights to receive control and protection from adults. As laid out by Jeremy Bentham, the English Jurist and philosopher of utilitarianism:
“The feebleness of infancy demands continual protection. Everything must be done for an imperfect being which as yet does nothing for itself…such a being must be kept under an authority more immediate than the law.”
Protecting children from harm is an unassailable fact but the perspective that denies children of their individuality and humanity, the perspective that emphasizes their weakness and “feebleness” in a setting like Nigeria, often leads to over-protection and objectification of children. This perspective is a fertile ground for physical, emotional and serial sexual abuse of children.
The second conceptual framework at the heart of the widely ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, could be termed, the Personhood paradigm. Under this framework, Children are to be treated as persons equal in right and dignity with adults. The extreme views of personhood is a non-compromising advocacy for the liberation of children from the oppression of adults and a legal order in which children are seen as appendages of adult. As expected, the consensus building mechanism that international law leverages could not have accepted such an extreme view of personhood. What was accepted was the less extreme views which recognizes that treating children as children often results in the imposition of unnecessary and psychologically damaging restrictions on growth, hence the need to adopt the best approach of treating children as persons, equal in dignity and rights. It is remarkable to note that the personhood paradigm unlike its over-protectionism other, is aligned the “being mode” of existence. We can see traces of childhood in adulthood and vice versa. Born as a child, we will die, as a ‘child’, that is if we are lucky to reach ripe old age. At that age we will need support and assistance, like children. This is because human beings are dynamic, changing all through life. Therefore, the adult versus child dichotomy emphasized in the over-protectionist framework cannot withstand the shiny gaze of logic. It is false/artificial. Both adults and children have similar needs: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and social relationship. Therefore, Protection/Personhood dichotomy, like child/adult dichotomy is misleading. Personhood, emphasizes a careful balance between the two whilst placing emphasis on the ‘Best Interest of the Child Principle.
From the above historical and conceptual frameworks we can see the meeting points of the autonomy phase of history (the late 20th century onward) and the personhood paradigm. This meeting point grounded the legal framework for Child rights, putting it beyond all charges of cultural relativism.
Child Rights: A Legal Framework
The grounding of international consensus on the personhood of children was preceded by a great debate anchored on the clash of analytical frameworks. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) remains as at today the most ratified Treaty despite the oppositions at the drafting stage. The Convention has reached a level that it could be “jus cogens”, a compelling law. The Nigeria’s Child Rights Act (2003) was Nigeria’s domestication instrument as a dualist country, having previously ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Prior to the passage of the Nigeria CRA in 2003, there was another round of debates that lasted for almost 10 years. Debate revolved around cultural-relativism –driven over-protectionism and personhood, but a resolution was reached on the compelling nature of the law, hence its passage as the Child Rights Act. 24 States have passed their State Child Rights Laws and there are strong hopes that the remaining 12 States of the Federation will do so because the issues being raised against the passage of the laws are not borne out of any opposition to the underlying principles of Child rights, which have been accepted across all cultures and religions in Nigeria. The remaining areas of doubts revolve around what in international law could have been settled with “reservations” without affecting the underpinnings of the law. Those who hinge their opposition on the underlying theory of child rights are in grave error, because no culture or religion supports the objectification of children. This writer is yet to encounter any adult male or female that will be happy to see his or her 13-year-old daughter being sexually abused to death by two adults. The unassailable fact is that children are treasured across all cultures and religion. The points of difference when carefully analysed are quite narrow and ought to be easily resolved through a careful analysis of the exalted place of children across all cultures, traditions and religions.
Next Step: Looking beyond the Laws in paper
The passage of the Child Rights Law is a crucial step but not the totality of steps. What the law does, crucial as it is, is a reiteration of norms already embedded in our history, culture and religion. The fresh angle we ought to look at things is via the prism of system building/strengthening for change. UNICEF has popularized the system approach to child rights reform. Five components of a working system for preventing and responding to abuse of children have been identified as policy and legal framework, Social Welfare for children and family, Social Norms Change, Justice Sector and information Management. Each and every aspect of this system building approach would require an injection of resources. There is therefore a financial commitment angle to the passage of Child Rights Law. No State could be said to be serious about Child Rights Law in absence of financial/budget back up to aid implementation. Collaborative efforts of government, individuals, and corporations, national/international NGOs are needed to sustain efforts in this regard. Child abuse and neglect will be a thing of the past if all hands are on deck to build and strengthen our preventive and response systems to ensure that never again will a child die as a result of neglect and abuse. If we follow this path with commitment, Elizabeth Ochanya will live on, never dying, as generations unborn will continue to remember her as the innocent girl, whose seeming demise re-awakened the consciousness of us all, and by so doing elevated her to the realm of those who cannot die, so long as men, women and children can see and feel.
Dedicated to Elizabeth Ochanya and all children everywhere, that are victims/survivors of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
* Willy Mamah, PhD (London) is a national consultant, Child Justice and Development Law.