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879 VICTIMS OF ‘HOUSES OF TORTURE’: Don’t keep survivors at home, UNICEF Specialist warns

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…Says they need psycho-social support to overcome trauma

By Chioma Obinna

With the number of rescued children from rehabilitation centres, operating as Islamic centres, busted by security agents in Kaduna, Katsina, Daura and Ilorin reaching 879, Child Protection Specialist with the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, Nigeria, Mr. Denise Onoise, warns against taking the traumatised victims into homes without receiving psycho-social support and medical check-up. Excerpts:

What immediately came to your mind when news broke that a ‘house of torture’ had been busted in Kaduna and later in Daura, Zaria and Ilorin?

It was disturbing especially when I saw it on television. I started calling the ministry to ask some questions. If you feel that your children are stubborn or having drug addiction problems, you should know where to take them to get proper treatment and not by taking them to a place where they will be chained or where they will be beaten constantly. It is also the same thing in our communities where children are accused of witchcraft and they are tortured.

I actually don’t have enough words to describe the situation but it is not something we want to see again. As a Child Protection Specialist, due to my emotional attachment, I would have said kill the operators but we live in a society where there are laws guiding us and due process has to be followed. Government should go ahead to investigate more of these centres. The news is that there are many of the centres as you can see that after the Kaduna incident the number keeps increasing. The people running the centres should be punished.

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What does the saga say generally about our treatment of children in Nigeria?

It is a sad commentary on the way we raise children. It totally shows that we have been very careless about our children and we are not doing enough for them. If we are not protecting our children today, we are preparing a very disastrous Nigeria of the future. One of the benefits is that protecting children today means that we are building a better tomorrow. For example, if you go round the country, you will hardly find a budget line for child protection support or services. We have used all of the money as security votes.

We have used all of the money for education and health even though sometimes it is not good enough but nobody gives particular attention to budget for child protection. We did a study recently that shows that when you are not investing or budgeting for issues of child protection services, you are actually losing a huge sum of money.

In Nigeria, we are losing over $1 billion by not investing in child protection services. You know why? By not protecting children, we are raising children that are not productive. We are raising children that when there is one form of illness we have to spend more to correct that. We are not investing in children and there are so many limitations because we have relegated the issues of children and health to the background. We see people who physically abuse children; we still have people who are sexually abusing children.

UNICEF conducted a report that shows that out of 10 children in Nigeria within ages 14 and 15 six are abused. When I say abuse, I am talking about sexual abuse. I am talking about physical abuse and I am talking about emotional abuse. These are very serious situations; when you have this sort of statistics you don’t need to be told we are not paying special attention to our children.

There are laws and conventions protecting children from abuse including the Child Rights Act. How do you see the implementation of such laws and conventions in view of the recent development?

Yes, this is one of the reasons that Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, the United Nations and other Rights groups, since 2003, have continued to make a case for the Child Right Acts, CRA. This is to ensure that this sort of things does not happen to our children and that even when they happen, the case is followed up in court and justice is allowed to take its course and offenders are punished under the law so as to serve as a deterrent.

Recently, the abuse of children was reportedly taking place in some homes in Kaduna and Kwara states among others. We were lucky that the police bust these homes where some of these children were kept in dehumanising conditions.

The whole idea of CRA is to have a law that protects children but even in many parts of the country where the Constitution protect the children, you still have people breaking the laws and continue to abuse children. We want people in the the media, human rights organizations who are monitoring the development to follow up and make sure that the right thing is done. That you have a law in place does not mean that people will not break it. But it is very important that we have the law in place. Like people tell me in the North, ‘Okay, you are asking us to pass the CRA into law, even in the states of the South where it has been passed into law, does it mean that there no longer abuse of children?’

And we normally answer them that it is minimal but even if it happens, you can actually follow it up in court to ensure that justice is served as deterrent to others. You will recall that in Lagos recently, a school teacher was convicted for abusing a child that was in kindergarten and that person has been sentenced to 60 years in prison. That sort of thing can only happen because Lagos has passed the Act into law. These days we are cautious that it may happen and that is why we all must be at alert. We are calling on parents, media organizations to bring information about these abuses but we need to ensure that it does not happen at all.

The rescued children have now been released to their families in their traumatised state. Is that right?

In the case of Kaduna, I visited the camp when the centre was uncovered. I had to travel from Abuja to Kaduna immediately the news broke. By the time I got to Kaduna, the police and the state ministry of human services and social development were already in the camp.

We were those who actually ensured that the police took these children to a proper camp where these children could be properly counted and counselled. The police actually made sure that the over 300 people found in the home were taken to the right place, where they could have shelter temporarily. It was a Friday; the following day, we did the headcount and counselling and found out that some of those people were not only Nigerian children but some of them were from Burkina Faso, Mali and Cameroun.

I was present and the children were taken for treatment but their parents were all over the place demanding to take their children. And the ministry officials were telling them to exercise patience; that they wanted to make sure that “by the time we are handing these children to you, they will be the children that could be registered in school and that they are healthy and strong enough”. While this was going on, the officials were also appealing to the children, providing medical treatment. Apart from those who had medical issues, the children were also spoken to with their parents. Before they were released, the parents were also told that they should ensure that the children were taken to centres where they will receive psycho-social support and medical check-up since they were insisting to have them back. The ministry could not continue but they did what they were supposed to do.

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They made sure they provided the initial support. The ministry even called a meeting of those of us who were on ground like the UNICEF to strategise on how to mobilize the parents to ensure that the children were registered in proper school and address the problem. It was at that meeting it was agreed that the police need to come up with new strategies to identify more of these centres because they actually exist in many parts of this country.

After that, the governor of Kaduna actually went to Zaria to bust another centre where children were also kept in such condition. It means that the strategy adopted by the Kaduna government after that meeting actually worked. Work is being done and I think we need to acknowledge that. But it is unfortunate that more homes are being bust. This goes to show that a lot needs to be done and there is a need for everybody to join hands to fight this. These homes have been there for years and people took it for granted. People registered their children without asking questions.

We heard that the place (Kaduna) was busted because of a woman who kept coming back to see his child but she was turned back up to three times and she now went to report to the police. How can someone register a child without asking questions? They will just tell you this is N100, 000 and you will pay. You don’t enter the school to know what is happening. You don’t ask questions, where is this school? Where are they camping my child? Sometimes they allow you to talk to your child outside and you will just go back.

The operators of the so-called houses of terror, do you think they deserve to be punished?

Of course, yes. Like I said, in my introduction, it will serve as deterrent to others. The Kaduna government where the first one was discovered had recently passed the Child Rights Act into law. They have what is called Child Welfare Law. Following that law, the operators will be punished because if it was a school and later turned into a rehab centre, the operators have committed an offence.

They have more or less told lies to government. We know that these things happen in Nigeria but we need to call a spade a spade. The case was charged immediately to court and report has it that their lawyer applied for bail but the court declined and they were taken back into custody. We are waiting for the judiciary to do their job.

What do you recommend to government to stem reoccurrence and what advice do you have for parents sending the children they consider stubborn into so-called houses of terror operating in the guise of Islamic schools?

There is need for government to re-strategise to identify all of these homes. People should also report these homes. Parents need to be more alert. These children are given to us first and foremost because we are expected to take care of them and guide them until they are old enough to take care of themselves which is why we are very much concern about Almajiris, street children that we find in the northern part of the country. Those categories of children, their parents should take them in and make sure that they are properly looked after. So parents have the responsibility to ensure that the children understand the importance of school. We understand that some of the parents cannot afford private schools but there are public schools where these parents can register their children. Again, if you need to register your children in any school, you need to ask questions.

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When you are registering your child in the so-called private school, the number one thing you do is that you go there and they will take you round the school. Go to where you want to register your child, whether it is a home, private or public school. You have to check if that place will be conducive for the child before you pay fees. Like the saying, it takes an entire community to train a child. We need to pay proper attention to ensure that our children are properly taken care of.

Vanguard

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