“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
“Give me money babi Allah, give me money babi Allah”, a shrill voice cried a few meters away. The voice pierced through my thoughts and I turned to see who it was. It was a frail-looking girl with a ragged hijab around her head, clutching a plastic bowl with few naira notes. I looked further across the park; I could see other almajiris (street urchins) trying to get one of them to his feet. I could hear them call him Mujahid. The little boy was neatly dressed and still had his sandals on, but he looked so weak. It was obvious he had not had anything to eat all day. The other boys couldn’t get him to stand up, so they left him there and continued to beg for money. I sat at the motor park and wondered why we have a lot of street urchins. My heart wept – and still weeps – for these little ones, who had to go through so much stress before getting something to eat daily. These young children had been sent to religious scholars with little or no supplies and provisions for feeding. The end result: they roam the streets for their daily bread.
Who is a child? Article 1 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) defines a child as every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, the maturity is attained earlier. Over the years, children have been abused constantly round the world. While there is no generally accepted definition of child abuse as a result of differences in the perception of what generally is acceptable as abusive or not, the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) defines child abuse as “the intentional, unintentional or well intentional acts which endangers the physical health, emotional, moral and the educational welfare of children.” This means that child abuse is an umbrella term for harmful practices including child labour, child abandonment – which manifests in the almajiri system, neglect, teenage prostitution, early marriage, child battering, etc.
Child abuse has over the years become a major obstacle to the achievement of education for all (EFA), preventing the achievement of the world target of universal primary education by 2015. According to the Universal Basic Education Act of 2004, every Nigerian child is legally entitled to nine years of uninterrupted basic education, including primary schooling and three years of junior secondary school. Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. These out-of-school numbers, however, represent a failure – of policy implementation – to deliver this constitutionally backed entitlement to all children. The factors which contribute to this failure are rooted in sociocultural norms and economic barriers which encourage child abuse.
An adage says that there is no smoke without a fire. The causes of child abuse are sometimes rooted in our cultural practices; these include giving away your child as a surety or a form of loan repayment, betrothing a girl child immediately she is born to a future potential suitor and subsequent child marriage, child abandonment, preference for one gender over the other which reflects in the amount of care provided, excessive physical exertion as ‘discipline’, etc. Mistreating children at the hands of parents or caretakers has pervaded our society, almost becoming the new normal. The Almajiris (street urchins) who are solely associated with northern Nigeria are by-products of sociocultural abandonment practices in the quest for religious education.
The almajiri system is characterised by abandonment of children and absence of financial resources, making it impracticable for these children to go school. Although, free primary education is publicly available in Nigeria, the almajiri system still prevents children from going to school or benefiting from whatever schooling they manage to gain access to. When they are eventually enrolled in school – which almost never happens – it has been established that they have lower intelligence quotients (IQs) because they have suffered from malnutrition, which makes schooling difficult for them. The almajiri system deals its first blow by making primary education inaccessible to vulnerable children.
Furthermore, the psychological effects of child abuse and labour adversely affect the academic performance of vulnerable children who attend primary schools. Studies have shown that they tend to have a shorter attention span in class and peer-to-peer interaction difficulties; they are often fearful, frustrated, aggressive, and sometimes suicidal. Abused children are also more likely to repeat a grade and do poorly in cognitive tests culminating in poor academic performances overall.
Child rape is a form of child abuse that has increased in frequency in recent years. Paedophiles often take advantage of young girls on the street. These girls may become pregnant and eventually drop out of school. Without doubt, this is antithetical to the development and education of girls. When these babies are delivered, they are almost always incorporated into the same cycle that failed to protect their mothers – a cycle of impoverishment, abuse and exposure to adverse conditions.
Given the dire consequences of systematic child abuse in the almajiri system, it is important to consider practical means of mitigating its adverse effects.
First, we must create adequate awareness on the existence of child abuse – particularly under the almajiri system – and the danger it poses to children and the society. Child abuse is morally and legally wrong; we must sound that alarm as loudly as possible. We own our culture; therefore, we should be able to amend sociocultural practices which encourage child abuse and grant every child access to quality education.
We must be also be wary of the seemingly innocuous ways by which children are abused. Many Nigerians are engaged in child labour by having young children as house helps, or making them performs jobs that are way above their age and capacity. Many have done such with good intentions of helping them make money. However, have we paused to consider the effect of these practices on the society at large. In the wise words of Nelson Mandela, “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.”
The various arms of government also have important roles to play in overhauling the almajiri system and preventing child abuse of all forms. The current administration’s back and forth gyrations like a roller coaster must be converted to a forward march. Nigeria’s state and federal legislature must begin to make laws which outlaw child abandonment under the guise of religious training. These laws which seek to overhaul the current almajiri system and create a child-centric system must be duly enforced and offenders prosecuted to ensure compliance among the populace. The executive arms of government should also take necessary steps to send out-of-school children back to school and close down almajiri schools which don’t cater for conventional educational needs. The Kaduna state government’s recent return of 35,000 almajiri children to their states and neighbouring countries of origin is a step in the right direction.
In the same vein, the government’s responsibility extends to refurbishing our country’s failing educational system, with emphasis on primary education. Nigeria’s 2020 budgetary allocation to education in Nigeria was a meagre seven percent of its entire budget compared to the United States which allocated $129.8billion or twenty percent of its budget to education . N620.5billion was to be shared amongst 36 states, 104 federal unity colleges, 36 Federal universities, therefore, it comes as no surprise that Nigeria’s educational system is in dire straits and free education is of poor quality. The government’s allocation to the educational sector should be increased with special consideration for schools and counselling exercises for abused and vulnerable children.
In conclusion, the healthy development of every child – including Faisal and other almajiri children – is crucial to the future well-being of our nation and primary education constitutes an important component of their development. Therefore, in our quest for nation-building, we must accelerate cultural, economic, political and legal efforts to curb the menace of child abuse and child labour amongst Nigerian children under the guise of the almajiri system. We are the leaders of tomorrow… give us sound education. It’s high time we brought the lyrics of this favourite children song to life.
Our future starts today!

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What do you think?

  1. Nice write up dear.
    We all should also do the best we can to stop this as service to humanity is the best work of life.

  2. Wow !!!
    This is Powerful, more power to your pen Maryam coupled with more wisdom Dearie

  3. I commend the writer for reawakening the conscious of the few that would click and read thus as even the majority of the literates of today do read. Also, i urge you the writer and everyone who reads this article to please not stop at mere reading but extending a helping hand in whatever way you can to these kids.

    1. It’s a ravishing menace in the north. Thankfully politicians are begining to take steps in ending it, I hope they follow through sha

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