The vulnerable children on the streets of Lagos
On many streets in Lagos, it is now a common sight to see increasing numbers of children hanging around day and night, many of them attempting to wipe windshields in traffic, peering into cars and begging/praying/singing, hanging around street corners, busy traffic intersections, malls and shopping areas. They look unkempt, for the most part, and are sometimes armed with plastic bottles of dirty looking soapy water, a brush and they are quick on their feet. Usually they are playing and darting around and once traffic stops or you park, they mill around the car and start singing/begging mournfully.
There are usually a few adults milling around, ostensibly keeping an eye on these children- most often female, and usually they also have a few very small infants with them, still breastfeeding, some on their backs, and some on the backs of the begging children. I see them being given money from time to time and even fed from time to time, either by well-meaning individuals or one of the older kids approaching with a bag of food. They make a mad dash for the bag and fight for the food that is within- this being evening, looks like this might be the meal of the day.
I figure this is in part a sign of increasing #poverty and lack, in part a sign of the breakdown of our social fabric, in part due to the increasing displacement from the Northern part of the country. It also represents to me a keg of gunpowder waiting to go off, reminiscent of our slow-motion response to the HIV epidemic because it was "a small percentage of Nigerians who were HIV positive" implying that it wasn’t a big deal. Thus we initially failed to recognise the danger presented by high transmission rates occurring in admittedly a small percentage, but of a massive population of mainly uneducated and unenlightened youth, and the presence of trans-generational transmission due to entrenched cultural practices.
The phenomenon of #streetchildren is associated with dense urbanization, and has been present in the most famous cities of the world at various stages of their development- it is still very much a feature in many cities of the world. In Nigeria now, it is not only limited to dense urban cities but is present in semi-rural areas as well. These children are not only on the streets, they are also on the highways and expressways. In the last decade, this worrisome trend was already present in several states of the country- young unaccompanied children wandering around in various states of deshabille, some begging, some warming themselves beside an early morning fire, some seemingly simply trekking on the expressway to a distant city or town, others still have obviously woken up early to do something other than get ready for school- perhaps working unsupervised breaking large tree trunks into smaller pieces of wood for sale on the expressway or in a market. Some could be dressed in a school uniform, but walking or running along on the expressway miles from the closest school. The phenomenon of street children is associated with dense urbanization, and has been present in the most famous cities of the world at various stages of their development- it is still very much a feature in many cities of the world. In Nigeria now, it is not only limited to dense urban cities but is present in semi-rural areas as well. These children are not only on the streets, they are also on the highways and expressways. In the last decade, this worrisome trend was already present in several states of the country- young unaccompanied children wandering around in various states of deshabille, some begging, some warming themselves beside an early morning fire, some seemingly simply trekking on the expressway to a distant city or town, others still have obviously woken up early to do something other than get ready for school- perhaps working unsupervised breaking large tree trunks into smaller pieces of wood for sale on the expressway or in a market. Some could be dressed in a school uniform, but walking or running along on the expressway miles from the closest school.
Children are on the streets at a young and vulnerable age for several reasons and fall into several categories. There are #homeless street children- who live off the streets, gain their livelihoods on the streets and are inadequately supervised or protected. Some of these ran away from home and some were thrown out after proving to be "beyond control" a disheartening term one child once used to describe himself based on a classification in our child care system! Among those described above, some beg on behalf of an adult who is close-by watching – these ones seem to present a particular security risk. Another category of children are street vulnerable- have a roof over their heads at night, but for the most part are uncared for, may be sexually or physically abused or otherwise traumatised. They may belong to a family that lives in a slum, but is so poor that each member is more or less "paying their way". The extreme circumstances in which these families find themselves do not give room for tender loving care. We see them hawking in traffic and near traffic lights and intersections and unable to go home until they have sold the last plantains or groundnuts at 10-11 pm. These children technically live on the streets because this is where they make their living, and they spend more time here than in a formal classroom or in their homes (many of them are in public or even low-cost private schools, and only hawk after school hours). They are vulnerable because they are on the streets most of the time, and this is where they are influenced and inspired, shaped and formed- for good or bad. This is not a chance we (or they) should take given the odds. While these experiences may instill some measure of grit and resilience, there are better ways to develop the same skills while keeping them safe and preserving their childhood.
The most obvious drawback is that many of these children are likely not getting a formal education or for those in school, not spending enough time learning in a safe space. They are therefore not likely to develop some of the critical other skills or tools with which they can succeed in this century and going forward, and help Nigeria to compete globally.
When unsupervised and unattended, they tend to band together in little gangs over time- whether boys or girls, and they become bolder, and more daring with time. Eventually they can become armed criminal gangs who can perpetrate or be used to commit any kind of crime for a fee.
These children are easily sexually molested, as well as physically and emotionally abused- indeed the act of abandoning them to the streets in the first place is a form of emotional and psychological abuse, and neglect and so this is a vicious cycle which can have serious repercussions. Worse still, they can be killed or lured into ritualistic murder.
They are very likely also not getting any health care and these emotionally scarred individuals become formidable criminals because there is precious little else being created for these young people – they cannot visualize a future that is better than their present and they are ripe as mules for the drug and the small arms trades that we are combatting in Nigeria.
This explosion of street children is a disturbing trend which I hope, like the growing mounds of trash all over Lagos will once again be a priority for the administration and thus soon be a thing of the past. These children need to be taken off the streets and protected. Having volunteered in the past with the state children's homes, I know this had been a relatively well-developed component of the workings of the state, and they could still be a reasonable stop gap to urgently address the vulnerability of these children. This is also a call to action for all of us who are healthcare providers and other custodians of the wellbeing of our communities to advocate addressing street children as a matter of urgency, and take steps towards getting them safe as quickly as possible. Several options are present and I would like to share a few. Some children may need to be institutionalised in one of the care homes in the state while families are traced and the children receive the mental and psychosocial support they need; some have existing families with whom they need to be reunited or whose families need to be taken off the streets. Non Governmental Organisations and Government's Social Investment Programmes would make a difference here. For the street vulnerable, provision of accessible low cost markets and trading zones would be helpful. The emphasis is on low cost, (think social investment, patient capital) we can consider short-term near-zero cost leases for little stalls in the markets that allow these poor families to get a leg up. For the street children, in the event there is no family coming forward or traceable, or the family indicates they would like to give them up, they become official wards of the state and get an education and/or learn a vocation until they come of age. They may also be offered up for fostering and or adoption - While that process can be long and uncertain, these are things that must be done- they are the marks of a developing economy and we must deploy our intellect and resources to solve the problems around us. In the event that all this takes a while to happen, then at least they can be raised in the state homes. Institutionalisation is not a preferred means of raising children- as a Paediatrician, I balk at this. Nothing beats raising a child in a home with parents or guardians, but aid and care homes appropriately run and supervised, are certainly a reasonable short term measure to consider instead of leaving these children to raise themselves on the streets of a megacity like Lagos.