Today is being marked across the country as Children and Youth Day, usually referred to as Children’s Day. As expected, millions of children will take part in parades, cultural dances, drama, and other special activities to mark the day. Prizes will be given to schools that excel at the parade. Political leaders, invited guests and parents will be on hand to witness the occasion. State governors and other eminent personalities will give glowing speeches on the significance of the day and their commitment to the growth, development and welfare of children and youths.
Children’s Day was first proclaimed by the World Conference for the wellbeing of children in 1925 and then established universally by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1954. It was established to address issues such as child labour which was rife at the time as children worked long hours in dangerous circumstances and denied basic education. Member countries of the UN are at liberty to choose any date in the year to mark the occasion, hence Nigeria chose May 27 to commemorate Children’s Day. The day has been marked every year since 1964 and recognised as a school holiday.
However, we find it worrisome that marking Children’s Day in Nigeria has become an annual hollow ritual. Beyond the celebration nothing much is done to improve the life of children. Millions of Nigerian children are deprived of the basic things of life such as food, shelter, education and health and forced to become breadwinners for their families. Children have become items of trafficking, dispersed in private households as domestic servants and forced to serve as artisans to many business owners. About 10 million children are said to be out of school while the number of child labourers in the country is put at over 20 million.
It is very clear that government and the society at large have neglected their responsibilities to the children despite legal provisions for the rights of the Nigerian child. It would be recalled that in 2003, Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act to domesticate the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Provisions of the Act include, right to survival and protection; right to parental care, protection and maintenance; right to free, compulsory and universal primary education; right to health and health services; right of a child in need to special care and protection. right not be imprisoned with the mother; right to have his best interest considered paramount in any matter involving him; and right to protection against abuse and torture among other rights.
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution also reinforces the provisions of the Act as it recognises the Right to Education. Section 18 of the Constitution states in part that “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.” It is sad to note that even though the Child Rights Act has been passed at the federal level since 2003 only 26 of the country’s 36 states have adopted the Act as their state laws. Even in these states, implementation is still a major challenge.
This failure of states government has contributed to the sorry state of the Nigerian child. There are many violations of the children’s rights noticed across the country such as early and forced marriages, child labour, trafficking, rape, defilement of minors, female genital mutilation, gender inequality and many other forms of child abuse. This is not acceptable.
So as we celebrate Children’s Day today, we must spare a thought for these vulnerable members of the society who suffer neglect with its attendant implications including poverty, HIV/ AIDS, failed dreams, terrorism, thuggery, unwanted pregnancies and hopelessness. A society that neglects its children is only sowing seeds that would germinate and haunt such society in the future. We should begin to work on the age-old phrase that “Children are the leaders of tomorrow” and prepare them for the future of the country.
There should be a renewed focus on the plight of the Nigerian child. Today’s Children’s Day celebration should provide the nation the opportunity to review the rights of children and demonstrate a commitment to upholding such rights. There should be concerted efforts to address the welfare of children because they are the most important national assets the country can boast of. Leaders who fail the future generation of the country should be held accountable. Never again should Nigeria condone leaders who neglect their responsibilities to children and all those who violate their rights with impunity.
Nigeria should begin to focus on how to chart a realistic plan for the growth and development of the Nigerian children. This is not the sole responsibility of government. All stakeholders including parents, educational institutions, religious and social institutions, non-governmental organisations, the organised private sector, and indeed all Nigerians must be involved in the task of addressing the plight of Nigerian children and ensuring their fundamental rights are upheld at all times. As Nigerian children join the rest of the world to celebrate Children’s Day today, The Union wishes them happy celebration.