By Bilikis Bakare
In traditional African society, the word orphan was alien because children who lost one or both parents were incorporated into a relative family and raised like their own. But due to the weakened extended family system through the adoption of western lifestyle, poverty, increasing population of orphans and reduced number of care givers, orphans and vulnerable children are finding it increasingly difficult to be incorporated into the extended family safety net.
The United Nations Agency for International Development defines an orphan as a child under 18 whose mother, father, or both parents are dead. Therefore, there are maternal, paternal orphans [ half orphans] and double orphans , while vulnerable children refer to groups of children that experience negative outcomes such as the loss of their education, morbidity and malnutrition at higher rates than do their peers. Minority status, disability and residence in underserved areas can also make children vulnerable, with girls being at higher risks. Other causes of orphaning and vulnerability include poverty, conflicts, road accidents, disease, etc. However, not all vulnerable children are orphans, but all orphans are vulnerable.
The two most popular religions, Christianity and Islam, in their religious texts, [The Holy Bible and The Holy Quran] emphasise the need to help and defend orphans which they consider as very pleasing to God. Notable and famous orphans include Prophet Muhammad, a world leader like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy.
Nigeria has approximately 17 million orphans and vulnerable children, considered to be one of the highest in the world including over 2 million orphaned by HIV/AIDS. According to the survey carried out by National HIV/ AIDS and Reproductive Health, the planning status of birth in Nigeria showed that 10% of all pregnancies are unwanted while 22% are unplanned. Also, attitude of Nigerians towards People Living With HIV/ AIDS [PLWHA] is discriminatory as well as children orphaned by the disease.
Generally, orphans and vulnerable children face a lot of challenges ranging from economic to social and psychological in form of malnutrition, reduced access to education and health care, child labour, migration, homelessness, low self esteem, involvement in drug and alcohol. Other challenges include depression, guilt, anger and fear caused by parental illness and death.
Rights and needs of all human beings are also applicable to orphans and vulnerable children. However, this group of children need more support to get what they lack due to the absence or lack of capacity of their parents. It is the right of every child irrespective of social status to enjoy physical protection especially as it relates to food, shelter, clothing and health care; emotional care in form of love, security, sense of belonging and friendship; social protection in form of acceptance, identity, formal and informal education, life skills and general knowledge; mental stability i.e. stress prevention and management and spiritual support like freedom to belief, identify with the creator, have hope and faith.
Every segment of the society has a role to play in ensuring that the rights of all children including those of orphans and vulnerable children are protected. Government at the centre alone cannot provide comprehensive care for every orphan and vulnerable children, hence the need for collaboration of all stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, faith-based organisations, government at all levels, corporate bodies as well as everyone in the society. Strategic partnerships and linkages among stakeholders and the affected children, including community responses should be developed to ensure orphans and vulnerable children have access to comprehensive care.
The Federal Government through the support of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief [PEPFAR] launched the children of hope project in 2008. The project is being implemented in partnership with the European co-operative for Rural Development and Widows and Orphans Empowerment Organisation. It is being implemented in Edo, Imo, Oyo, Abia, Ebonyi states and the federal capital to meet the nutrition, protection, education and psychological support needs of orphans and vulnerable children and link care givers to loans and income generating activities. Similarly, through the Children of Hope Project, HIV sexual prevention activities and capacity building programmes for staff and partners [Society for Family Health] are carried out.
In Lagos State, orphans and vulnerable children are being taken care of through various programmes and legislations put in place in areas such as education which makes basic education to be free and compulsory for every child, irrespective of class and state of origin with free text and note books. Health care is equally free for all under 5s as well as the aged.
In year 2007, the Child Rights Law was adopted and domesticated in Lagos to protect all children resident in the state and the Yellow Card introduced to enlighten the public and acquaint them with contact telephone numbers in cases of children being abused. These cards are also being issued to care givers as forms of warnings. As soon as a case of child abuse is reported, the state Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, through its rescue team, swings into action to rescue the child and arrest the care giver.
Also, complaint boxes are being put in schools where students can drop their written complaints in cases of abuse, whether at home or in school. Community-based organisations and Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) funded by UNICEF and USAID are working with orphans and vulnerable children in various communities in the state and are being co-ordinated by the state Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation (WAPA).
In Benue, a state with the highest cases of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, large numbers of households are left to care for children orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable by the disease. To tackle this problem, the United States Agency For International Development [USAID] through the Centre For Development And Population Activities [CEDPA] developed the Vulnerable Children Project [VCP], with the goal of improving the quality of life of these children through the provision of opportunities for them in areas of health and education.
Other areas of opportunities include, the identification and strengthening of existing community support structure for orphans, vulnerable children and people living with HIV/ AIDS and developing the capacity of the community to advocate for policy and social change towards them. This programme has already taken off in Otukpo community, one of the local government areas with the highest prevalence of HIV/ AIDS, where the community has been very responsive by donating land, animal feeds, seedling and buildings for CEDPA
It is important for all stakeholders to know that the rights of every child are also those of the orphans and the vulnerable, let us all give all children equal opportunity to actualise their maximum potentials, as this is an assurance of a secured future.
•Bakare is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja