Cases of child abandonment are becoming rampant in Nigeria.
The traditional and social media have reported many of such cases that it is gradually becoming a ‘normal’ occurrence, even as incidents of child abandonment cut across the country.
There are different facets to the challenge. There are children branded as witches by their parents and abandoned to die. Sometimes, these children are even inflicted with serious physical scars under the guise of exorcism before they are abandoned.
There are also the cases of babies abandoned shortly after they were born. That this phenomenon is still occurring in the 21st century Nigeria is a sad commentary on our national policy.
While some of these babies are abandoned in the hospital, some are dropped off at all sorts of unconventional places such as public toilets, dump sites, bush and drainage systems, among others.
Sometimes, some of these babies get lucky and are rescued by members of the public before they die. Some are not lucky, as they sometimes die before help could reach them.
While it is difficult to get the correct statistics concerning cases of abandoned babies in the country, the fact that there are occasional reports of dumped children from all over the country shows that the incident is rampant.
According to the register of the Child Care Unit of the Oyo State Ministry of Women Affairs, Community Development and Social Welfare, a total of 114 cases of abandoned babies were recorded in Ibadan between January 2009 and December 2012.
Also, in October 2019, the Acting Secretary of the Federal Capital Territory Social Development Secretariat, Mrs. Safiya Umar, decried the rate at which newborn babies are being dumped across the FCT, lamenting that the situation is becoming worrisome and disturbing.
Yet, it is an offence to abandon children in Nigeria. According to Section 16 of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015, it is a criminal offence to abandon children or leave them without a means of sustenance.
The VAPA Act even says any offender, upon conviction, is liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine not exceeding N500,000.
The Nigerian Child Act of 2003 also stipulated that no child should be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. This section is also supported by Section 34 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, which affirmed that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity of their person.
The Lagos State Government also enacted a Criminal Code Law of Lagos State (2011) to prevent dumping of children. The law prescribes fines and other punishment for members of the public who dump or abandon children.
Aside from state and federal laws, Nigeria is also a signatory to many international conventions aimed at protecting the right of the child. These include the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Child (1976); and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
Notwithstanding these laws and conventions, cases of child abuse and abandonment are still very rampant in the country.
It must be emphasised that the crime is at variance with the social and cultural values of Nigeria and Africa at large, as children are traditionally desired, treasured and loved not just by their parents but by the entire community.
Nigeria must not continue to condemn but proactively address this social malaise and the multiple factors responsible for it.
It must be stressed that dumping a child is the most serious form of child abuse. Such abandoned children may be scarred for life, and many may have to deal with long-term social, psychological and health issues.
Nigeria needs new strategies that will help ensure that parents, families, traditional and religious leaders are better positioned to help halt this unacceptable crime.
It is also necessary to ensure that youth and teenagers get better sex education to reduce incidents of unwanted pregnancy, while we also need to sensitise members of the public to the evils of child abandonment.
More fundamentally, the Nigerian government must tackle the economic problem of the nation to take more people, especially women, out of poverty, as lack of means to take care of family seems to be at the root of child abandonment.
While the government must also begin to enforce the various laws against child dumping, it may be necessary to also take a second look at the laws guiding the operation of orphanages and foster homes.
The government may also consider allowing mothers who want to give up their babies willingly to do so, without necessarily asking them questions if they prefer not to state the reasons for their decision. This is already an acceptable practice in some developed countries.
This may be a better option rather than having such mothers resort to dumping helpless babies in all sorts of weird places.
The government must also encourage the establishment of more foster homes, by strengthening the non-governmental organisations that perform this crucial humanitarian service.
Without a doubt, children are the most vulnerable member of any society and the least they deserve is an opportunity to survive the most vulnerable period of their lives.
Nigerian children deserve a chance to grow up in an environment that supports them to be the best they can be in life.