TOUGH LIFE ON THE STREET: THE COVID-19 REALITIES OF HOMELESS ADOLESCENTS IN NIGERIA – BY GANIYAT JIMOHINCRESE
In these precarious times when COVID-19 is ravaging lives and disrupting human activities, there has been news flying around about children neglected or left to roam the streets, especially in Kano and Lagos. Attentions have equally been drawn to the relocation of a thousand children dubbed Almajaris in Northern Nigeria, from Kano to other states, without any adequate provision for their safety or wellbeing. The above situations illustrate the perilous circumstances many children often face in Nigeria, where there is neither a social welfare programme nor care packages for the wellbeing of vulnerable street children. According to a 2014 report by UNICEF, the Almajiris constitutes 9.5 million of the total number of children in Nigeria and they are often left to fend for themselves and survive through street begging and scavenging.
For instance in 1996, Pfizer Company conducted a drug trial in Kano during an epidemic of bacterial meningitis testing about two hundred children without an informed consents from the children, their parents or the government, thereby compromising the ethical standard of medical research. The illegal drug trial was claimed to have led to the death of eleven children while injuring several others. The way in which the court case was handled and how the settlements made by Pfizer was not beneficial to those concerned raised a disturbing question on the depth of corruption involved. By and large, these childrens lives have been used to play Ping-Pong. The whiff-whaff has continued in the ways parents and governments have continuously avoid responsibilities to cater for the children who are supposed to be in school, have a roof over their heads and have their basic needs met. It is a key principle of the Sustainable Development Goals to not leave anyone behind, especially the adolescent population of any country. But this is yet a reality in many climes.
Adolescence is a period of life cycle between childhood and adulthood with some unique characteristics connected with development and marked by dramatic challenges that require adjustments including navigating family, peer groups and other factors. The Adolescents experience physical growth, sexual maturation, and intense emotional, social, cognitive and personal development. This developmental period is a time of “storm and stress” that require support and attention by the caregivers. Thus, the COVID-19 epidemic poses an additional stress to these adolescents who are not only struggling with their biological growth but also socio-economical problems resulting from the lack of adequate care for their education and wellbeing making them particularly vulnerable.
COVID-19 is likely to lead to a further oversight of these young people because they are not formally recognized in the Nigeria’s questionable social welfare system. This may equally make them susceptible to sexual exploitation and criminal activities. Specifically with how thin it is that most civil society organizations will be unable to attend to the needs of these neglected demographic in time like this. Therefore, it is likely that young people in the street having no one to cater for them will struggle to receive up-to-date information on COVID-19, and it will be quite difficult for them to comply with NCDC directions. This lack of appropriate information and communication could mean that these vulnerable adolescents will face a period of uncertainties resulting in them falling victims to this infectious disease therefore posing a risk to their health and that of others. This unfortunate situation may inevitably result in a prolong delay in the eradication of the spread of the coronavirus.
For many teenagers who are at risk of abuse and neglect in their homes, school serves as their protective net and a safe place to be during the day. With schools forced to close down, these teenagers risk could be magnified as well. As many teenagers will be drawn to increased online activities, it is crucial to ensure they utilize it for educational purposes and avoid falling prey to sexual grooming and online exploitations. While this is a different level of concern than the vulnerable children on the street, it is an important aspect to touch on, because mental and emotional wellness of all teenagers in these uncertain times is fundamental. By and large, everything is connected. The immediate responsibilities of the government at this point are to not make the matter worse for the entire country by implementing ill-conceived agendas but by proactively engaging in inclusive plans for all and sundry, particularly the most vulnerable such as the children on the streets.
In conclusion, it is very germane that these vulnerable adolescents are able to access to food, non-food items, accommodation and cash palliatives to enable them feel supportive and have a positive experience, which will protect them from potential predators and exposure to this infectious and deadly virus. Every adolescent in our society matters irrespective of his or her social situation, and the predominantly vulnerable should be given priority. Therefore, the government, ministry of social welfare, youth development and women affairs, NGOs and all other stakeholders should be concerned and aim at promoting the vulnerable street adolescents rights and general wellbeing in these very precarious times.
Ganiyat Jimoh is a lecturer in the Department of Home Economics, Federal College of Education, Abeokuta and a volunteer to several progressive NGOs in Nigeria. She holds a Bachelors and Masters degrees in Human Development and Family Studies.