Citing Poverty and Abuse, Children Choose Street Life in Nigeria

Representatives from rehabilitation centers say the solution lies in strengthening families.

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Citing Poverty and Abuse, Children Choose Street Life in Nigeria

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LAGOS, NIGERIA – Tad, 18, left his home in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria, when he was 13 to live on the streets.

Tad, who goes by this nickname on the streets, was living with his dad and stepmother, but his dad traveled often for work. He got along with his stepmother at first, but Tad says she soon began to resent him.

“My stepmom did not have a child, so she started maltreating me,” Tad says.

She ridiculed him in public and abused him at home.

“She would hang me up on the fan and flog me,” he says. “She would put pepper in my private part, pull my ears. It was punishment upon punishment. She had different styles.”

To get away, Tad entered an academic competition in Surulere, a suburb of Lagos, which offered a scholarship for further schooling. When he reached the finals, he was required to bring passport photographs, which he didn’t have money to buy.

So Tad took some of his stepmother’s money that she had left on top of the TV. But when his friend needed photos too, Tad spent more than he had planned – the equivalent of $1.30.

“I knew I was going to suffer for it,” Tad says. “She would tell me to count, ‘How many 5 [naira] is in 200 [naira]?’ That’s the beating I will take.”

He reveals a mark on his hand from one of the beatings.

“Look at my hand,” he says. “This is a natural tattoo.”

His stepmother stormed his school to confront him about the money.

“She came to embarrass me in front of my teachers,” he says.

While the teachers were arguing, he left. Tad calculated the beating he would take.

“I will hang on fan,” he says he told himself. “She will hang me by my hand. She will call her brothers to help. I calculated it: hanging, pepper on my buttocks.”

He says he also recalled another technique she had used that involved putting him in a large metal container and pouring water on him for about 10 minutes, creating a drowning effect.

He opted to flee.

“I took my sandals and ran,” he says.

Tad was at Kuramo Beach, a popular beach on Lagos Island, when a representative from Street Child Care and Welfare Initiative, a home for children formerly living on the streets, found him. He lives there today.

Children live on the streets in Nigeria because of varying problems at home, including poverty, abuse and lack of emotional attachment with family. But they face other hazards on the street ranging from sexual violence to drug exposure. Rehabilitation centers assist children with their basic needs, promote education and reconnect them with their families. But workers say the children will return to the streets unless the community changes its mentality about them and strengthens the institution of family.

There are no official statistics available on how many children live on the street in Lagos state, said Sunday J. Ichedi, head of the public affairs and international relation unit of the National Bureau of Statistics of Nigeria, in a phone interview.

Oyeyemi Oyewale, the in-house counselor at the Street Child Care and Welfare Initiative, says that many children end up on the streets as a result of broken homes and a lack of emotional attachment to their families.

He says that was also his experience as a 10-year-old.

“It has to do with when you don’t have any emotional fulfillment,” he explains. “Nobody knew that I was on the streets. It took the intervention of my mum, who went to school only to find out that I’d been missing classes.”

Poverty is another major reason why children end up in the streets, says Rose Swan, program officer at Child Life-line, a nongovernmental organization that rehabilitates those children.

“An 8-year-old boy I interviewed said that his father told him that when he was his age, he was already working, so the boy should also start working and fending for himself,” Swan says. “Many of the children end up in the streets because their parents cannot cater for them.”

A 15-year-old boy who goes by the nickname Ondato frequents Child Life-line’s drop-in center. He lives on the streets and returns home once in a while. But Ondato says his father is a polygamist and does not have the time to care for all his children.

“When I am on the street, I can hustle and take care of myself,” Ondato says. “I work as a bus conductor.”

He says he makes between 800 naira ($5) and 4,000 naira ($25) a day, depending on how long he works.

Comfort Alli, executive director of the Street Child Care and Welfare Initiative, says this is common.

“Some children feel that their parents are not taking care of them,” she says. “Some feel that they are not going to school so there is no future for them, so let’s see if there is any life out there. Some feel that there are too many children, so how are my parents going to cope?”

Others have older parents who can’t take care of them, Swan says.

Peer pressure also plays a role.

“They say: ‘My friends are like this. Why am I not like this?’” she says. “‘My friends have this, why can’t I have it?’ Many of these children are being lured into the streets by their friends.”

Some children take jobs on the streets, earn money and return well-dressed to their communities, telling other children that the streets are where the good life is, she says.

That was the case for one 18-year-old who goes by the nickname Sunnex.

“I lost my mum, so my dad married another woman,” he says. “I was hawking for her. Before I go to school, I will hawk fish.”

If any money was ever missing or lost from a day of selling fish, his stepmother blamed him, and his father beat him, he says.

When one of his friends returned from Lagos with tales of opportunity and adventure, Sunnex started saving money to go himself.

“I knew that my father will beat me,” he says. “I would be beaten with rubber, and my body will tear. So, on Sunday, I left church as if I want to go and use the toilet and went to the main road.”

Sunnex boarded a bus and has been in Lagos since. Though he has reunited with his family, he still stays at the Street Child Care and Welfare Initiative, where he has access to education. He took the examination to qualify for university education earlier this year.

“I like to become an actor, he says, smiling. “I love acting.”

But Alli of the Street Child Care and Welfare Initiative says that being on the street exposes children to many hazards.

“They know more than you can ever imagine,” she says. “Some pedophiles, terrible rich guys go into the streets to pick them up, to sodomize them and pay them peanuts. That’s the fastest way of spreading HIV.”

“Iyawo Ibo” means “Ibo’s wife” in the Yoruba language. A 14-year-old earned this nickname after an older man who had offered him a job during his early days on the streets attempted to take advantage of him sexually.

He has been on the streets for six years now. He says he can’t return home yet because he has no skills to show for his time on the street.

Ondato and Iyawo Ibo, who both spend time at Child Life-line, talk about hard drugs on the street and their prices as if they are reeling through their mother’s grocery list.

“We run errands for the adults on the streets, so we know,” Ondato says of their involvement in drug trafficking.

Girls are forced to use sex to survive, says Olajide Festus, an outreach officer at Child Life-line, a local child welfare association. Earning little profit selling local gin, they accept that they must take up boyfriends, many who work as bus conductors, to receive enough money to live.

“We give them sexuality training here on how they know and understand their bodies,” Festus says of the association’s drop-in center.

He draws a chart on a piece of paper to show how he explains sexually transmitted diseases to the children.

“If A sleeps with B without a condom, B will end up sleeping with C, maybe also without a condom,” Festus says. “If C sleeps with either A or B or even D without a condom, then diseases spread faster among them.”

But once girls are on the streets, it is tougher for them to say no to sex, he says. Sometimes they have to exchange sex for food or protection.

“It is even much tougher for the girls to ask the men to use condoms, especially if the men are the older street touts,” he says. “In such cases, they do not have choices.”

Tee, 16, has been living on the streets of Lagos for three years. She is eight months pregnant.

“But the father of the child has denied responsibility,” she says. “He says that he is in school and does not want a child. So, I have to keep managing.”

Swan says she tells girls who live on the streets that they must gain an education.

“I tell them: ‘You cannot just continue to live like this because you are a street child,’” she says. “‘You have to change this mentality.’”

Swan says the community also needs to change its mentality, explaining that the neighbors of the center are afraid of the children.

“People have this perspective that they are troublemakers,” Swan says.

On days when more than 50 children come to the center, Swan must ask the additional children to wait until the next day.

“They stand outside the gate, bang the gate and they will make a lot of noise,” she says. “And when people pass, they will think that it is a terror zone.”

This fear has prevented the staff from securing apprenticeship opportunities for several girls staying at the center.

“I went out on the streets once and asked a woman who had a salon if she could take some of our girls,” Swan says.

When the woman refused, Swan invited her to visit the center so she could see for herself the warm welcome the children would give her. But the woman again refused.

Children come to the Child Life-line drop-in center in the mornings to rest, wash their clothes and eat before returning to the streets in the evenings. The center doesn’t have the facilities to take the children in from the streets permanently, Festus says.

Rather, it aims to assess them during a three-month period and to rehabilitate them.

“What matters is the state of their minds,” he says. “There is this stigma that we are trying to correct.”

The center looks for nongovernmental organizations or homes where the children can stay permanently. But Festus says the ultimate goal is to reunite the children with their families.

But many families don’t accept their children after they have been living on the streets.

“Many times, parents misunderstand their children because they don’t really communicate with their children,” Swan says.

She gives the example of a boy who keeps returning to the center because his father won’t stop calling him a “street child” even after he returns home.

“There is this boy who came to Lagos from Ekiti,” she says. “We have reunited him with his family three times.”

Festus says that this will continue to happen until more people recognize the importance of a child’s connection to his or her family.

“Most NGOs don’t tackle the root cause, which is family,” Festus says.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.