Keynote Address Presented at the Pro-Life Advocacy Seminar
National Missionary Seminary of St Paul, Gwagwalada – Abuja
May 27, 2017.
FR. EMMANUEL OJEIFO
Permit me to begin by thanking the organisers of this Prolife Advocacy Seminar for inviting me to speak to this distinguished audience on “The Role of the Church in the Protection of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Nigeria.” I consider the theme of this seminar quite apt and timely in view of the tragic situation of millions of children in our country Nigeria. While I commend the organisers for this laudable initiative, may I also add quickly that I consider it a great honour to be part of this event.
Some couple of days ago, a heart-rending story went viral on the social media, which was later reported in Vanguard and Punch newspapers of last Sunday. A man allegedly beat his seven-year old son, identified as George Tamunoibuemie, to death in Port Harcourt. Sunday Vanguard gathered that the father of the boy maltreated him and allowed him to fend for himself. Neighbours often took turns to render assistance to the boy. “Just this week,” a neighbour reported, “I saw this little boy at a shop, people gathered around him. He stole a doughnut and everyone was blaming his father, saying he wasn’t giving him food and that, that was why the boy stole. They said the father and the boy’s stepmother maltreated him. I saw scars all over his body. The people he stole the doughnuts from even gave him more doughnuts and soft drink. I took the little boy to my house and interviewed him. He was an intelligent boy. He told me the same thing and even asked me to give him a pencil to school, which I did. I also bought biscuits for him, and took photograph of him before he left. I promised to see his father but couldn’t due to my tight schedule. This morning, I woke up to hear that his father has killed him. The father beat him to death.”
Pathetic stories such as this are not new to our society. They have become part of the staple casualties of a vampire society that dehumanises life and feeds on the blood of its innocent children. We hear and read about such gross dehumanisation of life. But as a society we have failed to take appropriate action.
In April 2016, Save the Children International, an international NGO invited me to address its gathering in Abuja at the official launch of its new global campaign tagged “Every Last Child.” The aim of the gathering was to initiate a new policy commitment that would aid the building of a new and better world for us and for our children in the light of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the campaign, no child should be left behind. The commitment to create a better world for our children must reach to the very last child. This commitment was borne out of the understanding that all children, whoever they are and wherever they live, should have decent healthcare, education, and protection from harm. “It’s no good going forward if we can’t bring everyone with us. We cannot be satisfied until every last child has the opportunity to survive and thrive,” the document Every Last Child stated.
At that event, I spoke on the Christian perspective to the protection of children, drawing insights from the Bible, especially Jesus’ attitude towards children, to press on the message that all Christians, irrespective of their denominational affiliation, should consider it an integral dimension of their religious and spiritual responsibility to champion the cause of children’s rights. Thankfully, as a Church we have a systematic body of teaching called “Catholic Social Teaching” which distil fundamental moral norms and ethical guidelines on issues of human dignity, rights and freedom, justice and peace, and the right ordering of political, economic, cultural and social life. Based on a solid Christian anthropology, which is rooted in Christ, we can discern God’s will for children in the complexities of our contemporary society and take appropriate decisions to safeguard their lives and welfare.
In this address, I will undertake to discuss the responsibility of the Catholic Church in Nigeria toward the protection of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC).
As the oldest globalised institution on earth, the Catholic Church has a potentially significant contribution to make in finding solutions to disturbing political and social questions. Through her ongoing theological and moral reflection and systematic approaches to pastoral and social issues, the Church makes a distinctive contribution to promoting the rights and dignity of orphaned and vulnerable children. My paper will, therefore, be divided into three parts. First, I will give a situation report of OVC in Nigeria. Secondly, drawing from the Bible and from Church teaching, I will discuss the view of the Church on the protection of orphans and vulnerable children. In the third part, I will briefly discuss the prophetic role of the Church in Nigeria at the service of OVC.
The Situation of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Nigeria.
Before we proceed further, it is important to clarify the concept of orphans and vulnerable children. The Framework for the Protection, Care and Support of Orphans and Vulnerable Children Living in a World with HIV and AIDS uses the following definition for an orphan: An orphan is a child under 18 years of age whose mother, father or both parents (either biological or adoptive) have died from any cause. An orphan may also be any child who has been abandoned or dumped, or whose parents cannot be traced (social orphan). Orphans from all causes can be more specifically described as follows:
Single orphan: a child who has lost one parent.
Double orphan: a child who has lost both parents.
Maternal orphan: a child whose mother has died.
Paternal orphan: a child whose father has died.
On the other hand, a vulnerable child is any child below the age of 18 years who is:
Has lost one or both parents to HIV.
Living with a chronically ill parent from whatever cause.
Living with frail grandparents.
Living in a child headed household.
Living on the street.
Living with physical or mental disabilities.
Living outside family care.
Living in an abusive environment (sexually abused, neglected, child beggars, destitute children and scavengers, child sex worker).
Living in a broken home.
A child labourer.
Living with parents with disability.
Orphans and vulnerable children are an ongoing international concern due, in part, to the impact of HIV/AIDS and economic and social factors. It is estimated that over 132 million children are orphans worldwide, with 5,760 more children becoming orphans around the world each day. It is said that the number of orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa alone equals more than the combined number of children in Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. This tragic international situation has resonance with the situation in our own country Nigeria.
According to 2015 UNAIDS estimates, some 260,000 children aged 0 to 14 are living with AIDS in Nigeria. The number could be as high as 360,000. The number of orphans due to AIDS aged 0 to 17 is put at 1.8 million, but it could be as high as 2.6 million. This is just a fraction of the number of children whose lives have been radically altered by the impact of AIDS on their families and communities. Thousands of children are living with sick and dying parents. This can cause extreme psychological distress, not to talk about the economic hardship, the stigma and discrimination, the malnutrition threatening their very survival and development.
The 2008 National Situation Assessment and Analysis of OVC in Nigeria indicated that there are 14 million vulnerable children in Nigeria. One out of every ten Nigeria child is an orphan. Of these, one in three is a maternal orphan and two in three are paternal orphans. The UNICEF Humanitarian Report of April 16–30, 2017 shows that in the North East of Nigeria, 4.4 million children are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, from food, water, and shelter to clothing and education. This situation has been heightened by the Boko Haram insurgency, which has left in its wake huge debris of human decimation of monumental proportions.
According to the Nigeria Orphans and Vulnerable Children Research Situation Analysis Report, published in August 2009 by the Boston University Center for Global Health and Development, “Nigeria is facing an orphaning and child vulnerability crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions. In spite of relatively low HIV prevalence rates… Nigeria, by virtue of her huge population, has one of the highest orphan and vulnerable children populations in the world. This has resulted from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in addition to the upward trends in the prevalence of other vulnerability instigating factors such as exploitative labour, poverty, abandonment, violence, and other causes related to the national socio-economic profile.”
As a cause of orphaning, HIV/AIDS is exceptional because if one parent is infected with HIV, the probability is high that the other parent is also infected. Thus putting children at risk of losing both parents within a relatively short time. However, where poverty and HIV coexist, children and households are at risk of great deprivation. In households afflicted by AIDS, more money is spent caring for sick members, leaving fewer resources for the children in the household.
In Nigeria, the AIDS epidemic puts children at risk physically, emotionally and economically. Children are directly affected in a number of ways as the experience of orphaned and vulnerable children show. Some studies have shown that orphans and vulnerable children are at higher risk of missing out on schooling, live in households with less food security, suffer anxiety and depression, and are at a higher risk of exposure to HIV. When children lose their fathers to AIDS, they are more likely to live with their mother because widowed mothers are more likely to be responsible for the care of their children than widowed fathers. On the other hand, children who lose their mothers are less likely to live with the surviving parent. Furthermore, the survival of the youngest children (0-3) is at stake when their mothers are dying or have recently died. This is true whether the mother dies of AIDS or other causes. Children of this age group are 3.9 times more likely to die in the year before or after their mother’s death.
Although it is customary in Nigeria for extended family and community members to care for orphans and vulnerable children, the growing number of OVC and the complexity of their needs have overextended the capacity and resources of these individuals and households. Many more children live in households with a chronically ill parent or caregiver, elderly caregivers, orphans and other homeless children. This disturbing trend is fuelled by social, cultural, political and economic forces which have in recent times overstretched the coping capacities of families, communities and governments. The human and social cost of OVC is enormous. Moreover, with the death of a parent, children experience profound loss, grief, anxiety, fear and hopelessness with long term consequences such as psychosomatic disorders, chronic depression, low self-esteem, learning disabilities and disturbed social behaviour.
Other Humanitarian Factors
Beyond the impact of HIV/AIDS on the situation of orphans and vulnerable children in Nigeria, there are other factors, which significantly impact on the Nigerian condition, most notably the Boko Haram insurgency and the attendant humanitarian crisis it has generated. The insurgency, with its cocktail of violence and destruction, has caused huge population displacements, leaving hundreds of thousands of children trapped in areas that are inaccessible to humanitarian assistance because of insecurity. This has led to dramatic increase in malnutrition.
Speaking in July 2016, Jean Gough, the representative of UNICEF in Nigeria said: “We estimate that there will be almost a quarter of a million children under five suffering from acute malnutrition in Borno this year. Unless we reach these children with treatment, one in five of them will die.” A rapid screening of children under five performed by Action Against Hunger in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states – the three states most affected by the insurgency in the North East – indicated that nearly 30 per cent of 4,445 children screened are suffering from Global Acute Malnutrition.
Daily Mail, a British newspaper reported that according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international medical charity organisation, “at least 188 people died in the camp of Bama between May 23 and June 22, mainly from diarrhoea and malnutrition, while more than 1,200 graves, many of them for children, have been dug near the camp in the last year [i.e 2015].” MSF has called the situation in the North East “a catastrophic humanitarian emergency.” Although Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, it also has one of the highest numbers of severely malnourished children in the world: approximately 24% of children under five years old – more than a million children – suffer from malnutrition. Underneath the statistics lies the pain of human tragedy that is unfolding before our very eyes.
Beyond this humanitarian situation in the North East, the plight of children in Nigeria is anything but pleasant. When parents die as a result of violent conflict, poverty, disease, lack of access to healthcare when sick, and the search for better life which leads to illegal migration, they leave their children both orphaned and vulnerable to the vagaries of a tempestuous society. These children become victims of trafficking, prone to sexual assault, less likely to attend school, exposed to violence, and unable to fend for themselves.
Another phenomenon of grave concern in Nigeria is that of children living on the streets. These children are involved in different types of work without any clear pattern and live under bridges, in motor parks, market stalls or with families. The ages of these children can range from 5-17. Those children are more prone to illnesses, malnutrition, drug abuse, crime, accidents, arrest and harassment by law enforcement agents, and are also at risk of being trafficked or used for ritual purposes.
Photo credit: Google, vulnerable children.
Among children living on the streets, special mention must be made of the Almajiris who are found in the Northern part of the country. The original idea was for these young children to be sent out from their homes to learn Quranic education in traditional way under the care of a Mallam. However, the system has been diverted from its original objective and the children have become a means to financial gain by their substitute caregivers who send them to beg in the street and to carry out other menial jobs. This makes them vulnerable to different kinds of health, physical and psychological hazards.
With the insurgency in the North East, several thousand children (especially young girls) have been displaced, abducted, wounded, orphaned, sexually abused and forced into early marriages. Most children in the affected areas find themselves traumatised, while many are wounded, forced to live on the streets, in makeshift shelter or in camps for internally displaced persons. Some of the attacks have been on schools. This has led to many schoolchildren being killed and most schools being destroyed or shut down. Two prominent examples are the abduction in April 2014 of 276 girls from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, and the slaughter of 59 schoolboys in Buni Yadi, Yobe State. According to UNESCO, Nigeria now has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, due mainly to terrorist activities.
Another devastating impact of conflict is sexual violence, during which hundreds of women and girls are raped and forcibly married off to their captors. Some of the women and girls eventually get pregnant as a result of sexual violence. The children who have been born of sexual violence are at an even greater risk of rejection and abandonment. Some believe that the children conceived as a result of sexual violence or sexual relations with the insurgents will become the next generation of fighters, as they carry the violent characteristics of their biological fathers. As a result, children and newborn as well as their mothers are being increasingly ostracised and are at risk of further violence.
There is also an alarming surge in the number of teenage girls and children used as suicide bombers. This is the worst possible use of children in conflict situation. A news report of UNICEF in April 2017 noted that so far, 117 children have been used to carry out bomb attacks in public places across Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon since 2014. This is the plight of a vast number of Nigerian children who are caught in the web of terrorist violence. However, we still have to grapple with the alarming increase in acute cases of child abuse and the practice of female genital mutilation, which is still rampant. Faced with these disconcerting episodes of violence against children, the Christian believer of today must ask: What would Jesus Christ do in these kinds of situation? What is the Church called to do?
The Church, the Bible and the Protection of Vulnerable Children
At the foundation of the biblically-rooted Christian social worldview is the proposition that the human being is created with a unique inalienable and sacred character, that not only are our lives not ours to dispose of, but that we are obliged to protect the life and dignity of all human beings. Although God cares for all his children (Ps. 145:9), he shows his special care for the vulnerable, and calls upon us to be similarly concerned for them. The Bible is fond of speaking about the stranger and the widow as vulnerable persons, but the ultimate paradigm of vulnerability is the orphan, the child victim of misfortune.
God’s care and compassion for the less fortunate is mentioned throughout the Bible. This emphasis reminds Christians that the act of helping the helpless is not a suggestion, but a Christian duty. James 1:27 says, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” Jeremiah 22:16 reminds us that to “know God” means helping the widow and the orphan. These verses suggest that when we help the helpless, we know the heart of God and become his hands in the process.
Several episodes in the New Testament gives ample instances of the teachings and attitude of Jesus Christ towards children, and how he expects Christians to regard children. Jesus had a profound affection for children and never hesitated to carry them in his arms and to bless them whenever they were brought to him (Mk 10:13-16). Out of compassion, he restored the dead son of a widow to life (Lk 7:11-15). He also brought back to life the 12 year-old daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus (Lk 8:51-56). At Capernaum, he healed the sick son of an official (Jn 4:46-53). He also healed the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman, who was tormented by an evil spirit (Mt 15:21-28). When a little boy who suffered from epilepsy and demonic possession was brought to him, Jesus promptly healed the child (Lk 9:37-43). In the miracle of the multiplication of bread for the feeding of 5000 people, a little boy provided the five loaves of bread and two fish with which Jesus performed the miracle (Jn 6:9).
In a profound teaching about the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus used a little child as the epitome of those who will enter Heaven (Mk 10:15; Mt 18:3-4). Here, we see the invaluable premium that Jesus places on the innocence, simplicity and purity of life of children. He also tells us that we will all be judged on the last day on the basis of our care for the less privileged and the vulnerable (Mt 25). In the Christian tradition, the true measure of our attitude to and treatment of children becomes the example of Jesus Christ. All these episodes teach us that children are to be viewed as treasures and not commodities for exploitation. Our duties and responsibilities towards children flow from the divine command placed upon us to protect them. Jesus even prescribed a severe punishment for those who hurt or scandalize children (Mt 18:6, 10).
The fact that God himself would arrive in our world in the form of a vulnerable baby also says a great deal. Even the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt on account of Herod’s desire to kill the infant Jesus also shows forth the vulnerability of the Son of God to human whims and caprices. Not only did the family of Jesus face grave danger, Jesus himself became a refugee at an early age. But once he grew up, Jesus showed extraordinary love for children. He performed several miracles involving children and showed them in his teachings as models of emulation even for grown-ups. When Jesus said to his disciples, “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he means that, “In children there is something that must never be missing in people who want to enter the kingdom of heaven. People who are destined to go to heaven are simple like children, and like children are full of trust, rich in goodness and pure” (Pope St. John Paul II). That is why children are important in the eyes of Jesus.
Speaking about the rough earthly experience of Jesus in his Letter to Children in the Year of the Family (December 13, 1994), Pope John Paul II said: “In what happened to the Child of Bethlehem, you can recognize what happens to children throughout the world. It is true that a child represents the joy no only of its parents but also the joy of the Church and the whole of society. But it is also true that in our days, unfortunately, many children in different parts of the world are suffering and being threatened: they are hungry and poor, they are dying from diseases and malnutrition, they are the victims of war, they are abandoned by their parents and condemned to remain without a home, without the warmth of a family of their own, they suffer many forms of violence and arrogance from grown-ups. How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown-ups?”
But in Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus and spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see the great figure of a protector and guardian. That is what every Christian is called to be – a protector and guardian of vulnerable children. In his Homily at the Mass of the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry of Pope Francis (March 19, 2013), the Holy Father put before us the example of Joseph. How does Joseph exercise his role as custos, as protector of Mary and Jesus? Pope Francis answers: “Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.”
Pope Francis asks again: “How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church?” He answers: “By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own…. Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In his, dear friends, we can learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly….” Like St Joseph, “we must open our arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least importance, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect.”
Even Jesus shows us by his attitude that the children of the world – not just the children in our families – must be protected, welcomed and blessed. Protecting them from diseases, hunger, nakedness from violence and cruelty, from danger and exploitation, from ignorance and disrespect, – these objectives must be a top priority for Christians. We must all take the lead in confronting this one great moral struggle of our times, to lend our voices to the voices of millions of people calling for a change in the way the world treats children. People who love God can disagree on many points of public policy and social welfare. However, there can be no room for debate on the Bible’s claim on Christians to care for the poor as a central expression of our faith. If we do not share God’s passion to uplift the poor, we cannot claim to know God in a biblical way.
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees his brother or sister in need and refuses to help?” (1 Jn 3:17). Our love for Jesus is to find tangible expression in the way we treat children. If we love Jesus and seek to conform our lives to Scripture, we will care for children wounded by poverty – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and promote a society which shares resources to meet their needs. We will prayerfully intervene to break the yoke of generational poverty and create fresh opportunities for families to develop self-sufficiency. We will protect children and their families from exploitation and advocate their cause to those in power. And we will offer them the hope of our faith in Christ, who shared in their poverty during his sojourn on earth so that through him all might live in abundance (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
For the Christian, every child is a human being created in the image of God. This affords him or her all human dignity that must be protected from abuse. The vulnerability of children makes them all the more deserving of our regard, and obliges us with greater responsibility towards them. This responsibility is even more heightened with regard to children who are victims of misfortune, injustice and abuse. In other words, we must address children with particular tenderness and courtesy; be especially careful not to subject them to hard labour nor wound their feelings with harsh speech. We must take greater care of their persons and property than we would even with our own; for it is a more serious transgression to cause them distress, anger or pain, let alone to tyrannize them, cause them physical harm or humiliate them.
Children are more than the “products” of an older generation; they are the guarantors of posterity. It is this recognition of children’s potentials for renewal and continuity of the human species that led the sages of the Talmud to describe them as “the Messiahs of humankind.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Albanian Christian missionary who spent her life caring for the poor and destitute, once remarked: “Every new born child comes to the world with the message that God is not yet fed up with humankind.” Here I see how much we can learn from children. Their ability to manage diversity, something they are good at in their innocence, is something we adults could learn.
The Role of the Church in the Protection of OVC in Nigeria
There are several layers of responsibility for the Church in Nigeria as far as the protection of orphans and vulnerable children is concerned. At the highest level of the governance of the Church in our country, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) needs to take greater awareness of the plight of children today, and evolve new ways and means of standing prophetically to champion their cause. This can start from creating an office for the protection of children at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) or an Episcopal Commission whose duty will be to carry out the work of research, documentation and advocacy in the area of children’s rights. The Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) in all our Dioceses must move beyond simply monitoring elections and undertake greater responsibility in promoting the cause of social justice in our land.
Our schools and institutions should create offices for Child Protection in line with approaches already undertaken by the universal Church. So far, to the best of my knowledge only two Dioceses in Nigeria have formulated policy guidelines and codes of conduct for the protection of children in their educational institutions. These are Ijebu-Ode Diocese and Sokoto Diocese.
In a nation where child abuse has become so rampant and so vicious across all sectors of the society, we cannot dispense with the strong moral voice of the Church in this matter. Church leaders must make effort to speak with one voice in conscientizing the public, especially political leaders, on their duties toward the protection of vulnerable children. But beyond speaking with one voice, they must also ensure that ecclesiastical institutions are not ‘safe harbour’ for perpetrating the abuse of innocent children. This means punishing offenders and ensuring that those who have a tendency to abuse children are not in ministry where they can carry out their nefarious activities.
Furthermore, the preferential option for the poor, which is a cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching, ought to become the guide for our commitment toward the care and protection of children. Here too, the Church can use her Catholic Social Teaching to activate the Sustainable Development Goals (especially Nos. 1 to 5), which have dealings with the protection of vulnerable children. This has to spill over to defending their basic human and civic rights to life, to education, to healthcare, to shelter and to decent living. The 1983 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2003 Child Rights Act in Nigeria can offer us veritable resources in this endeavour.
This pro-life forum and the choice of topic for this event shows that the organisers recognize that the Pro-Life movements today have to move beyond the advocacy for core moral questions like contraception, abortion, euthanasia, etc to include the wider concerns of social justice, in those areas where human life is directly affected. The point is that all life matters, not just the life of innocent aborted children. We have to examine the wider social questions of human life and dignity, how issues of unemployment, conflict, war, hunger, starvation and disease are decimating the lives of millions of people, both young and old. That is what it means to stand essentially in defence of life. The challenge before us is to be a bit more proactive in addressing the issues, and to put pressure on governments to enforce laws and conventions that seek to protect children and vulnerable persons. Children have a right, not just to survive, but also to thrive and to realize the full stature of their human potentials.