It’s still a long road to freedom for the 12-year-old Bakassi refugee girl whose father sold into servitude, as the Cross River State Government has yet to intervene in her situation, TEMITAYO FAMUTIMI reports
Twelve-year-old Mary Okon was washing a heap of dirty clothes when she sighted her refugee father some 100 metres away.
She abandoned the laundry and welcomed her father with a warm embrace. Mary was seeing her father for the first time in the New Year.
For two consecutive years running, Mary, a Junior Secondary School drop-out, had not spent the Yuletide with her immediate family.
Mary’s parents, Okon and Christiana
Mary’s father, Okon, had literally sold her into servitude after using the young girl as collateral to secure a N600,000 loan from a contractor with the Calabar Urban Development Agency, Mr. Asuquo Etim.
Okon, a Bakassi refugee, secured the loan from Etim in installments in 2013, with a view to saving the life of his first daughter, Blessing, who was diagnosed with blood cancer.
Blessing, however, died of cancer in September 2013, despite efforts made to sustain her life.
Still in the warm embrace of her father, it took the young girl some time before she recognised the presence of this correspondent during a visit to Etim’s residence on 6, Orok Effiom Street, off Atimbo Road, Calabar, Cross River State.
“Uncle, you are welcome,” Mary said, as she returned to her the laundry.
Victim of child labour
Soon, two voices emerged from Etim’s one-room apartment. Two teenagers — a boy and a girl — were overheard engaging in a heated debate over a Nollywood movie while Mary was washing. The two of them were Etim’s children.
As our correspondent and Okon took a seat in front of the one-room apartment which Etim and his family share, the creditor beckoned on the young girl to stop her chores.
After offering Mary’s father a cup of water, Etim enquired if he had, indeed, paid him a visit with a view to repaying the N600,000 loan which he secured from him in installments between April and May 2013.
Okon shook his head vigorously in response, indicating a “no.” Following Okon’s response, Etim began lamenting the economic hardship he had been passing through in the last eight months.
He argued that there was no better time for him to recover the debt than now, adding that he was no longer receiving contracts from the Calabar Urban Development Agency like before.
He stated that he had had to relocate from the three-bedroom flat he previously occupied on Nyahasang Street to the one-room apartment where he and his family now live.
To address the financial need occasioned by the lack of regular contract jobs, Etim explained that he and his wife, Patience, agreed to engage Mary in street trading.
No money for education
He stated that he and his wife, recently, expanded the ware Mary hawks to include palm oil and garri, in addition to bottled water which was the only item she previously sold on the streets of Calabar.
Etim said, “I gave him (Okon) my money and even my wife who pitied their condition gave out part of her business capital to him. And because they didn’t have any property, they used Mary as collateral for the loan.
“But as you can see, I am also facing financial problems now and that was why my family relocated from the three-bedroom flat we used to stay on Nyahasang Street to this one-room apartment where we now reside.
“We don’t have money to fend for ourselves anymore and that is why Mary has to sell small things like bottled water, garri and palm oil to feed the family. I don’t have any plan for her to go to school because I don’t have the money.”
Etim insisted that Mary would not be released to her father until the N600,000 loan was repaid.
The creditor’s wife, Patience, admitted that it was true that Mary only eats once in a day.
“She eats once in a day and it is because I don’t have money to feed her three times daily. My own children don’t eat well, too,” the 35-year-old woman said.
A teenage neighbour of the Etims who craved anonymity told The PUNCH that Mary hardly has time for leisure.
“Whenever I am going to school in the morning, Mary usually goes out to hawk. She rarely plays around with us because she returns in the evening. But I don’t know if they maltreat her or not,” the female teenager said.
While discussions with Etim were still underway, Mary was seen preparing her wares — palm oil packaged in bottles — preparatory to hit the streets. Okon immediately wore a pensive mood as his daughter stood close to the goods as if waiting for her dad to take his leave before beginning the day’s round of street trading.
Her future ambition
In a chat with The PUNCH, Mary said she would be very happy to return to her family who reside at the Bakassi refugee camp inside the St. Mark Primary School, Akwa Ikot Eyo Edem, in the Akpabuyo Local Government Area of Cross River State.
When asked about her future ambition, the 12-year-old said she would love to become a lawyer. However, she couldn’t give reasons why she was choosing the profession over others.
She said, “When I go out to sell palm oil, I will not return until 7pm. I really want to reunite with my family again and see if I can still go to school. I will love to become a lawyer when I grow up.”
Speaking with our correspondent at the Bakassi Refugee Camp, Mary’s mother, Christiana, said her daughter had always made it a sing-song that she would want to become a legal practitioner in the future.
Stating that she did not willingly sell Mary into servitude, Christiana lamented that using her as collateral was the only option she and her husband were left with at the time.
Insisting that she was not heartless, Christiana said, “I wasn’t really happy with the arrangement, but using Mary as collateral was the best option we had at the time. Blessing, her elder sister, was already dying and we needed to save her.
“Unfortunately, we lost Blessing to the cold hands of death. Now, as a mother, I am plagued with two losses. My first child is dead and I can’t see her anymore; my second daughter is alive, but I can’t even still get to see her when I want to.
“I want my child to return so that she can go to school. The future of any child that does not go to school is not bright and that is why I want her to be educated.
“She has been telling me she wants to become a lawyer. If she becomes one, I know she would dry my tears and our status as Bakassi refugees would change for better. I hope government can help me bring back my daughter.”
What the law says
Mary is one of the 10.5 million children which the United Nations Children Fund says are out of school in Nigeria. UNICEF lists child labour, economic hardship and early girl-child marriage as some of the reasons for low school completion rate in Nigeria.
A UNICEF statistics note that children around the world are routinely engaged in paid and unpaid forms of work that are not harmful to them. However, they are classified as child labourers when they are either too young to work or are involved in hazardous activities that may compromise their physical, mental, social or educational development.
“The prevalence of child labour is highest in sub-Saharan Africa. In the least developed countries, nearly one in four children ages five to 14 are engaged in labour that is considered detrimental to their health and development,” UNICEF notes.
Besides, according to the International Labour Organisation, the number of working children under the age of 14 in Nigeria is estimated at 15 million.
Quite frankly, 12-year-old Mary falls into the category of the estimated 15 million children pushed out of school due to child labour and economic hardship.
Yet, in 2003, the Federal Government domesticated the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child with the passing into law of the Child Rights Act.
The CRA seeks to regulate and protect the rights of children, as enshrined in the 1999 constitution and other subsidiary legislations.
To provide improved legal protection for the Nigerian child, section 30 of the CRA frowns on the use of minors as “debt bondage” as in the case of Mary.
It states, “No person shall buy, sell, hire, let on hire, dispose of or obtain possession of or otherwise deal in a child. A child shall not be used — as a slave or for practices similar to slavery such as sale or trafficking of the child, debt bondage or serfdom and forced or compulsory labour.
“For hawking of goods or services on main city streets, brothels or highways; or for any purpose that deprives the child of the opportunity to attend and remain in school as provided for under the compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education Act.”
Rights activists weigh in
Indeed, the Act prescribes a jail term of 10 years for anyone found guilty of contravening this section of the law.
But child rights activists have decried the perceived lack of enforcement of the relevant sections of the Child Rights Act in the protection of the rights of the Nigerian child.
Lamenting that the legislative instrument has yet to translate into improved legal protection for Nigerian children, the Executive Director, Women Empowerment and Legal Aid, Mrs. Funmi Falana, stated that it was worrisome that Mary had been reduced to “an article of trade.”
“It is ridiculous. It shouldn’t be heard of in a civilised country like Nigeria. It should better be heard of in the jungle. It is very sad,” Falana added.
Noting that the ignorance of the law is not an excuse, the human rights lawyer said Mary’s parents had invariably “trampled upon her rights to freedom, dignity as a human person, and education” by their action.
Falana explained that her organisation would do everything within its powers to rescue Mary from her abusers while also pressing for the enforcement of her rights.
“As a human rights organisation, we have decided to rise against this development. Apart from reaching out to Mary, we would be petitioning the House of Representatives Committee of Human Rights to intervene. We would press for her rights,” Falana added.
Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, was alarmed by the plight of Mary, asking, “When did human beings become items of property?”
Executive Secretary, Basic Rights Counsel, Calabar, Cross River State, James Ibor, explained that it was “mind-boggling and disturbing” that such an incident could happen in modern day Nigeria.
“This is reprehensible. It is slavery simplified. Government, non-governmental organisations and other well meaning Nigerians should mobilise to liberate this girl,” Ibor said.
He expressed concern that Mary might have been sexually abused by her guardian; adding that it was of utmost importance that the girl “becomes a human person once again.”
Cross River State Governor Liyel Imoke
The PUNCH visited the Cross River State Ministry of Social Welfare and Community Development on January 5 and 6. The commissioner in charge of the ministry, Patricia Enderly, on the two occasions directed our correspondent to her Special Assistant, Francis Aribia, for comments.
Aribia told our correspondent that the state government was already aware of Mary’s plight but he failed to explain the steps it was planning to take to secure her freedom.
“We bought The PUNCH newspaper the other day (December 30, 2014) and we read Mary’s story,” Aribia acknowledged, but declined to speak further.
Our correspondent reached out to Mary’s father, Okon, on the telephone on Tuesday morning to ascertain if the state government had reached out to him or initiated moves to secure the girl’s freedom.
Okon stated that he had yet to hear from any government official at the local, state, or federal level about the case of his daughter. “Nobody has called me. But I know one day, God will make a way,” he said.
Ibor, the Cross River-based human rights lawyer, expressed shock that the state government had yet to swing into action with a view to freeing Mary from the “slavery” she was sold into.
“Where do we go from here? The facilities to promote child rights are simply not active in Cross River State. Social welfare is relegated to the background in the state and it is getting worse by the day.
“Public officials in social welfare departments shouldn’t be this incompetent and inept when it comes to child rights issues. Attending to the plight of Mary is one of the basic and elementary requirements of their job,” Ibor added.
Written For http://www.globalruns.com