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Forgotten heroes

by Damilola Oyedele

In depth

Olawumi Ishola and her brother Michael: still living together eight years after their parents’ death - and still struggling.

Olawumi Ishola and her brother Michael: still living together eight years after their parents’ death - and still struggling.

In contemporary Nigeria, one vulnerable group has evaded the much needed attention of authorities: under-aged youngsters who head households and look after their younger siblings.

Olawumi Ishola was 15 when her parents died. That incident made her a substitute-mother. She now had to take care of her siblings aged 13, nine and three. They live in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

Olawumi’s father died after a prolonged illness, and her mother passed away a few months later, seemingly from a broken heart. “I remember that they were very close,” she says. “As his illness got worse, my mother had to take him to our hometown in Osun state. After they both died, no relative was willing to take all four of us in.”

An aunt promised to take care of the two youngest children, however, so Olawumi returned to Abuja with her brother Michael who was 13. After a few months, she heard reports that the nine-year old was being maltreated by the aunt. “I could not bear it. I was told he was made to do all chores and that she beat him constantly. I borrowed money and went to bring him and our little sister back,” she reports.

She had neither a job nor any vocational skills, however, so she was not really in a position to rise to the responsibility of raising her siblings. There was no help from any quarters, government or groups. The orphaned family struggled to get by. As was to be expected, they dropped out of school. The older two did menial jobs so they could feed and clothe the family, and pay rent for the room they called home.

“We went through struggles I never want to remember, no one can imagine what we have been going through unless the person experiences it,” she says as tears well up in her eyes. Her brother Michael worked on construction sites and eventually became a bricklayer. “I now earn some more money and pay for our brother to learn a skill,” he says.

Eight years after their parents’ death, it is obvious that all four siblings have been terribly affected. They lack quality education and professional skills, so they face a bleak future.

The youngest girl was three when their parents died. She managed to finish the six years of primary education at a government-run school. Tuition was free, but the quality of teaching was poor. Today, the girl does not plan to go to secondary school. She does not want to be a financial burden on her older siblings.

Their story is similar to that of Chinwe Okafor (name changed). She was a teenager who was in charge of two young brothers. At the age of 15, she got married hoping that things would become easier. Her gamble did not pay off. Her husband abused her, so she had to abandon him. Now 17, she is saddled with another child from the brief union, and is still looking after her two brothers.

Orphan breadwinners are in a tight position. They hardly ever have enough money to take care of their young families’ basic needs. Usually they lack an education, so they take up the most menial jobs. They work as household helpers, cleaners, porters in the markets, water sellers et cetera. Out of desperation, some become sex workers or get involved in petty crimes.

Faith-based groups, non-governmental organisations and other agencies cater to the needs of orphans in Nigeria. However, most of them do not take into account the specific needs of orphaned breadwinners who are doing their best to keep together what is left of their immediate family.

There are no reliable statistics on such teenager-headed households. It is quite obvious, however, that their number must have grown in recent decades. The HIV/AIDS epidemic killed many parents, leaving the children orphaned. Ethnic riots, religious violence and terrorism are relevant too

The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) of 2013 put the number of orphaned children under 18 at six percent of the population. At the time, Nigeria had an estimated 180 million people. South East Nigeria had the highest percentage of orphaned children with 11 %, while the north-west and north-east recorded the lowest at four percent each. The survey is done every five years. It is safe to point out that the situation in the north-east must have become much worse due to the escalation of Boko Haram terrorism. The next survey is expected to be released early next year.

Help needed

According to the official data, 95 % of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVCs) are neither supported properly by government agencies nor by relatives. They lack access to social services, education, medical and psychological assistance and all too often even food and safe drinking water.

Children who grow up in orphan-headed homes often have to drop out of school, though many do their best to keep their younger siblings in school. They lack adult guidance, of course, and many engage in sexual activity early, before they turn 15. Early marriage, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS compound the problems. These youngsters are struggling to survive and provide for their small families. It should not come as a surprise that many become engaged in criminal activities such as thuggery, stealing et cetera to make a living.

It is important to point out, however, that they are assuming responsibility as best they can. They choose to stay together with their brothers and sisters, because they derive emotional support from one another, which helps them to cope with the loss of their parents. It would make sense to offer targeted support to this specific group of traumatised people. However, most organisations that take care of OVCs do not do so.

One example is UNICEF. The United Nations Children Fund, is running several projects in Nigeria, particularly in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). How­ever, it does not specifically cater to children in orphan-headed homes.

Some orphanages take a different approach. Alpha and Omega Orphanage is one of them. It is located on the outskirts of Abuja. This institution takes child breadwinners under its wings, provides them with some basic assistance and offers some adult supervision. At the same time, it allows the children concerned to live in their own places.

Elizabeth Ariyo is the proprietor of the orphanage. She says she stays in touch with child-headed families. However, there are limits to what she can do. After all, her orphanage is struggling to sufficiently take care of the needs and education of the 55 children it has taken in.

Ariyo reports: “We have volunteer care­givers who keep an eye on child breadwinners, just to provide them with some sort of guidance and caution to stay out of trouble. This is necessary because no matter what their challenges are, it gets worse if they get on the wrong side of the law, there would be no consideration for their status,” Ariyo says.

Kiema Ogunlana is the executive director of Sam Empowerment Foundation, a charity. She argues that extremely vulnerable groups like teenage-headed families should be targeted for specific support. “It’s like in dealing with physically challenged persons, the sight-impaired would be treated differently from the hearing-impaired, because their challenges are completely different,” she argues.

Ogunlana laments that there are no social programmes targeting them for education or welfare and other benefits. She believes the government should set up resource centres for the poorest communities. The goal would be to help teenage breadwinners:

  • to keep their immediate family together,
  • not to get into trouble (through involvement in crime, for example) and
  • to get some education and learn some skills.

They deserve support so they can become self-reliant and properly take care of their younger siblings at the same time.

Damilola Oyedele is a journalist based in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
[email protected]

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