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Opinions of Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Columnist: Ibrahim Adeyemi, Contributor

How coronavirus turned schoolchildren to hawkers

Before the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease, children occasionally engage in street trading as a way of helping their parents to make ends meet. However, when schools were shut as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more children have ample time to hawk for their parents, especially the face masks. Ibrahim Adeyemi writes that allowing children to hawk on the streets was against the spirit of the Child Rights Act.

A BUZZING day in the city of Lagos; Orile Iganmu area teemed with school-age children struggling to make a living. Some of them were hawking while others were seen begging for food and money from passersby.

One of the children, Mutiat Akanni, 12, dangled pieces of locally-made masks, standing adjacent to a police station to commence her daily exploits.

“Cover your nose … N50 nose mask!” she chanted to draw the attention of passersby for patronage even though she wasn’t wearing any of the masks.

Amid the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 1,000 people in Nigeria, Mutiat seemed not to be concerned about protecting herself. She just wanted to make enough sales for her old mother.

But, as she would say, hawking to support her poor family was not her duty until the deadly virus hit Nigeria.

“By this time of the day, I would be in school. If not that they’ve closed down our school because of COVID-19,” she said.

Mutiat’s father died when she was very young and could barely remember the event. Her mother, the only parent she has always known, is a food vendor in a private school. Since schools were asked to close in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mother’s ability to provide for the family has been weakened.

Not only has the shutdown of schools affected the lives and morale of teachers, it has also made everyday life difficult for children such as Mutiat.

A 2018 survey by the Universal Basic Education put the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria at 13.2 million.

Save the Children, the international organisation that is working to improve the lives of children through better education, health care, and economic opportunities said in a recent report that COVID-19 will worsen the child illiteracy, particularly in African countries, including Nigeria, as  more children would be kept out of school by the pandemic.

The report states further that cuts in the education budget, pervasive poverty which is likely to be made worse by the pandemic could force millions of children out of school forever, pushing many of them into the labour market unprepared. The report warns that girls are particularly most vulnerable with many of them falling victims of child marriages.

Before COVID-19, around 250 million children were thought to be out of school worldwide.

According to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, however, the pandemic has prompted the largest educational disruption in history that has affected more than one billion school children worldwide. In his words, it has brought the world to the edge of a “generational catastrophe.”

COVID-19 children of hustle and bustle

On a Wednesday afternoon in August, at Iyana Ipaja Market in Lagos, a skinny 11-year-old boy was almost killed by a speedy commercial bus as he ran and fell across the road. It was the vigilance of passersby and commuters who trooped to the middle of the road thereby forcing the speeding bus to a halt that saved the boy’s life.

The boy, Malik Kareem, was one of the many children who hawk assorted goods on city roads in many parts of the country. On this occasion, the boy was trying to outrun other children —‘his rivals’— to sell a local brand face mask to a customer who had beckoned on him from across the road.

Though  visibly shaken, Malik was adamant to continue with his hawking, telling the grown-ups who had crowded around him that he had not sold enough for the day and that his mother would not be happy with him if he went back home.

“I will just rest a little while and continue,” he told this reporter in Yoruba language, still panting.

He was a newcomer to roadside hawking — one of many of his age that had been pushed by their parents to do so since the lockdown began. However, before the lockdown, he attended school daily along Ipaja Road, leaving home in the morning and returning late afternoon.

His father had lost his job amid the lockdown. His mother sensed an opportunity in sewing face masks while the boy became her salesperson, hawking them by the roadside.

“My mother sews face masks … I hawk them on the streets,” he said.

Elsewhere on the same day, at Oshodi, this reporter was accosted as he alighted from a commercial bus by three teenagers similarly of Malik’s age.

“Buy face mask,” each said, waving the face masks boldly but without any menace. One of them, Kabir Hakeem, 14, said it would have been difficult for his family to survive the current hard times if he was not hawking in the street.

According to him, things fell apart for them during the lockdown because her mother, a tailor, got little or no patronage. She sought an alternative of sewing face masks to augment the family’s demands.

“It wasn’t too easy for my mother sewing the face masks and hawking them because she needs to take care of my siblings at home.

“So, my father asked me to help her in selling the face masks. So, my mother sews the face masks and I hawk them on the streets,” he said.

Although his mother wasn’t too pleased seeing him hawk, she was helpless.

The reporter spoke to many children for whom the lockdown had been an unusual sad experience. Some of them admitted that they used to hawk on the streets before the lockdown, noting that this was usually after school hours. Since the pandemic, however, they had begun to hawk full time.

Child Right activists react.

In 2008, the Lagos State government banned children from street hawking, especially during school hours. It is not known, however, if the edict has ever been fully enforced or whether parents are aware of such an edict.

The state government adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2007 by incorporating it into the state’s Laws. Among other things, the convention stressed that parents must protect their children at all cost.

Section 1 (sub-section 1) of the Child Rights Act states that “every child has a right to parental care and protection, and accordingly, no child shall be separated from his parents against the wish of the child except – (a) for the purpose of his education or welfare; or (b) in the exercise of a judicial determination in accordance with the provisions of the Act, in the best interest of the child.”

Other rights of the child also stated by the Act include the right to proper health care, right to compulsory basic education, and so on.

A Child Rights activist, Abdullahi Aderemi, stated that allowing children to hawk on the street was against the spirit of the Child Rights Act. He also noted that children are more exposed to the virus when they are outside without proper monitoring and protection.

This view was echoed by another Child Rights activist, Abdulsamad Opeyemi, who works with Four Builders Initiatives. He said children should not be hawking on the streets in any sane society. But looking at it from another angle, he said, many of these parents were helpless, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He blamed federal and state governments for not doing enough in providing palliatives for poor Nigerians to assuage their pains as a result of the ravaging Coronavirus.

“We can’t entirely blame the parents for sending their children to assist them in making a living during the lockdown period. If the government is doing the right thing by providing enough palliatives (not the ones they shared deceitfully) to citizens, parents may have no reasons to engage their kids in street hawking,” he said.

He also advised parents to take precautions and to ensure that children were well protected.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality-Check project.

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