We don’t know why our parents abandoned us – Child slaves
In this second part of our report on the plight of Nigeria’s domestic slaves, KUNLE FALAYI, reports his futile journey to find one of the parents of a victim and takes up concerned authorities on the prosecution of the culprits of the victims’ enslavement
Tosin Adeyanju is now safely in the custody of Nigeria’s anti-trafficking body, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons, following an appeal by child rights activist, Mrs. Esther Ogwu and Saturday PUNCH to take the girl off the streets.
However, for her siblings aged 12 and 14, life continues in servitude as the orphans still live in the home of Alhaja Bola Akintunde, where they serve like slaves. “Every day of my life, I think of running away. But I know nobody in Lagos. I have not heard from my father since I saw him last more than seven years ago. Please, take us away from here,” Dare, one of Tosin’s siblings told our correspondent as he broke down in tears.
Pathetic as the story of the Adeyanju children might be, there are many other children in Nigeria living in the same traumatic condition. The story of Amina is another evidence of how common this trend has become. The world of slavery Amina was thrust into had made her a stark illiterate.
When our correspondent was alerted by child rights activists to her case, it was clear it was a case that was going to confound policemen at the Alakuko Police Division in Lagos, where she had been taken to. Like Tosin, Amina also did not know her real age. By estimation, she could be between 13 and 15.
Looking dazed with dull eyes that clearly showed the years of physical abuse and mental torture which the girl had been subjected to in servitude, she told a story of man’s inhumanity to man. “I don’t know my parents’ names. I remember little about my mother and father. I have never attended school before,” she said.
Despite her hazy memory, Amina is a smart girl. After years of thinking about how to escape servitude, she took a desperate step. “I was watching television in the house of my madam one day when a phone number was shown during a programme. I called the line and narrated my story even though I feared they may not be in any position to help me,” she said.
Amina had dialled a random number she saw on a television programme and she was lucky. The person on the other end of the line connected her to the activists who took up her case – the Director of the Compassionate Women’s Initiative, Mrs. Olasupo and Ogwu, the Director of Esther Child Rights Foundation.
In Lagos alone, there are at least three bodies handling the welfare of abused children – The Lagos State Government’s Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, NAPTIP and the Human Rights Commission. But inadequate awareness programmes make it difficult for children who desperately need help to know what to do.
Child protection advocate, Mrs. Christianah Akindolie, who engages in extensive information dissemination about child abuse using mobile phone’s chat application, Watsapp, suggests how information could flow to the target audience – child slaves.
“Lagos State for instance, is trying its best but if it can invest in the media and social media to create awareness, things will improve. The challenge is that there is inadequate shelter where desperate girls can run to,” Akindolie, who runs Christianah Fate Foundation, said.
“I have served like a slave in four different homes,” Amina told our correspondent. Asked where she came from, the girl said all she remembered was that when she was very young, a woman (not her mother) brought her to Alhaja Olayinka Ojugbele, a woman who sells clothes at Iyana-Ipaja area of Lagos.
“All I remember is that someone brought me to her. I worked as housemaid in Alhaja’s house and as salesgirl in her shop. When the suffering and maltreatment was too much, I complained to one of her friends (Alhaja Yemisi Tairu), who I thought would take pity on me at the time,” she said. Unknown to Amina, Tairu, who pretended to be her sympathiser would turn out to be her biggest slave driver.
The new madam, who had promised an end to her suffering, arranged for her to leave Ojugbele’s house. Ojugbele took over her friend’s housemaid. But while Ojugbele searched for the missing girl, she (Tairu) was one of the people who helped and even suggested that the girl might have run away.
Girl for rent, N7,000 per month
Perhaps recognising her economic potential, Tairu began to trade the girl. “She first took me to a woman whom I worked with for 19 months. She gave me nothing. But the woman was not maltreating me, so I did not complain,” Amina said.
Tairu would later admit that she collected N7,000 (about $41)per month from the woman she ‘rented’ the girl to. She gave the girl out to two other women after that. They also paid Tairu monthly for the girl’s service. “I dare not complain about anything to Alhaja (Tairu). She beat me terribly because of minor things. I don’t know why my parents have not come for me. Maybe they are dead, I don’t know why they did not look for me,” the girl said.
Amina’s body from the neck down to her arms is full of different marks, evidence of beatings by the different bosses she had served.
I sleep in a shed like an animal– 4-year-old domestic slave.
She looked subdued, frail and afraid. It was the eyes of a child who desperately wanted help. Chinasa Okwuoma, a 14-year-old girl from parents based in Abia State, was handed over to a Lagos-based relation. But she would become yet another number in the statistics of children in the world of modern slavery. She also could not understand why her parents chose to abandon her.
There are an estimated 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school (a proportion of one out of every five children in the country), according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Many of these do not attend schools because they fend for their poor families by being used as domestic slaves.
But unlike the other victims in this story, Chinasa was put in school. But that seems to be the only thing that is keeping the poor girl sane. Chinasa told our correspondent that attending school was like going to heaven every day because she was able to escape the abuse at home though momentarily.
Our correspondent gathered her boss’s wife, Mrs. Hope Ezenwanyi, treats her as a mere animal. The Ezenwanyis live in an apartment building at Abesan Estate, Ipaja, Lagos. Within that compound is a shed where planks and other disused items are stored. Any night Mrs. Ezenwanyi was not favourably disposed to her housemaid, the shed would be the girl’s place for the night.
Chinasa said, “The first day she sent me out of the house to sleep in the shed, it was around 1am. She was angry that I didn’t do something she told me to do. “When she was tired of beating me in the middle of the night, she sent me out to sleep in the shed. I cried till morning. It was very cold outside, I was afraid that snakes might bite me there and mosquitoes feasted on me.”
Chinasa was not permitted to use the toilet in the house but she must wash it twice a day. When the toilet was messed up by the Ezenwanyi’s little children, she had to wash it again or risk another round of beating. “But they told me I must ease myself in the gutter outside anytime I am pressed. When it was time to eat, the food that has gone bad in the fridge would be mine.
“There was a day the food was so bad that I dumped it in the dustbin because I would prefer to go hungry. Unfortunately for me, madam spotted it. She stood over me with a cane and told me to pick up the yam from the dustbin and eat in her presence. I don’t know why my parents should do this to me, abandoning me after giving birth to me.”
According to Ogwu, cases of extreme child abuse relating to house helps which she had handled, show that after a while, some bosses don’t see their housemaids as mere slaves anymore. “They start seeing them as mere inanimate property,” the child rights crusader said.
Neighbours of the Ezenwanyis feared the ‘madam’ of the house might kill the child if the kind of beating she gave the girl on regular basis continued. “There was a time the girl was washing the woman’s clothes and she used too much washing soap. The woman told the girl to drink the soapy water as a punishment,” one of the neighbours said.
Where are these victim’s parents?
Child slavery in Nigeria has festered over the years as a result of economic downturn which forces many indigent families to hand over their children to families they believe would give them a better life in the cities.
Few days ago (December 2), the United Nations brought the attention of the world to the issue of modern slavery once again with the 2014 International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, focusing on “the eradication of contemporary forms of slavery, such as trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, forced marriage and forced recruitment of children in armed conflicts.”
Unfortunately, many parents who give out their children to others for labour sometimes abandon such children to their fate without making any attempt to check on their welfare. An example is the case of nine-year-old Eno Bassey, which our correspondent reported in 2013. Eno was doused with fuel and set alight by her madam who accused her of stealing a piece of meat.
Eno died from severe burns few days later in hospital. More than a year later, as the prosecution of the madam lingers, Eno’s body still lies in the mortuary, unclaimed, as the parents rebuffed every attempt to get them to Lagos.
However, after many attempts to track down Alhaja Bola Akintunde, the woman who enslaved the Adeyanju children, our correspondent and Ogwu confronted her with the accusations of Tosin, the 18-year-old mother.
She flatly denied every single accusation. “I have never heard of any pregnancy or aborted any one for her. None of my children would ever sleep with her. Everything she told you was just made up,” she said. Akintunde explained that she was related to the girl’s mother. Asked why she did not look for their father, the woman explained that she had tried but had not been able to know anything about his whereabouts.
Questions shifted to the circumstances under which she ‘transferred ownership’ of the girl to another woman, Alhaja Silifat Ajayi, whose son eventually got the girl pregnant. “I married her off to the woman’s son,” Akintunde said.
But Ajayi would later dispute this when she was confronted. She said, “She pushed the girl to me and I did not refuse because she is my friend. Tosin was already living here before she became pregnant. When I got to know about the pregnancy and she told me my son was responsible, I accepted to take care of the girl and her child. My son refused to admit responsibility though.
“Tosin lied to you that I sent her packing to live on the street. She packed out herself after I organised an elaborate naming ceremony for her child. She started behaving waywardly and left on her own accord. I looked for her afterwards but I heard she was living with a relation of her first madam (Akintunde) and I decided to leave her alone.”
Hunt for an elusive father
No one knew where the father of the Adeyanju children could be. Dare, Tosin’s brother remembered scanty details about an uncle of theirs. “He told me some years ago when I saw him last that he knew where our father was,” the boy said optimistically. The uncle, Mr. Segun Adigun, Saturday PUNCH learnt, lived in Igbara Odo in Ekiti State.
Determined to track down the father, our correspondent embarked on a journey to Igbara-Odo, a small ancient town of about 322 kilometres from Lagos, armed with Mr. Adigun’s description and the name of a street – Kajola – where he was supposed to be living.
Four hours after setting out from Lagos, our correspondent arrived at the ancient town which seemed to be a kind of gateway between Ondo and Ekiti states. Frustrating as the first few hours spent trying to locate anyone who could know Mr. Adigun around Kajola Street was, a break came when one of the numerous residents our correspondent approached said he had a friend who bore the same name.
Could it be another Segun Adigun? The helpful resident, Mr. Biola Ogundijo, a teacher in the area, said that was the only one by that name that he knew who lived there. “I can show you the house where he lived. I knew him well at the time, but he left Igbara Odo a couple of years ago,” Ogundijo said. The house where he pointed to was a semi-modern storey building. The landlady of the house, who attended to our correspondent, would later reconfirm the fear.
“He left this house some years ago and we have not heard from him since,” she said. Nobody could provide any phone line used by the man when he was living there. Thus, without a phone line or lead to go on with, the trail went cold. Chinasa’s parents had been summoned by the Lagos State Government but as of the time of filing this report, they had yet to make an appearance at the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.
Chinasa’s madam, Mrs. Ezenwanyi, like Alhaja Akintunde, denied abusing the girl other than flogging her.
“All she told you about sleeping outside or in the shed or eating in the dustbin are lies. But I cannot deny that I beat her though,” she said. Her husband also told our correspondent that Chinasa was not a housemaid. He said he was just trying to help the family by bringing her to Lagos. According to him, other that just disciplining her because she had become wayward, nobody maltreated the girl.
However in the case of Amina, a bizarre scene played out when the first madam she worked for (Ojugbele), who had expressed shock that her friend (Tairu) ‘stole’ the girl from her, was told to send for the girl’s parents.
A man would later appear at the police station where the case was being handled. But the girl insisted she did not know the man as her father. “I swear I am her father,” the man told Saturday PUNCH. “When the Alhaja whom I gave her to told me she was missing, we looked for her for so long,” he said. But while numerous questions remained unanswered, the girl admitted days later that he was indeed her father.
She said she denied him as a way of punishing him for abandoning her for so many years. However, N150,000 has been recovered fromTairu out of the N210,000 she admitted collecting from people she ‘sold’ Amina to for domestic servitude. Olasupo of the Compassionate Women Initiative said she is also making efforts to trace the location of Amina’s mother.
“The parents have a big share of the blame for the girl’s plight. Any parent who gives out his child for servitude for so long and never made attempt to look for the child is simply irresponsible,” she said.
Will the culprits be punished?
NAPTIP, which is handling Tosin’s case has maintained that its investigation had reached an advanced stage and that it would make arrests as soon as it was concluded.
The Nigeria Child Rights Law 2003 clearly states in section 11 that “No child shall be – (a) subjected to physical, mental or emotional injury, abuse, neglect or maltreatment, including sexual abuse; or (b) subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or (d) held in slavery or servitude, while in the care of a parent, legal guardian or school authority or any other person or authority having the care of the child.”
Section 28 goes on to state that “no child shall be—(a) subjected to any forced or exploitative labour ; or (b) employed to work in any capacity except where he is employed by a member of his family or (d) employed as a domestic help outside his own home or family environment.” Contravention of these carries a five-year prison sentence upon conviction or a fine.
Ogwu told Saturday PUNCH that the response of NAPTIP which took custody of Tosin; Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, which took Chinasa to its shelter at Ayobo, Lagos had given her confidence that justice would be done in the cases of the girls.
The child rights activist said, “We find the cases of these girls appalling. When I was alerted, I could not help wondering why there is still so much inhumanity in some people. “I wonder why any parent would give away their children for so many years and would not check on them. It simply boils down to the fact that some parents just want to bring children into the world and be free from responsibility by giving them away. This is criminal.
“It is a pity that these children are given away for servitude at an age when they should be learning moral values from their parents at home. “Apart from the fact that they are stunted educationally, their lives have been dented for ever as a result of emotional and physical damage.”
December 6, 2014 by Kunle Falayi