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The invisible chains: Reality of child and forced labour in Nigeria

In May, the National Bureau of Statistics released its 2022 Nigeria Child and Forced Labour Survey report, filled with harrowing statistics. If that report doesn’t…

In May, the National Bureau of Statistics released its 2022 Nigeria Child and Forced Labour Survey report, filled with harrowing statistics. If that report doesn’t stop you in your tracks, I don’t know what will.

Imagine 24,673,485 Nigerian children – that is almost four in every 10 kids aged 5 to 17 – are stuck in the nightmare of child labour. Can you even wrap your head around that number? That is 39.2 per cent of the country’s emerging generation; their dreams and innocence cruelly snatched away, replaced by the harsh conditions of strenuous work and inhumane working conditions. And with the numbers almost equal between boys and girls at 39.6 per cent and 38.8 per cent, respectively, this crisis knows no gender bias.

Reading out the findings of the survey left a sad lump in my chest, and an inexplicable outrage washed over me. The cold, hard numbers depicted a chilling tale of a nation dealing with a crisis that strikes at the very core of its future—the abuse and denial of childhood to millions of its emerging generation. Yet, numbers are not enough to comprehend the true depth of this tragedy. Every digit therein exposes the story of a child deprived of their fundamental rights and their carefree spirits silenced by the burden of exploitation.

These are not just faceless numbers; these are millions of young souls that will never have a chance to experience their childhood, millions of conscious minds lost to worn-out bodies. These are the faces we must envision. We should close our eyes and imagine the fear and exhaustion in their innocent glances. Picture the small hands rubbed sore from hard work; the spirits broken from something that no child should endure. These small minds endure a crisis of unimaginable scale right before our eyes. And let’s not forget the 14 million-plus children engaged in the most dangerous and exploitative forms of labour, probably the worst fate to have become almost normalised in parts of this country.

The regional disparities are also quite disturbing. The North West has the greatest amount of tragedy. More than 6,000,000 children are caught in the quagmire of child labour, 3,266,728 of whom participate in hazardous work that endangers their lives.

The South East, on the other hand, is not doing any better. In contrast, it suffers the highest proportion of hazardous work and child labour, impacting 49.9 per cent of its child demographics, meaning almost half of its child population is faced with hazardous work conditions.

But this isn’t even limited to child labour! No, it is so much worse. The survey exposed the sad truth of forced labour, a type of modern-day slavery festering within our borders. Do you know that in Nigeria, there are 5.2 people for every one thousand who are currently working and suffering from a lack of freedom, decency, and self-respect, amounting to over 600,000 people who are living a real-life nightmare? These numbers are repulsive and should shake us all to the core.

The more I dug into the most affected sectors, the more my heart sank. The services industry, specifically domestic work, and agriculture—pillars of Nigeria’s economy—were revealed to be tainted by the scourge of forced labour, accounting for 32.8 per cent and 41.1 per cent of cases, respectively. There is no way a nation can truly prosper when its foundations are built upon the exploitation of its most vulnerable.

I cannot help but picture all the broken dreams, the possibilities extinguished, and the potentials smothered, all for the sake of greed, ignorance and a collective failure to protect the sanctity of childhood. Those children, who should be playing and studying, have been robbed of the most basic purpose of childhood – their innocence.

I understand that economic difficulties are the primary factor motivating families to send children into the workforce. However, that doesn’t make it any less unacceptable. We can’t turn a blind eye or make excuses anymore.

The Bureau has taken the first step by providing us with these facts. This is a foul alarm clock that we cannot afford to snooze. However, having facts is not the end of the obligation. This call must be acknowledged by all of us with determination that is deplorable and with answers that go beyond cultures, religions, and ideologies. This is not just a Nigerian crisis; this is a human crisis, calling for a humane reaction.

So, for starters, the government needs to enforce the laws already in place to protect these kids. Inspection of labour operations should be revived, particularly in sectors such as agriculture and mining. Stronger penalties, better accountability—the whole nine yards. But legislation alone won’t cut it; we need to develop a realistic strategy to overcome this crisis. One that targets the root causes of the problem and builds systems that protect children.

Poverty alleviation should be the most integral objective. Sources of income must be provided through various forms of sustainable employment and income opportunities that would make it possible to secure a fair income for the families, making their reliance on child labour unnecessary.

And most importantly, we need to eliminate barriers to education, such as costs and distance, to ensure that rather than working in dangerous factories and fields, children will be in classrooms. Raising awareness about the importance of education through community sensitization programmes can also help shift societal mindsets.

However, this is not the government’s war to wage alone. We must all combine our efforts; a continued, multi-stakeholder effort is needed – one that empowers communities, transforms cultural norms, and ensures the health and wellbeing of our nation’s most valuable asset—our children. Companies, for their part, need to up their game. It means making sure everything is clean in their supply chains from the start of the process to the final product, with no hint of child labour or forced labour, and not just when the cameras are looking.

Look, I’m not naive to think we can flip a switch and make this all go away overnight. Like I always say, “There are no quick fixes or magic bullets.” But we have to start somewhere. So, we must address it with the same severity and kindness as if it were our children at risk. Ultimately, these stolen wishes, these broken futures, do not simply belong to Nigeria but to all of humanity’s consciences.

These children, whose voices have been shrouded by the burden of their pains, are our own, and only we can truly be their champions, their advocates, and their relentless partners in ending their bondage.

Now, it’s up to us, as a country, to determine if we’re willing to ignore it or stand up and fight back for our children’s futures, because at the end of the day, their childhood isn’t just a precious memory for us to look back on; it’s their fundamental right, their chance to dream, learn, and grow without the weight of the world on their tiny shoulders, crushing their potential before it even has a chance to blossom.


Halimah Sanda wrote from Kano, and can be reached at [email protected]

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