Confronting Child Street Hawking in Nigeria

James Atang Itsegok

Street hawking among children in Nigeria has been adjudged as a human tragedy of massive proportions, which has not left children unharmed. In its simplest form, it is the selling of things along the streets and major public places like parks and hospitals. In Nigeria, this is done almost all the time by young children both male and female. The teenage hawkers come to city centers in groups and then go in different directions of the city to hawk goods.

Hawking can be seen as a persistent and relentless selling of goods and services. Its nearly aggressive nature is comparable to that of the legendary ‘hawk bird’, a bird with an excellent sight that couldtravel thousands of miles to prey. Likewise, hawkers move from place to place in search of customers to buy their perishable and non-perishable products. In urban areas, hawking is mostly seen on the streets, targeting mobile and non-mobile customers going about their daily activities.

Recent Federal Ministry of Education Reports, 2022 posits thatBauchi State ranks first with 1,239,759 out of school children, the highest number in Nigeria in recent years. In the same report, Katsina state occupies the second spot with 873,633 while Kano state has 837,479 closely followed as the third position.

While on the other hand, an average Igboman sees hustling among children particularly male child as part of life based on his cultural background. No Igbo male child remains a dependant of his parents on attaining 16 years of age.  The business mentor or ‘oga’ undertakes the responsibility to teach the ‘boyi’ the rudiments of trade; he takes care of his wellbeing, housing, clothing, healthcare over the period. The ‘boyi’ on his part undertakes to serve his ‘oga’ diligently. As a result southeastern states of Nigeria is home to majority of street hawkers among teenagers in Nigeria.

As of October, 2022, about 20 million children are out of school in Nigeria, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), up from 10.5 million recorded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2020. Being out of school may seem nothing to an innocent child, but the long-term impact would be very significant.

Children experience emotional distress due to physical distancing and uncertainties about their future. This crisis also highlightsinequalities in access to education for children from disadvantaged families who street-hawk as a means of livelihood. For these children already living in difficult socio-economic conditions, access to support and social services has been further limited. Globally, many of them risk falling into greater poverty. Domestic violence has risen in this part of the world, with children and womenbeing the worst affected. And as commentators opine, much abuse happens unnoticed, behind closed doors, out of sight to teachers or social workers, as school was often providing a rare safe space.  

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The sexual exploitation of street children has dramatically increased with the current economic hardship facing Nigerians. Civil societyneeds to step up focus and work on a more attainable strategy where children can have access to child-friendly atmosphere. Children need better access to psycho-social support, social and protective services during this economic crisis. To address this, the Nigeria should prepare an all inclusive Strategy for a more effective fight against child abuse particularly street hawking. 

Street hawking has huge implications for children’s physical and emotional wellbeing. It exposes them to sexual abuse, physical exhaustion, vehicle accidents, death and malnourishment and drug and substance abuse and prostitution.

Researchers have described child street hawking as an exploitative form of child labor. There are three ways that children become street hawkers. First, most of them are trafficked from the rural communities to the cities for illicit businesses. The second way is through their parents, who send them to the street to hawk to supplement their family income. In most cases, their families migrated to the city on their own but could not cope with the high cost of living.

Deplorable living conditions and the high rate of unemployment in rural communities because of the government’s focus on development projects in cities have given people no option but to migrate to the city. It fosters the notion that migrating to the city is the best way to break the poverty cycle. Third, they are orphans who lost their parents either to disease or terrorist activity. They live on the street and hawk for survival.

Child street hawking opposes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nigeria is a signatory to the convention which was established in 1989. The convention makes it an offense to involve children in an activity which impacts negatively on their health and well-being. The convention also emphasizes the need for the government to protect children from exploitation.

In addition to the convention, Nigeria’s Child Rights Act has similar provisions. It states children should be protected from trafficking and/or street hawking. But the implementation of these provisions has been abysmal to date. Children are still being trafficked and pushed into street hawking despite the many dangers associated with it.

In the past, government has provided some structural interventions. These include the Universal Basic Education program. Introduced in 1999, it was intended to guarantee tuition-free compulsory basic education for all children in Nigeria. Others include school children feeding program, Almajiri school system and program on the elimination of child labor, etc. But due to poor implementation, infrastructure, inadequate funding and lowering education standards, the impact is yet to be felt.

Despite the emotional trauma and physical dangers these vulnerable children face, little is being done to protect them or to discourage such practices. Poverty alleviation, health education and protective child rights policies would decrease the prevalence of child street hawking.

The parents of children who street hawk should be empowered economically to be able to take care of them, but above that the government should also create more awareness about child trafficking and provide affected children with support.

Constantly denying children their right to be protected and cared for has impact on their effective development and wellbeing, and is an injustice. A concerted effort should be made to implement the UN Conventions and the provisions of the Child Rights Act. More importantly, the government must understand the psychological impact of the trade. It must tailor interventions to meet the needs of the children and to reduce the practice.

Repairing our social fabric and preparing a better future for thechildren and generations to come should be at the heart of every Nigeria’s recovery policy. Therefore, as we draw up our recovery plan, we must ensure that children do not become the silent victims of the crisis. We must take into account their needs and rights, and give their voices and concerns the place they deserve. This will enable us to put the right policies in place to support them as best we can.  

I also want to emphasize about the protection of children hawking on the streets of major cities in Nigeria. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society today. Our strategy should aim at ensuring that they have equal protection and access to services as any child else. These are today’s vulnerable children, but they are also tomorrow’s Nigerians. 

There should be a broad consultation with all relevant stakeholders, civil society, NGOs and, of course, the children themselves. Our policies should directly impact children’s lives. Therefore, we will also work towards the right of children to political participation and actively include them in the deliberations during seminars, conferences and talk-shows on the future of Nigeria.  

When we say children are the future, we should not forget that they are individuals with their own rights here and now. The best way to protect these rights is by including young people in our work, in the present and in the future.  In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people.”  


How can government effectively tackle street hawking?

It is not enough to chase these people off the streets. Some of them will not be there if they had a better choice or option because everyone who hawks on the street has come to terms already with the associated risks. Before stopping street hawking, an alternative must be created. The government should provide something for these hawkers to do in order to stop hawking.

Some of those who hawk are youth who have graduated, who are tired of looking for jobs with no hope of finding them, others have sick parents or children at home to carter for as breadwinners.Remember the popular saying that ‘na condition make crayfish bend.’ The government should address that condition first before talking about sending them off the street.

Secondly, after creating a substitute for street hawking, the government should enforce a law that penalizes the hawkers and their customers. This will work faster.

Thirdly, the dangers of street hawking should be spelled out in bold letters. Some people think that they know what they don’t know.Government should partner with organizations such as Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in arranging seminars, workshops and conferences for street hawkers to enlighten them on the dangers and at the same time show and guide them to the available alternatives.

Fourthly, start-up loans at very low or no interest should be made available for street hawkers who would love to start up their businesses at a more advanced scale. This will really go a long way since the risk on their lives will be reduced.

Fifth, children (who roughly make up about 70% of street hawkers) caught hawking should be arrested and taken to their parents who will then be taken to the relevant child abuse agencies for appropriate action.

Sixth, since street hawking is a growing problem in developing countries like Nigeria due to its associated risks. Nigeria should tackle poverty rather than hound hawkers off the streets.

State social protection services have a responsibility to protect children and young people from the negative impacts of street hawking.  The government has the responsibility to protect vulnerable people. Responding effectively to street hawking requires both a structural approach and one that focuses on individuals. Parents who use children to hawk for income should be given jobs to help them provide for their families and meet their economic needs. And the children should be provided with training to make up for any deficiencies in knowledge and skill to help them lead a successful life.

The anti-street hawker policy will not be fruitful if it’s enforced without addressing the root cause of street hawking.

The ban on street hawking in Lagos and other states in Nigeria was originally part of the government’s drive to modernize and improve infrastructure in the states. But the way government’s agents chased street hawkers, pursuing them like animals, confiscating their goods and demanding money for bail will cause more harm than good. In July, 2016, 49 buses of rapid transport were vandalized after a hawker evading the unit was knocked and killed by a BRT bus in Lagos. It means that such policies were not founded on research and evidence-based practices. Nigeria should learn from countries like Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda and Tunisia; all have failed to forcibly evict street hawkers.

Nevertheless, issues relating to urban management and controlling over the deteriorating city environment in Nigeria due to increased street hawking activities are, of course, challenging for urban centergovernance. Therefore, there are confrontations between authorities and hawkers over licensing, taxation, encroachment of public places and pavement, and on increasing social problems. Nigeria should borrow a leave from Asian’s countries’ experiences (July, 1997-December, 1998) by reforming informal business sectors by setting aside spaces in major cities specifically for hawkers instead of banning their operations completely. As has been observed, the end result is by far increased crimes and criminality in the society. Street hawkers are resilient and adaptive. Threatened with eviction, they will change their strategies, location and mode of operation. They could also resort to crime when forcefully evicted.

As part of the clean up, governments at all levels should set up employment trust fund that could offer small loans to street hawkers and other vulnerable families to use as a means to start businesses, even now that inflation has skyrocketed to 16.5 per cent in June, 2022, the highest for nearly 11 years, driving up the cost of living, particularly for fuel and food.

Nigeria’s dependence on oil has been laid bare, with little domestic manufacturing or industry to bridge the gap. Unemployment among young graduates has been estimated at nearly 45 percent.

I am profoundly impressed and humbled when I see the activism and engagement of young people around me. Informed and outspoken, you are often at the forefront against Teens Abuse and injustice, particularly the justified outcry against teenage people hawking on Nigerian’s cities.  

Chief James Atang Itsegok JP is the  Chief of Staff to the Executive Chairman of Jos East LGA, Plateau State-Nigeria.  

[email protected]


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