Members Articles


1. What are Rights?

In everyday parlance and in common language the idea of rights is quite simple. We talk of “the right of way” in driving or “the right to privacy” in reference to securing our sphere of existence. But the concept of rights – human rights – is quite complex and is often the subject of dispute in many political, intellectual and even ecclesiastical discussions. Without having to go into all those, let us take it that human rights are commonly understood to be justified claims or entitlements which accrue to a person as such. To have a right means to have a claim to something of value – with corresponding responsibilities.[1] Human rights are such “things” that are held to be inalienable, There are inherent human qualities, that is, applicable to all human beings, irrespective of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.

These concepts of human rights form the basis for the Universal Declaration on human rights by the United Nations in 1948. The Universal Declaration has continued to remain the reference point and orientation for particular societies and the general human society. However, the application of its provisions are eventually determined by the history, circumstances, laws, customs and beliefs of particular societies that are the States parties of the United Nations. But the UN Universal Declaration is neither the origin nor the first instance where rights would be articulated and codified. Historically, there have already been formulations of some sort by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and declarations like the British Magna Carta (1215), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), the American Bill of Rights (1789) and the Geneva Convention (1864). But in our historical milieu the UN Declaration is a watershed and as it were a culmination of the evolution of human rights theories and concepts through the centuries.

Human rights are further divided into moral rights and legal rights (e.g right of association, of speech, religion).[2] What specifically constitutes basic human rights is spelt out in the 30 Articles of the United Nations Declaration of the Human Rights. Article 3, for instance, declares (not invent) the basic right to life. Article 4 declares right not be held in slavery or servitude; and Article 5 declares right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Human rights are not only to be understood as privileges: there are corresponding human duties and obligations as well.

2. Theologico-Ethical Dimensions of Human Rights

From the Christian theological point of view, human rights flow directly as practical implications of the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. Catholic social teaching considers it as part of the evangelizing mission of the church to promote and defend the human rights (CA 54). Beginning with the defense of the rights of workers with the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891(RN 51) the social teaching of the Church has consistently recognized and reemphasized the importance of human rights to the human society. Since the pontificate of John XXIII, the Catholic Church has been more and more important in vanguard for the promotion of human rights. For example in Pacem in Terris 1963 Pope John XXIII not only praises the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights, he reiterates the importance of each of the rights and gives them theological backing.

The second Vatican Council restates the importance of human rights when it says for instance that “the movement towards the identification and proclamation of human rights is one of the most significant attempts to respond effectively to the inescapable demands of human dignity” (Dignitatis Humanae, 1). The human rights as declared by the United Nations, understood and taught by the Catholic Church have the welfare of the human person as the goal. From the theological perspective, there is an intrinsic relationship between human dignity and human rights. Hence, the respect for human right is also respect for human dignity which is given him by God.[3] With reference to the liberating and evangelizing mission of the Church in the modern time, upholding of human rights – first by knowledge of them – is constitutive and essential, and therefore should not continue to be neglected.[4]

3. Emergence of Human Rights: Historical Perspective

There is a host of historical antecedents that provided the setting for the emergence and development of human rights…. The necessity to have a systemic and specifically defined set of rights became more expedient and urgent after the Second World War. At the first meeting of the United Nations there were 52 nations – only 3 from Africa: Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa. One of the aims of the UN was to prevent a reoccurrence of the horrors and atrocities of the immediate past, and indeed of those in history. One way of doing this was to create or find a sacrosanct basis which would also be a point of reference for relationship among people and nations. The articulation of human rights and obligations was one of the results the earlier efforts. They emerged as “safeguards” against abuse of power and arbitrariness in societal living together. Most human right items as they appear in the catalogue are basically humanity’s response to common historical experiences. In their concrete forms the human rights items were arrived at negations among government bodies and other interest groups.

It goes without saying that children were and to a large extent still are the most susceptible victims of abuse and arbitrariness of adults. They are virtually defenseless and almost completely dependent on the often arbitrary will of others. It would take about forty years to codify the specific rights of children after the Human Rights Declarations since children’s welfare was considered an appendage to those of their parents and sometimes the state. For example, the choices of school, name and religion are wholly dependent on parents. Some other rights are dependent on state policy, philosophy or even ideology.

Children and Human Rights

So do or should children really have rights? If yes, what rights do they have and to what extent can these rights be realized or enforced? In the Nigerian context, these questions can be irrelevant or vexing. As Fr. John Patrick Ngoyi, director of Ijebu-Ode JDPC once noted, people may ask, “Why give children rights and privileges when they are supposed to be under the control of their parents or guardians who dish out the right discipline to them?” Indeed, this is putting the attitude of most Nigerians mildly. Consider what one Prince Pieray C. Peter Odor published on the Internet on the 4th of May 2010 …

The fact is that issue human rights is an essential part of the human development question. Whether in social ethics, in sociopolitical philosophy or in the social and humanistic science, genuine human development cannot exclude the upholding of human rights.

5. Children are Subjects of Moral Rights

From the foregoing we know that human rights extend to all human beings – and that includes children. But as much as much as this is self-evident, there is often what David Archard has called a “background concern” in the attribution of rights to children.[5] This concern has much to do with the practical implications of fully attributing rights to children. One problem is that of will or choice – based on the argument that a right is protected by the exercise of it. In other words, the inability or the incompetence to protect a right disqualifies a person from being a right-holder. The question is can children duly posses rights that they are neither able to exercise, protect or defend. Another argument is based on the interest theory, which refers to a right as the protection of an important interest. So we ask the question do children do have interests? And how important are these interests? And what would it take to protect or further them?

But the ability or inability to defend or lay claim to one’s entitlements is not the basis for human rights, rather it is the very fact of being human. Whether or not rights are declared, recognized or defended does not affect their essence and attributes of being a “human good”. If as children human beings are as yet incapable of exercising certain rights, especially the liberty rights, it does not deny the fact that they posses those rights anyway, even if in a latent form. Having and using a property do not necessarily imply one another, although possession or having legitimate access is a necessary condition for this to happen. A person may have a property which he does not or even cannot use. The unwillingness or inability to use that property does not annul or affect his ownership and right to it. This is more so when the property in question is inalienable, that is, when its personal ownership is irrevocable, nontransferable, indisputable and unassailable. Indeed questioning the basis for human rights could among to striking at the foundations of human beingness.

Besides, there are special rights and privileges that children as children possess which adults do not – excepts perhaps due to old age or physical or mental handicap. Such special rights have extra moral claims and relevance as well as the means to them. For example, the right to grow up with one’s parents also includes the right to food and parental care, just as the right to be born (life) also further includes the right to a name and a nationality.[6]

6. Who or What is a Child (in Nigeria)?

The 1989 Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC) defines a child as “every person below the age of eighteen years”.[7] But this concept of a child is not the one operative in every society. The convention makes room for a national or local adaption or adoption “under the law applicable to the child”[8] provided the basic principles and objectives are not undermined. Nigeria ratified the statutes of this Convention in 1991. And although the Nigerian Child’s Right Act (CRA) of 2003 maintains the eighteen years age limit, there are several designations for a child “scattered in different legislations”[9] across the land. For example, according to article 2 of Children and Young Persons Act, enacted in Eastern, Western and Northern regions a “‘child’ means [a] person under the age of fourteen years, while ‘young person’ means a person who has attained the age of fourteen years and is under the age of seventeen years.” The Immigration Act stipulates that any person below 16 years is a minor, whereas the Matrimonial Causes Act puts the age of maturity at 2. The latter act becomes irrelevant in practice, since the individual states state their own ages for marriage.

7. What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is, simply put, the mistreatment – wrong treatment of a child. This happens when adults handle or relate with children in ways that are considered and accepted as improper, cruel and harmful. Neglecting a child – especially in the case of parents and guardians – also now counts as child abuse. Abuse of child can be physical, emotional, sexual, ritual or neglect. It can also happen in the form of exposure to abuse.

Physical child abuse: means inflicting physical harm on a child’s body. It may involve abusing a child a single time, or it may involve a pattern of incidents. Some examples are: shaking, choking, biting, kicking, burning fingers, rough handling (even when dressing them up or taking them to bed), using force or restraint in any other harmful way.

Emotional child abuse: includes other acts that can harm a child’s sense of worth. It is usually part of a long-term problem. It harms a child’s self-confidence when an adult constantly insults, rejects, humiliates, blames, shames, yells at, shouts at or puts them down. Other examples are isolation, locking up, keeping them away from other children, or removing their wheelchair or hearing aids, intimidation or terrorization, threatening or shouting at them, instilling fear.

Sexual child abuse: happens when an adult or adolescent uses a child for sexual purposes. It can also mean forcing or exposing them to sexual activity or behaviour not appropriate for the child’s age. This includes touching and kissing, inviting the child to touch someone else sexually, incest, forcing a child into prostitution or pornography. Child sexual abuse is usually repeated, and can go on for a long time. It is also emotionally abusive, and importantly morally condemnable and criminal./

Sexual child abuse use to be probably the form of abuse that people report the least. But not anymore. For consciousness of and reporting of sexual abuse in Nigeria see book ……

Neglecting a child is also child abuse. This form happens when the child is not given or denied what is needed to develop. It can hurt the child both emotionally and physically. A parent or caregiver is neglecting a child when they don’t make them feel loved, wanted, safe and worthy, not given medical care when sick, exposed to harm, denied education, deny food, clothing and shelter, even though they can afford to provide them; even leaving children alone at home too often is considered abuse here.

Child abuse is usually a silent crime. Many victims never get justice or get over the hang-over effects abuse. They are too ashamed or too afraid to open up. As a let out some victims could go on to abuse other children. These situations make it unfortunate and dangerous (consider the understanding of seniority in Nigerian schools). Child abuse can happen in all cultures, social classes, and religions. Also, children with disabilities are more at risk for abuse.

Ritual child abuse: is an extreme form of child abuse. It is a very obnoxious form and often results in murders, torture, physical deformation or child mutilation. Sometimes it involves mind control, child trafficking, pornography, prostitution. The clandestine nature of many religious sects and cults makes it particularly difficult to figure out the extent of atrocities committed against children through ritual child practices.

Witnessing woman abuse: is also a form child abuse. Wife-beaters abuse children indirectly because seeing a woman being beaten and mishandled makes children feel less worthy. It keeps them in a constant state of anxiety and fear. For as the saying goes, “if fire can consume the tortoise with the iron shell what will happen to the chicken with mere feathers?” Seeing their mother beaten and humiliated can affect them just as badly as being abused directly. They may also be hurt trying to protect their mother, or be used as hostages. (Söhne und Väter)

Culture and Harmful Traditional Practices

One of the most difficult aspects of the child rights issue is culture. The culture in which a child is born and grows up sets the parameters for an understating of life and reality as well as what applies to him/her in terms of rights, duties and privileges. For example, a child that was born and grows up in the average Nigerian setting cannot expect the …… again, what is accepted as a duty of the child, say sweeping the floor or fetching water would not be considered so in a Western setting. On the issue cultural diversity and differences in relation to the rights, duties and privileges of the child, the CRC simply speaks of “the importance of the traditions and cultural values of each people for the protection and harmonious development of the child”

However, the potentially harmful aspects of culture and traditional practices for the development of the child must be noted. For, example child-beating is a common practice in Nigeria – in Africa generally. Sometimes children are beaten along with their mothers – out of frustration, despair or a desire to exercise power and control. The mere fact of being of a particular gender can be an occasion for exacting violence on a child.

Often the parents feel they need to physically punish or discipline the child. The traditional thinking in many – if not most – Nigerian settings is not to spare the rod and spoil the child. Most, if not all of us, experienced childhoods riddles with one form or the other of excruciating physical punishment: pepper, cane, koboko, wire, hunger and starving, unending hours of kneeling, blisters from cutting grass, etc. We would probably think all that made us stronger, more obedient or respectful and responsible. Parents still think what they are doing is good for the child when they put him or her through all these ordeals. But these are all elements of child abuse and parts of the cultural and traditional circumstances contributing towards the “critical situation” of the African child, as UNICEF has characterized it.

Mainly because of their institutional nature there have been particular concerns about such practices as female genital mutilation (also known as “female circumcision”- said to have afflicted over 100 million African females), child betrothal and child marriage as well as other initiation ceremonies.

9. Theologico-ethical and Social Imperatives of Child Protection

Child protection is a natural disposition of the human person. It is an ethical as well as a social imperative that the child, above all because of his or her vulnerability, is afforded care and protection. In the order of nature, the human child is the most dependent of at the stage of infancy and childhood. That lays on parents, caregivers and the human society a task that that requires much responsibility. The care of children has an important place in the teachings of Christ and is, therefore, one of the primary responsibilities of all members of the Church led by their priests, bishops and religious superiors. Because of the Church’s particular message and the position it holds, it seems it is of great importance that it should be an example of excellence, which others will look to and want to follow. One of the hallmarks of a modern society is its image of childhood (children with distended stomachs often used to represent a continent). Achieving child protection and welfare depend on good policies about human resources management. They also depend on being alert to what is going on in the world that relates to the child itself and the society at large.

One way advancing the cause of children and therefore of the society itself is through advocacy. Advocacy normally aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. It may be motivated from moral, ethical or faith (theological) principles or simply to protect an asset of interest. Motivated as it were by the theological ethics of childhood, the Church is required to be a part of the series of actions taken and issues highlighted to change the “what is” into a “what should be”, considering that this “what should be” is a more decent and fitting for the human being – child or adult – as the image of God.

10. Theological Ethics of Childhood

The theme of childhood occupies a significant place in the humanistic philosophy and theology of John Paul II. To be right on the understanding of the human person also implies to be right on the ethics of childhood. Only so will it be possible to realise the vision of peace and development in a more humanised world. Children must be acknowledged and accepted as persons, as human beings. And like all other human beings, they possess human dignity. According to him, “Every human being, whether he is little, or apparently insignificant in terms of usefulness … bears on himself the image of the Creator. The policies and actions that do not acknowledge this unique condition of human dignity cannot lead to a more just and more human world.”[10] Children also need to be accorded special respect and protection due to their peculiar situation of being the “little and vulnerable ones”[11] members of the human society.

11. Convention on Right of the Child

In a self-critical posture, the United Nations itself through UNICEF, its leading agency for children, notes that when the various human rights documents are considered, even though they apply to all human beings, they are not necessarily child specific and therefore do not adequately address the peculiar needs of children.[12] This gave rise to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is the clearest and most comprehensive expression yet of what the world community wants for its children. There are over forty rights recognized or identified for children. The Convention reaffirmed the need for special care and protection of children, particularly on grounds of their much accentuated vulnerability and dependence. Parents as well as the state were required by the Convention to play their parts in ensuring that children are properly guided through their tender and delicate stage of development. Survival, protection and development are the broad headings under which child rights were outlined by the Convention.

12. Child Protection in Nigeria

Recent media reports about stigmatization and killing of children by religious sects in Nigeria virtually took the lid off the problem of abuse of this type that many children have suffered for long. Child protection falls within the context of protection of human rights.

The Nigerian government has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRWC).

But one of the main issues is that since the Child’s Rights Act was passed into Law in 2003, there has not been adequate information dissemination to about the existence of the Child’s Rights Law. Nigerians are generally ignorant about their laws and duties, rights and privileges. They have either never of many of the laws and regulations that should guide social behaviours. They are simply not interested and feel the laws having no bearing on their daily struggles and worries. From a random pool conducted in one State, up to 85% of both children and adults respectively did not know that there was a Law (Child Rights Act) protecting the rights of the child in Nigeria.

The Nigerian Child’s Rights Act of 2003 is a domestication of the Convention on the Right of the Child with considerable reference to the 1999 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). The overriding objective of these documents is to set standards and principles for the survival, development, protection and participation of children in shaping their own destiny and those of the society. The Nigerian Child Rights Act emerged “to provide a legislation which incorporates all the rights and responsibilities of children, and which consolidates all laws relating to children into one single legislation, as well as specifying the duties and obligations of government, parents and other authorities, organizations and bodies”.[13] This Act replaces the previous Children and Young People’s Act (CYPA, originally passed in 1943 and revised in 1958), as a law relating primarily to juvenile justice. On paper, the Nigerian Child’s Rights Act of 2003 apparently “contains a number of laudable provisions, which, if implemented, would go a long way to ensure the protection and welfare of the Nigerian Child”.[14] So one can say it is said to be a step in the right direction.

However, as we know the existence of the law has not necessarily improved the lot of the Nigerian child in terms of the protection from exploitation and abuse. There are indeed a number of factors militating against the realization of the objective of child protection laws as set out by universal and national standards. For example, only 21 of the 36 federating States of Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory Abuja have passed the Child’s Right Act into law. The others are said to be “at various stages” in passing it.[15] But even in those States that have passed the Act, there is hardly a marked improvement compared to the past or to those States that are yet to pass it. We all know the problems militating against the rule of law Nigeria. No modern society can function with an independent and reliable judiciary. Furthermore survival issues seem to be more fundamental than organizational or secondary issues.

13. The Nigerian Church and Children

Children form a significant population of the Nigerian Church. However they have not always been given the required attention and consideration in issues of importance. Children are usually referred to in the context of Christian marriage, family and education (JP II has the distinction of devoting much time to childhood-related issues (Cf. Letter to Children, Christmas 1994). Their dignity as persons as well their significance for the family, the Church and the society cannot be overemphasized. As personal subjects of human development as well as the future of the Church itself and the society, children must be set on the right path in life.

Realizing, as Kukah has also observed, that social justice is not attainable by mere verbal denunciations and moral exhortations, the Nigerian Church has occasionally embarked on some recognizable initiatives for the welfare and protection of the Nigerian child. Such initiatives include sensitization, campaigns and programmes for the rights of the child carried out across the country through Church agencies especially the Justice, Development and Peace (JDP)/Caritas Commission. Of note is the 2009 national Lenten Campaign which was dedicated the Nigeria child with the theme “The Nigerian Child: Hope for the Future” a project undertaken by the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria.

The obligation of promoting decent childhood has to be taken more seriously by the Church in Nigeria. In some regions decent childhood is considerably endangered by the practice of child-marriage, sexual exploitation of children or teenage pregnancies. In other regions the problem may be stigmatization and witch-hunting, while abject poverty, malnourishment and diseases may be the scourge in some others. As a body, the Church should help to tackle these problems not just by speaking against them but in taking active part in intermediary measures to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. Such interventions may be own or joint initiatives with the State, NGOs or international organizations. Many such initiatives, co-operations and partnerships have yielded remarkable results – in health and education services, scholarships and sponsorships, training and skills acquisition, rescues and rehabilitations, as well as in the area of litigation and justice.

The Church must also contribute to the promotion of decent childhood by playing a mode dedicated advocacy role in continuing to discuss with government at various levels to take more responsibility in children issues, for example, in absolving more financial responsibility for children’s schooling or vocational training. She has also been asking that the State study ways of meeting the new and growing need for care of the victims of families in distress, abandoned children, street children and orphans, also widows (widowers) and families no support (social welfare, social security). Above all, it should support private initiates much more, guide them and make it less possible or convenient for people to exploit children in extensively organized ways for economic interests or criminal purposes.


A Premier, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004, p. 49.

[2] ARCHARD, David, Children. Rights and Childhood, Abindgdon-Oxon: Routledge 22004,
p. 53.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1930.

[4] Evangeli Nuntiandi, 39

[5] ARCHARD, David, p. 54.

[6] Cf. Convention on the Rights of the Child, 6§1 & 7§1.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid.


Report for the Implementation of the Right of the Child in Nigeria, Geneva (June 2004).


FIDES Agency (6th January 2007).

[11] FITZGERALD, M.L., “Christians and Buddhists: Looking together at Children,
the Future of Humanity” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2004) no. 3.

[12] UNICEF Information Sheet: The Child’s Rights Act“, August 2007.

[13] UNICEF Information Sheet: “The Child’s Rights Act”, Nigeria Country Programme, August 2007.

[14] CHUKWU, T., Implementing The Child’s Rights Act 2003 With the Children In Mind,
Nigerian Village Square (03 April 2008) Accessed on 16 April 2010.


Nigeria – 4th Session – 2009, Child Rights Information Network (9 February 2009) Accessed on 19 April 2010. There are some States that have problems and issues with the provisions of the Act on the grounds of culture and religion. Some of the State Assemblies did protest what they called the “imposition” of the Act by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Between April and May 2010, the episode of child marriage to a 13 year old foreign national by a public figure in Nigeria drew condemnations across the land, particularly in the media. On being investigated and interrogated by the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) responsible for such cases, the defendant claimed not to have violated any known law or injunctions of his religion. He argued further that the constitution guaranteed him the right to practice his religion, whereas the “The Child Right Act they are talking about was brought to [us, and] my people rejected it so also other states [.... It] was rejected by the state assembly because it is against their religion”. The defendant had been granted bail, and the story was still developing as at the time of writing this. See AGANDE, Ben, Child Marriage: Yerima quizzed, granted bail, The Nigeria Vanguard (18 May 2010)

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