World over, issues around women and children are quite critical that no responsible government can afford to treat them with disdain. It is even more critical when the rights of this vulnerable group are violated. When such hapless incidents become a frequent occurrence in the society it is an indication that imminent dangers are lurking and a proactive action is needed to arrest the situation.
One of those monstrous human rights violations that is often neglected but yet can almost singlehandedly define the rating of any nation before the international community is that of female detainees/convicts and children living in prisons with their mothers. Little wonder it is often said that any nation that respects the rights of women and children is paving way for greatness.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria many women and children still languish in prisons across the nation. Why are these vulnerable groups found in detention facilities? What offence/alleged offences are they normally charged with? What does their condition look like while in detention; do they have access to medical and sanitary facilities? Are they provided with legal aid where necessary? Are they awaiting trial inmates or convicts? How are they treated by prison officials, among so many critical issues that beset an average child/woman prisoner?
These were the concerns that spurred the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Federal Ministry of Justice and Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) to carry out the survey towards finding a lasting solution to the teething problems around detention of women and children with its attendant social, health, economic and human rights implications.
There is no gainsaying that the aforementioned topic even on the surface level evokes sympathy of unimaginable dimension. This is so because this group of persons is usually at the receiving end of any disquiet or violence in the society for no cause of theirs. The issue of over 200 Chibok girls kidnapped from a secondary school more than one year ago in Borno State readily comes to mind.
The Chibok incident and other violent atrocities witnessed in Nigeria in recent times buttress the point that in emergency situations women and children are usually caught in the web of violence. During such times, women are easily raped alongside their female children while the boys are either killed or maimed. The men may also be killed and where they are lucky to escape they bemoan their losses and displacement. Despite the prevalence of these crises, the criminal justice system, over the years has remained very slow in Nigeria; hence women and children do not find it easy when they come in conflict with the law either as convicts or awaiting trial inmates.
In trying to keep the dreams of Nigeria alive especially as it relates to decent treatment of women and children in detention, the Executive Secretary of NHRC, Prof. Bem Angwe, represented at the occasion by the Director Human Rights Institute, Mrs. Oti Ovrawah, said that the commission was committed to protecting the rights of all Nigerians and that of other nationals living in the country.
According to the erudite Professor of Law, “The commission is carrying out the survey in partnership with Federal Ministry of Justice and Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) to restore the rights and respect for woman even when they come in conflict with the law.”
He said that the exercise would be carried out in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Nasarawa, Kaduna, Benue, Niger and Plateau states.
“The overall goal of the survey is to determine the kind of offences/alleged offences the affected women are charged with or alleged to have committed, their conditions in detention, access to rehabilitation and integration programmes; access to justice among others as well as to obtain first-hand information about children living in prison,” he said.
He also noted that the findings of the survey would show the level of compliance with the UN minimum standard rules in relation to females and children and prepare ground for further research across the prisons in Nigeria on different issues concerning these categories of people for engagement with government towards national policies and legislations on female detainees, convicts and children living in prison.
Earlier at inauguration, the Executive Director CURE, Mr. Sylvester Uhaa, said that many women and children are detained in prisons where they face different challenges while in prison “and we are all aware of the issues surrounding the criminal justice system especially the Nigerian prison system.”
In view of the above, he cited a high court decision in Benin, Edo State that inmates should be allowed to vote in elections and that “non-inclusion of people living in prisons in government programmes is a violation of their rights to choose their leaders. He also expressed worry about the lack of libraries in some prisons in Nigeria saying that CURE has acquired a good number of books for distribution to inmates in Nigerian prisons but decried the absence of libraries in some of the prison facilities where these books were supposed to be kept.
In her contribution, the Head Focal Areas in NHRC and Member AU Committee on Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Aver Gavar threw her weight behind Mr. Uhaa’s position on franchise to vote during elections for detainees in prisons. She observed that the NHRC campaign that disabled persons should be allowed to exercise their voting right paid off in the last general elections as there was an improvement compared to what obtained in the past elections.
She noted that poor implementation of certain laws especially as they affect women and children in prison had occasioned some setbacks saying , “if the Child’s Rights Act is implemented it will take care of the custody of these women and children who are now kept in prison instead of the appropriate institutions prescribed by the Act.”
For instance in Section 251 (1) of the Child’s Rights Act 2003 “the Federal Director responsible for child development in the ministry or such other officer as the ministry may designate, shall have the general charge and superintendence of all approved children institutions within the state.”
Similarly, Section 252 (2) of the Act provides that “Women affairs officer shall be appointed to carry out duties in relation to Special Mother Centres.”
In the same vein, circumstances surrounding the arrest of some of these women and children in some cases offend the law as their rights are breached in the process. For instance, how come a security officer looking for a suspect now turns around and arrests the suspect’s wife or any of his children or close relatives? I don’t think this is the position of the law.
Why should a woman, for instance be arrested by the police or any other security agency and detained for a long period just because their respective husbands could not be reached at the time of such arrests. Ordinarily, there is no policy in the police force for instance, where the officers and men are encouraged to arrest one person in place of another.
However, some overzealous security personnel could indulge in this type of arrest believing that by the time a close relation of the suspect is detained, the suspect will resurface. What then happens to the right of such a person who was arrested under this circumstance and detained as a bait to get the real suspect? These practices are clearly against human rights standards and norms. In any case, the suspects are not supposed to be detained longer than necessary before they are either admitted to bail or charged to court.
In his remarks, Mr. Faanee Bebu, Director Citizens Rights in the Federal Ministry of Justice said, “The survey will tell us the shortcomings that have taken place all the years” and that could help government in policy making in the area of criminal justice administration.
He also expressed concern about the issue of women alleged to have gotten pregnant while in prison saying that a survey of this nature would throw more light on such ,issues, adding that having unprotected sex could result in the spread of HIV among inmates.
In the same vein, the Executive Secretary Network of National Human Rights Institutions in West Africa (NNHRI-WA), Mr. Saka Azimazi while reacting to allegation of women that got impregnated in prison facilities, observed that considering the way facilities in prisons are structured, it would be difficult for any male to gain access to female inmates.
He rather cited a case of a female warden who was impregnated by a detainee and they later got married. Similarly, the human rights expert who is also a lawyer of great renown mentioned another case involving a prominent personality who impregnated his wife while in prison. He however, conceded that it is quite proper to allow the survey to answer the numerous germane questions surrounding what happens in Nigerian prisons including how female detainees get impregnated in prisons among others.
Also corroborating Azimazi’s position, the Deputy Comptroller General of Prisons, Dr. Chuks Afujue said it is difficult for female detainees to be impregnated in prisons, adding that such allegations come as a surprise to the prison authorities given the way facilities are structured in prisons. He went further to say that in Suleja Prison, female prisoners are separated from the male ones and that only female prisons officials are allowed to go close to female detainees.
Without mincing words, one could rightly say that the survey though long awaited, would definitely bring an improvement in the administration of criminal justice to women and children in the country. It is also expected that the survey which is like a pilot project in the few states listed above should also be replicated in more states to further bring out some peculiarities in those states. Against this background, all the stakeholders are enjoined to support the survey and render the necessary assistance that will make it a huge success.
Mebrim Uchechukwu is a staff of National Human Rights Commission in Abuja.