Food shortage, trafficking, child labour define Benue IDPs’ camps
Dr Mrs Helen Teghtegh is the director, Community Links and Women Empowerment Initiative, an NGO based in Benue State. In this interview with The Abuja Inquirer’s SCHOLASTICA JOSEPH, Mrs Teghtegh speaks about the worrisome trend taking place at Benue IDP camps with regards to sex for food, trafficking, women giving out their children, as young as nine years, in marriages to beat hunger, among other issues. Excerpts:
What is the focus of your NGO?
Community Links and Women Empowerment Initiative is a non-governmental
Organization that has been operating for almost 13 years now since 2006. It is an organization that started out of deep passion for the less privileged especially women and the children.
We started with the vision to see a society where individuals and groups explore their inner resources and realise their full potential. Because the work is huge, we work with groups, individuals, communities, linking them up to openings where they can explore and realize their potential.
We work in humanitarian intervention and we are concerned with working with the displaced by mobilizing resources for them and building their capacity. Where it is a conflict situation, we are also into peace building. We also work under health.
In the last eight months, what activities have your organization been engaged in?
In the last eight months, we have worked with over 500 women in area of agriculture in two communities, empowering women farming tomatoes and pepper. We have carried out interventions to see how we can reduce post-harvest loses. We had a funder; the T.Y Danjuma Foundation, who provided two drying machines to empower 250 women in each of these communities of Gboko and Tarka. That’s one key thing we have done in the last eight months.
We have also been working in the area of HIV/AIDS where we are catering for over 5000 persons who are affected or infected with the virus. We built capacity to ensure that those who are infected are following up with their drugs religiously and those who are affected, especially the care givers, who don’t have the where withal are identified, trained and exposed to agriculture so that the nutrition of the infected persons can be taken care of within the households.
Thirdly, like I said, we are working among the IDPs in 12 camps, with support from UNICEF, they taking the aspect of WASH and the promotion of hygiene among the IDPs. Evidently, these three things have been ongoing.
What is your assessment in terms of community response to people living with HIV/AIDS and following up on retroviral?
There have been a remarkable improvement especially among the over 5000 persons we are working with, especially among the women. We have what we call tracking whereby those who are infected are tracked and followed up to ensure that they are consistent in taking their drugs.
We have recorded high success in that. But one of the challenges we bumped into is that the issue of stigma is still high in Benue. You find people who have accepted their status and who are taking their drugs but because of issue of stigma, leave their immediate facility and travel away, to another town or another facility outside the state to take their drugs. Yes, they are taking their drugs but this one factor is making it expensive especially because they have to travel.
So, the issue of stigma is still very high even in Benue state.
With enormous work put into HIV/AIDS advocacy, what is your assessment of the level of spread of HIV/AIDS in Benue?
There are different dynamics to this; the NGOs have done so well in terms of sensitization and identifying the infected people and encouraging them to be enrolled so as to take their drugs.
However, there are other special group of persons who have not really been reached to the grassroots where they need to be tracked and if tracked, we can now act on the overall to ascertain the reduction of the spread. I’m talking about these special people called the MSMs that is “Men Sleeping with Men”. They are a special group and we know they also exist in Benue, in their numbers. So we deal with them under confidential enclosure.
So, they are special group of persons who are existing and because of stigma, have not made themselves available to access help and not every facilities is open to them and you notice that the issues of this special group of persons is on the increase in the secondary schools and they exposed to these. We have the commercial sex workers who some are consistent with their drugs and some are not. So with this different dynamics, you noticed that you can’t readily say that the impact is reducing, talking about the spread.
Again, with IDPs in the state, we don’t have any intervention on HIV/AIDS in the camps and every day you find more women getting pregnant. We have trafficking going on, child marriages going on, we have sex for food going on in these camps and they are all exposed and at the risk of contracting this.
So, even if we had made reasonable impact before this outbreak, we can’t ascertain the impact of HIV/AIDS in Benue state as it is now. However, before now, SACA sent out some data of a huge number of reduction in the spread in Benue state. These are the windows we have now except they carried out another research, we can’t for sure talk about the reduction or the increase of HIV/AIDS in Benue state.
You said there was no HIV/AIDS intervention in the camps, so who is taking responsibilities of the IDPs?
Issues of HIV intervention in the state basically is saddled with SACA or the state ministry of health whose presence has been lacking in all the IDP camps as I speak to you. Of course we have international partners, World Health Organizations, (WHO), Doctors Without Borders and ICRC who brought in medical interventions but there are limited. They are working with specific categories of people.
ICRC and Doctors Without Borders would attend to children under 0 to 5years. So what happens to 5 and above? These are responsibilities of the ministry of health but they have not risen up to the responsibility yet.
We have spoken to SEMA which is a coordinating body and we are hoping they will be able to talk to the ministry of health to stand up to their responsibilities. I think it is also a grey area for other NGOs to intervene. We are ready to intervene if we have all the support.
You stumbled on child trafficking, child marriage, sex for food while working in the camps, did you report this to any government authority?
Definitely! We captured those in our reports to SEMA and IPs who are working with us are also privileged to this information. Under the coalition of civil societies, we are supposed to send a letter NAPTIP over this.
Looking at many areas yearning for intervention, in what areas would you advice government and other NGOs to come in?
Presently, in the camps, among the IDPs, there is no food. We have five IPs with the national humanitarian funds carrying out interventions in the IDPs but their interventions are in the areas of educations and health. Basically, they are a psycho-social support and recently UNPA in reproductive health. Nobody is bringing food. The Benue state government through SEMA are over saturated they didn’t envisage that the IDPs on camp were going to stay this long, so no intervention in the area of food which is why some of the things I mentioned was happening.
A woman will gave out her nine year old child to be married out just because she wants to reduce the number of persons she has to feed. No food. People are hungry. So I will call on SEMA, spirited individuals to step into Benue state and respond in the area of food. The children are going to school now, thanks to UNICEF and have all the materials to use but they are hungry.
Secondly, you have other organizations with expertise for peace building, it’s about time we start looking out for a lasting solutions to these issues. We need these experts to come in and we the local NGOs are ready to collaborate and synergize with them for lasting peace to come to Benue state.
But with more emphasis, I want to state that I am concerned about the girl-child. It’s a personal passion that boils within me and as an organization, we carry out routine needs assessment among the IDPs.
So the last four months was when we bumped into this that young girls were been given into marriage. We have cases in Daudu 2 and other cases around some of the camps where young girls are given into marriages by their mothers, especially mothers who have seven, eight, nine children and are living with them on camp. We have 9years old, 12 and 13 year old but under 18years children being given into marriage. The reason was not away from this that there was not enough food to feed the children. And giving out a daughter was a way of solving or removing the pressure from the mothers in the camp. And when we discovered these, we reported to SEMA, we also shared the information among others IPs like UNICEF about it that this was the issues going on at the IDP camps. As an organization, we started documenting it so we can have a data of how many of these family has given their daughters out in early marriages. It is slow because we need resources, first to travel or move into these towns to do that. I have interacted with three women to see if they can pull these children away, especially the girl that is nine years old but she said it will be a cultural thing. She is married, if we bring her back, she will be stigmatized as running away or returning from her husband’s house.
So how do you pull out a child when the parents have not given their consent? So, we couldn’t do that. So what we are doing is to sensitize the mother that now, you have schools in the camp, send them to school. We are also telling them the implications of marrying early and what it means for them to go or not to go to school. That is what we are doing as an organization.
We will work better if we have all the data to see if moving forward, we can trace these children even in their husband house to see that they are being sent to school. So we called Nigerians to send in food to the IDPs’ camps.
Another alarming thing government should look into is that there is an inflow of people moving into the IDPs’ camps now looking for cheap labour, house help among the IDPs. They are looking for people who will either baby sit or serve as cooks. These people are vulnerable.
For now, we have few who may go into town, serves then get back to camps. I don’t have the figures but as I speak, we people being repatriated outside the state to work in the farms outside Benue state. Someone in camp told me that in the evenings, people coming in with trucks to carry young boys at the camp to work for them outside Benue.