Thousands of people with mental health conditions across Nigeria are chained and locked up in various facilities where they face terrible abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Monday.
It noted that detention, chaining, and violent treatment were pervasive in many settings, including state hospitals, rehabilitation centres, traditional healing centres, and both Christian and Islamic facilities.
The Human Rights Watch also called on the Federal Government to order investigation into the abuses.
“People with mental health conditions should be supported and provided with effective services in their communities, not chained and abused.
“People with mental health conditions find themselves in chains in various places in Nigeria, subject to years of unimaginable hardship and abuse, ”said Emina Cerimovic, senior disability rights researcher at HRW.
Saying President Muhammadu Buhari said last month of the Islamic rehabilitation centres that he would not ‘tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation,’ HRW added that the government had yet to acknowledge that such abuses were rife in government-run facilities too.
Human Rights Watch stated that between August 2018 and September 2019, it visited 28 facilities ostensibly providing mental health care in eight states and the Federal Capital Territory, including federal psychiatric hospitals, general state hospitals, state-owned rehabilitation centres, Islamic rehabilitation centres, traditional healing centres and churches.
It stated, “Human Rights Watch interviewed 124 people, including 49 chained victims and their families, staff in various facilities, mental health professionals, and government officials.
“Deep-rooted problems in Nigeria’s healthcare and welfare systems leave most Nigerians unable to get adequate mental health care or support in their communities. Stigma and misunderstanding about mental health conditions, including the misperception that they are caused by evil spirits or supernatural forces, often prompt relatives to take their loved ones to religious or traditional healing places.
“Human Rights Watch found that people with actual or perceived mental health conditions, including children, are placed in facilities without their consent, usually by relatives. In some cases, police arrest people with actual or perceived mental health conditions and send them to state-run rehabilitation centres. “Once there, many are shackled with iron chains, around one or both ankles, to heavy objects or to other detainees, in some cases for months or years. They cannot leave, are often confined in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, and are sometimes forced to sleep, eat, and defecate within the same confined place. Many are physically and emotionally abused as well as forced to take treatments.”
According to the organisation, during its visit to a state-owned rehabilitation centre in the South-East, a nun in charge said they chain people to their beds ‘so they do not run away.’ It stated that the nun defended chaining a woman who had HIV ‘to stop her from going around the men.’
“Human Rights Watch found another woman at the same facility chained naked to her bed. The staff, except one older guard, would leave at 6.30 pm each day, leaving residents, including children as young as 13, with no one to help them. The facility has no electricity, so people are chained to their beds in total darkness. The nun said, “The patients are given flashlights to use at night.’
“In a traditional healing centre close to Abuja, Human Rights Watch met a woman who was pinned to a tree trunk with an iron ring. She had been restrained like this for three weeks with her upper body naked. She was unable to move and so she was forced to eat, urinate, and defecate where she sat,” the Human Rights Watch said.
It further said adults and children in some Islamic rehabilitation centres reported being whipped, causing deep wounds, while patients in Christian healing centres and churches revealed being denied food for up to three days at a time, which workers characterised as ‘fasting’ for ‘treatment’ purposes.
The Human Rights Watch added that in many of the traditional and religious rehabilitation centres visited, workers forced people with mental health conditions, including children, to eat or drink herbs, in some cases pinning them down to make them swallow.
The Human Rights Watch stated, “In psychiatric hospitals and state-run rehabilitation centers, staff forcibly administered medication, while some staff admitted to administering electroconvulsive therapy to patients without their consent.
“In some cases, families took their children – including young adults – to religious and traditional rehabilitation centres for actual or perceived drug use or ‘deviant’ behaviour, including skipping school, smoking tobacco or marijuana, or stealing from their parents. Some children in the facilities – some as young as 10 – have been abandoned by their families.
“Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. It has the obligation to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities, including the right to liberty and freedom from torture, ill-treatment, and forced treatment. While the Nigerian Constitution prohibits torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment, the government has not outlawed chaining. In a 2015 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture said torture ‘unequivocally amount(s) to torture.”
It urged the Federal Government to ban chaining and urgently investigate chaining in state-owned rehabilitation centres, psychiatric hospitals, and faith-based and traditional healing centres in all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.