Just over two weeks ago, the world woke up to a shocking photograph that dominated the front pages of international newspapers and newscasts, and went viral on social media: the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi (initially reported as Aylan Kurdi), a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background, washed up on the Turkish shoreline. The image was a powerful one, generating outrage and sympathy, and softening previously hardened hearts.
Among those touched by the image was Minister of Education Ronald Jones. In an address at the American University of Barbados (AUB) School of Medicine, Mr Jones described the refugee situation as an “enormous and painful tragedy”, while making specific reference to little Alan.
“What tore at my heart was a wash-up on a beautiful beach [of] a three-year-old. It brought tears to my hard heart, to my pointed eyes to see a child not yet feeling life but [having] that life ripped from him because of man’s inhumanity over religion, land or something.”
It was refreshing to discover that the minister has a conscience and can be emotional, but his poignant revelation left us wondering if his heart bled at all for Jahan King or Shemar Weekes.
These were Barbadian children whose circumstances were no different from those of Alan Kurdi’s. Alan’s family put their lives at risk, having been forced by a civil conflict to seek refuge and a better existence elsewhere. These Barbadian children paid with their lives, having been made to remain in abusive environments.
The images of six-year-old Jahan King and 12-year-old Shemar Weekes plastered on the covers of local newspapers ought to have softened not just Mr Jones’ heart, but the hearts of everyone else, including the child protection agency and the people elected to protect us.
But it seems the policymakers dithered and dallied while death threatened our children. In an address on September 13 to the St James South constituency branch of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), Prime Minister Freundel Stuart made a tacit admission that Government was aware of the epidemic –– it would have had to be living on a different planet not to be –– but had done nothing.
“We can no longer allow a situation where abuse is happening. Government agencies are informed and nothing happens while innocent lives are being ruined.”
No longer, he said, as if to suggest the situation had been allowed to fester, to be prolonged. A “Freundel slip”, perhaps, by a very eloquent man?
The Child Care Board (CCB) has revealed that as many as 3,600 children might have been abused in Barbados during the past year, and that the situation was getting worse with the number up this year on last year’s.
It seems there was nothing that could hold back the abusers, who appear comforted
by the lack of action to this point, taking it as licence to rip the souls out of the children.
The numbers released by the CCB are the tragic results of the abusers’ callousness and that of those who harbour them; of the hard-heartedness of those responsible. We see the examples as the names of victims whose lives have been stolen from them are carried in the media. And those are the ones who die.
We have a moral duty to protect these children, to make them safe, to staunch this haemorrhage of humanity. We have tried inaction, inertia and passivity. We must demonstrate that we are not powerless to prevent the death of our children’s dreams.
This is why we welcome last Friday’s announcement by Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett that a plan had been developed to deal with child abuse –– the Blackett Plan, including working with the police to ensure efficient and effective responses to reports of child abuse.
A special committee has also been appointed to review internal protection procedures, including the case management information system at the CCB, itself the recipient of much public criticism and ridicule and abuse following the deaths of Shemar and Jahan. That the committee was established following Shemar’s suicide suggested that the board, at least, was looking for answers.
The minister made it clear that the old way could no longer work. We agree wholeheartedly. Our children are much too precious, much too important to be neglected by the authorities when they are being abused.
The plan does not address the critical issue of resources, which the CCB has said it needs to deal effectively with the growing number of cases. Yet, it’s a good start and must be complimented. But it cannot be “given time” to work, it must be of benefit now, as those being abused have not the luxury of such time.
The Prime Minister’s assurances came several weeks after the deaths of Jahan and Shemar, and if Mr Stuart was to be taken literally, his administration had still not talked this issue through and had not come to “enlightened conclusions” even at that late stage. Let’s hope he did not believe all along that the voices of Jahan’s grandmothers, the dismay of the St Lucy community, the outrage of a rural community where a young girl threatened to take her own life in order to escape abuse, were nothing but incoherent noises? After all, this seems to be one of his favourite phrases.
The Prime Minister and this administration tend to take their time and allow things to get to crisis level before acting. We’ve seen it with the Customs issue, the BIDC matter and the new basket of goods; but procrastinating with child abuse can be much more deadly. The evidence is there in Jahan King and Shemar Weekes.
It was pleasing, however, to hear from Mr Stuart that the time-wasting was over. It was great that a plan had been hatched to fight this scourge.
The measures announced by Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett are a good start. We now look forward to action because our children’s cry for help will not be interpreted as incoherent noises.