KINGSTON – “A lot of children in Jamaica are dealing with a lot of pain.”
Those were the words of 10-year-old Keino King, who yesterday, along with seven-year-old Ngozi Wright, her twin brother Tafari, and 18-year-old Shaneille Hall, addressed the nation’s Parliament in an unprecedented session on violence against children, ahead of today’s observation of the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC is a legally binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of every child, regardless of their race, religion or abilities.
Together, the four youngsters painted a grim picture before legislators of the reality of scores of children across the country, 46 of whom were murdered last year. Already, 41 have been killed between January 1 and November 14 this year, according to UNICEF Jamaica. One out of four students aged 13-15 is bullied, while one in four adolescent girls has experienced sexual violence.
“Our fear is based on the heartbreaking reality [that] many of us are being bullied. Many of us are being beaten. Many of us are being sexually and emotionally abused, and we are being murdered. This violence started in the days of slavery and to this day it continues. So I ask you, what are you doing to help break the cycle?” Keino asked.
The child shared the experience of some of his peers who were among 300 children from three parishes who participated in town hall sessions over the past three months discussing violence against children.
Among the stories were reports of children being violently disciplined; children witnessing crimes, including murder; children being sexually abused by people close to them; and children living in the same space with paedophiles.
“These are only [some] out of the hundreds of experiences that were shared by children just in the last three months. At every one of the sessions most of the children had either experienced or witnessed violence. Research from around the world shows that this kind of trauma can have negative effects on all aspects of a child’s development and it can have a lasting impact. Children who have been traumatised by violence have higher risks of school drop-out, drug abuse, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and involvement with violence and crime.
“I don’t want to live in a Jamaica where the children are so hurt by violence that they grow up to hurt themselves or to hurt other people. Do you?” the young boy let out to rousing applause from the members of the Lower House.
In her address, Ngozi shared the frustration of her peers with the House, declaring love for the country but disdain for the violence meted out to children.
“We hate the violence that is making children so afraid; the violence that is taking their lives. We are very concerned about what is happening to our children and what [may] happen to your children,” Ngozi said.
Along the same lines, Tafari expressed fear about being in spaces expected to be safe for children.
“Honourable adults, listen to us, please. Many of us are afraid to go to school, afraid to go home, afraid to go outside in our communities. We live in fear that we will be the next victims of violence,” the child said.
Hall, who lost both parents at a young age, relayed to Parliament a painful story of a life of sexual abuse by a close relative.
The young woman told Government and Opposition members that her abuse began at age five and lasted for approximately four years.
She remained silent about the abuse until age 10. Court proceedings ensued but eventually fizzled.
The ordeal destroyed her, she explained.
“Imagine if your daughter or your son is silently living with a nightmare like this?” she asked.
The four, having consulted with children through the town hall sessions, outlined the following:
Children want to be heard: There was a very strong appeal for decision-makers to consult with children on a regular basis to learn more about what they are experiencing in order to guide the development of relevant laws, programmes, and policies.
Children want parents to get help so they can be better parents: Children asked for more parenting education to take place within and outside their communities. They asked specifically for parents to be taught about alternative ways to discipline children, instead of corporal punishment.
Children want stricter enforcement of laws for those who abuse children: Many children do not feel confident that people who commit violence against children are being prosecuted.
Children want better relationships with the security forces: There were many recommendations for a stronger presence of security forces in communities, including regular walk-throughs. Children expressed their hope for creating more trust.
Children want to see an end to the flow of illegal guns and weapons: Children are very concerned about gun violence and many asked for guns to be banned.
Children want specific initiatives to be implemented: Launch a national anti-bullying campaign; implement a toll-free, 24-hour counselling service. (Jamaica Observer)