The recently-elected Vice Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Faith Marshall-Harris, is on a mission to ensure the rights of children across the globe are respected while leveraging her position to help raise the compliant ranking of Barbados.
The Barbadian children’s advocate and activist will be pushing an agenda as a world regulator and watchdog on the rights of the child as she spearheads the Committee’s charge in such areas as the right to life, shelter, food, education, access to health care and the treatment of adolescents.
Marshall-Harris’ mandate and by extension the Committee’s, is to make its presence felt wherever in the world there is a “hot spot” or “trouble spot” in which children are adversely impacted.
In fact, she was in the process of preparing a statement on behalf of the UNCRC to be issued across the globe condemning the atrocities being inflicted on the children of Myanmar formerly Burma.
More than 40 children have reportedly been killed by armed forces in Myanmar in the two months since the military coup on February 1. The death toll of children has more than doubled in the past 12 days, demonstrating the utter disrespect of armed forces for the lives of children.
A colleague of hers who sits on the Committee is handling advocacy aspect with regard to the scores of children being killed in the ongoing military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
But while the status of children back home in Barbados is a far cry from what is taking place in those “hot spots”, Marshall-Harris is not at all happy with the “slow and painful” pace at which this country is moving toward a much better ranking on the rights of the child, than it is capable of.
“We haven’t regressed, but our progress is very painful and very slow. I don’t think that a lot of us appreciate that children have rights. In fact, when I first started on this journey, I met a lot of resistance where people said to me, ‘but children don’t have any rights. What rights do children have? They have to go to school and learn and obey us, parents, and that’s it.’” The UN child right advocate told Barbados TODAY in an extensive interview Tuesday.
“That message evolved into persons saying to me that children can’t have any rights without responsibilities. I have a little difficulty with that. I don’t think that’s the way that we see it. Children don’t have responsibilities…they are still just minors and dependents,” she stated.
The legal consultant and former juvenile court magistrate added: “What we say is that they must enjoy the same human rights as every other human being, which I found that a lot of people didn’t seem to understand…that the fact that they are small and subjected to parental supervision that therefore they were not entitled to basic human rights.”
Addressing the issue of education, the UNCRC Chair did not mince her words in assessing the state of affairs in Barbados which she said was now shifting from a position that attracted commendations by the UN body to one where easy access was becoming a challenge for the ordinary child.
“The UNCRC does compliment Barbados on its access to education, but we recognized that it is tending…that’s not where it started…it is tending towards elitism and therefore there needs to be review process,” Marshall-Harris suggested.
But she made it clear that this was not unique to Barbados in that some countries around the world started out with democratic educational systems but over time, the aims and objectives changed.
She pointed out that New Zealand having been able to deal with that issue of elitism, she was presently studying its reviewed system.
“I am presently studying it to see what we can learn from New Zealand’s exercise in ensuring the democratisation of education…making sure it stays democratic. Of course COVID-19 has not helped because it has tended to concentrate achievement in the hands of those who had best access to devices and the best environment for learning from home,” the children’s champion told Barbados TODAY.
Marshall-Harris said she was also surprised to learn through her Help Line that gives children a voice, that all children here did not have access to electricity. “Not that electricity was not available, but whether it was paid for was another issue. All that would mitigate against some children doing well because so much depended on being able to turn on that device and be part of the digital space,” she added.
With the recent controversy surrounding a picture reportedly taken of a nude 14-year-old girl in a cell at the State-run Government Industrial School (GIS) still fresh in the air, the Deputy Chair of the local Child Rights Committee went on to deal with issues of that kind.
“The matter of what happens to young persons who are placed in any of the reforms schools…that is going to take quite major change in legislation, in approach…that is going to be fundamental and far-reaching change,” declared Marshall-Harris who declined to comment further considering that a comprehensive review of the operations of the GIS was underway and she was part of the process.
However, she reflected on interventions which she led due to the bad treatment meted out to adolescents during the unfolding months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is one of my focal points particularly during the pandemic…and I always knew this, but came particularly acute during the pandemic that we do not treat our adolescents with proper care. They are often discriminated against. I am not suggesting that this is unique to Barbados. I think adolescents around the world are easily misunderstood and easily discriminated against because they quite often present challenging behaviours,” she stated.
The UN official suggested that this was so because they were becoming conscious of their personal autonomy, that they would want to push the boundaries, that they were maturing and would want to make their own decisions.
“I felt that in Barbados that we were less tolerant, less forgiving and less understanding of our adolescents than most places that I have encountered,” she insisted.
The Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also reported some success in her advocacy for troubled adolescents.
“So what we could do on an individual basis, case by case, does not necessarily represent total resolution…because, yes, we were able to help one or two persons here and there…that was not necessarily total resolution…it did not represent what would happen with the next case. But we feel satisfied that our advocacy will bear some fruit,” she declared.
The children’s activist also disclosed that her public comments on behalf of children’s rights, have attracted positive feedback from a number of people in the society.
Marshall-Harris said as a result, people who had issues with children turned to her for help and guidance.
Corporal punishment was another area which she tackled during the interview.
She said she and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child are advocating for a total ban on this type of discipline from the entire system in Barbados.
Citing research by psychologists and other scientists, she said corporal punishment teaches children to be violent and only works when the child in the presence of the parent meting out the punishment becaue they are fearful.
“The psychologists all say that it is negative to producing the results you want. What you have is immediate pain. Psychologists say the thing that stays with the child is the humiliation and assault on their dignity. What was not necessarily recalled is what was wrong and what was not wrong…but the fact that they have suffered this physical assault,” said the former juvenile court magistrate.
Further describing corporal punishment as an injustice, Marshall-Harris made the point that if the same actions were carried out against an adult, the police would be called in, “but you can lay hands on a child violently and it’s alright.”
The UN official contended that if the country is to rid itself of this violence against children, there would have to be a reeducation of teachers and parents. She noted that while efforts were being made at the official level to remove corporal punishment altogether, it was being resisted by some teachers and parents.
“I don’t think we are going to get too far until we can afford to do a lot of education of parents and what parenting really should give out,” the legal consultant said.
In conclusion, she sought to address the idea that corporal punishment was an African thing and it therefore should remain in Barbados.
She referred to official figures which showed that Africa was swiftly scrapping it. For example, the Chair of the UNCRC stated that seven African countries have so far banned corporal punishment completely, 26 have prohibited it in schools, 29 have restricted it in penal institutions and 47 have made it unlawful as a sentence by the courts.
Marshall-Harris is of the view that given this country’s level of education and economic situation, it should be doing a lot better concerning complying with the international convention on the rights of the child. (EJ)