Saturday, April 5, 2008

‘Children are tired of being the future’

‘Children are tired of being the future’
Jean Lowrie-Chin

Last Tuesday the US presidential primaries were competing with Jamaica’s Peace Day for our attention. But once we got to Half Way Tree for the VPA March and started to exchange concerns, we came to realise that this constant clicking from the local news to CNN, was really a form of escapism. Why face the painful fact that 14 people were killed over the weekend, when we could be listening to Barack, and laughing with Colbert?

We got the answer from the hopeful schoolchildren and students who gathered to march. We felt the anguished call of weary nurses who related to us the stress of having to deal with so many violent injuries, the abnormal becoming part of their normal routine. The representative of an international agency told us that their standard to define a country in conflict was 1,000 violent deaths in a year. “With 1,400 to 1,600 murders per year, Jamaica is definitely a country in conflict – internal conflict,” he said.

We are seeing the same individuals in this March – Dr Elizabeth Ward, Prof Barry and Pauletta Chevannes, Drs Horace Levy, Deanna Ashley, Peter Figueroa and Tony Allen, folks from government agencies, UNDP and UNICEF, members of clergy. We need to see others. “We’re going to start planning earlier next year so we’ll have more private sector folks,” said the determined Dr Ward.

As we wound our way downtown – an easy walk because it was slightly downhill – we were greeted by respectful and frequently smiling faces. Not once did we hear a negative comment along the route. Best of all were the beautiful children, looking keenly at us as if to fix their presence in our minds.

I have to admit that like most of my friends, I have been fascinated by the rise of the bright US presidential hopeful Barack Obama, and agreeing that he could change the world. It is always so easy to place the responsibility of changing the world on someone else’s shoulder! Some of us have gone so overboard with anti-Bush sentiments, we forget that ambassadors sent by US Republican governments have been extraordinarily generous.

As management consultant Ilsa duVernay reminded us at a retreat recently: “you are who you have been waiting for”. We can no longer escape to the laughter of the comedies and distant news of foreign lands. The reality is much too compelling: on the morning of Peace Day, a lady fondly referred to as “Auntie Joan” was shot dead in plain sight of the children she had just taken to school at Angels Primary School in St Catherine. In Windsor Heights in St. Ann that very afternoon, two teenage boys had a dispute while playing football. One left, returned with a knife, and stabbed the other. In Clarendon on Wednesday, a similar incident. And on Thursday in March Pen, the unthinkable: an infant shot dead in the crossfire between lawmen and gunmen.

Janilee Abrikian of PALS (Peace and Love in Society) related during the march, the plight of small children, left alone to fend for themselves, arriving at school hungry and unkempt. We must not change the channel: we have to contemplate the harsh realities.

Last month in a special session of Parliament, Professor Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, one of the world’s leading experts on violence against children, addressed our political representatives on the sad state of our children. “In an environment where violence breeds more violence, the ways in which Jamaican children are subjected to violence are inextricably linked to the unrelenting levels of crime and violence affecting the island,” he said.
“Children are tired of being the future,” said the author of the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children, “they want to be the present, they want recognition of their rights.” He reminded us that they are full-fledged citizens entitled to all the rights to which our country has been a signatory.
Professor Pinheiro congratulated our lawmakers on the passing of the Child Care and Protection Act which he described as “an example for our region.” However, he said that Government must devote sufficient resources for laws to be upheld and programmes to be successful.
He gave some simple but important steps towards ending violence against children:
- develop basic conflict resolution skills
- teach tolerance
- restrict access to small arms
- inform and train parents in alternative ways to exercise discipline.
Pinheiro referred to recent research in Jamaica where it was shown that boys were not receiving the same level of attention as girls and reminded that if a child does not find affirmation and acceptance at home, he will seek “the alternative families provided by gangs”.
The heartthrob of the developing world, Barack Obama, constantly speaks about the nurturing environment in which he was raised. He said his single mother and his grandparents did not have a lot of money, but they ensured that he received a good education; “They gave me love, but most of all, they gave me hope.”
Barack Obama may not save the world, but if we heed his message, we could save ours by giving our children what this young leader got: education, love and hope. They are not the distant future but the pressing present. If we do not passionately protect our children, we are squandering the goodwill of our international friends. This is our watch: Jamaica has a very bad name and the plight of our children is our shame.

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