By Cheryl Springer
The Caribbean Community’s much vaunted special conference on children has come and gone. It is now expected that member states will put measures in place that will eventually make this a region fit for children to live in. The Caricom Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) must be lauded for being bold enough to admit the obvious and for taking the first steps to change this.
Countries participating were also tacitly agreeing that they too needed to buckle down and turn things around. The fact is that with the exception of maybe two or three countries, the whole world falls into the category of being unfit for children. It is, quite possibly, at the worst it has ever been.
In some places, the situation is so extreme, it does not bear thinking of; children do not have the right to life. Babies born to mothers who are aware that they are HIV positive before they conceive, and who do not take the necessary and now readily available steps to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to them, are marked for death at birth.
While there is a chance that the child could be born virus free, or s/he might become a candidate for antiretroviral therapy, which offers years of reasonably good health, the way I see it, leaving it to chance might just be the single most selfish act there is in the world. There are others that come close. Such as putting a gun in a small child’s hands and turning her/him into a “soldier”. But none that, to me, can tip the scales where the former act is concerned.
It is amazing too, that children are the only people in the world for whom beating does not constitute a crime. Are children not human beings? Is there not something wrong with reasoning that allows a charge of assault to be filed against an adult who hits another adult, but allows that same adult to strike a child and call it discipline? It seems the concept here is that an adult is somehow superior to a child because s/he is older. Nonsense!
It is difficult, if not impossible for my mind to come to terms with the idea that a person could measure an intelligent being, who might be under ten years old against an illiterate one, who might be over 30 and find that the latter is superior simply because s/he has lived longer. Even if the child were not smarter, that does not make her/him less of an individual or less human. When you consider the fact that in some countries, people are prosecuted for striking an animal, surely this smacks of unfairness and the denial of a child’s human rights.
There are too many children who are still only called children because of their age. Forced to take up responsibilities way beyond their comprehension and maturity because of an absentee father, the death of a mother or just poor parenting, young children become ‘parents’ and guardians of younger siblings. In some cases, they are denied their right to education, as they have no choice but to leave school and either get a job, or take on the task of managing the home.
These are children to whom playing is alien, but because in many instances their brains have not yet made the leap to forced maturity, they become frustrated, querulous and will often physically abuse younger siblings. Girls in this position are prime candidates for teenage motherhood, beginning the vicious cycle all over again. The boys will tend to lean towards a life of crime and when and if they do become fathers – if they live long enough, that is – they too will be more likely to abandon their children, not having had any example of what a father’s role is.
Then there are the children who are sexually abused; sometimes by paedophiles who lurk in communities with an eye to luring them away from their homes or schools; sometimes by fathers, stepfathers, older siblings or other blood relations. The results of these encounters can so damage children that the predator might just as well have killed them and sometimes they do. There are instances where death is instantaneous, but at times, it is a long drawn out process of suffering and stigmatisation, as a result of HIV infection, sometimes knowingly passed on.
In the award-winning South African film Beat the Drum, the young protagonist’s female relative, is maybe nine years old when she is repeatedly raped by her HIV positive school master, who believes the myth that having sex with a virgin cures a man of the virus.
Asanda Mbetshe, an outspoken, young South African broadcast journalist, who I became acquainted with in November 2006, lamented the fact that what was portrayed in that drama was very real and still a significant problem in her country up to that point. While perhaps it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in this part of the world, young children are still being infected with HIV through sex.
The hurdles to be crossed in making this region and the world fit for children are myriad and difficult but not insurmountable. We should start by first making our homes fit for children. They don’t have to be two-storey, lushly decorated mansions, but they must have that vital ingredient, love. Poet, author, educator, historian, actress and playwright, Dr Maya Angelou, said in her preface to the book Mending the World, that it would be hard for a parent to love a child, who came from that parent and looked like that parent, if s/he did not love her/himself.
Our children are not our property; they are individuals and we have been granted the divine opportunity to raise them to be responsible adults. Not everyone gets such an opportunity, those who do should ensure they do the very best job they can.