Yesterday UNICEF launched its annual publication ‘State of the World’s Children’ with Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy delivering the feature address, even as many in this country and the diaspora grappled mentally with what had recently been the fate of four innocents virtually left adrift in the floodwater at Pine Ground, Mahaicony Creek, East Coast Demerara. Stabroek News reporter Shabna Ullah more or less stumbled on them as she had gone to cover flood issues at Mahaicony when their great-uncle, much perturbed at their situation drew it to her attention.
From the time this newspaper first published the story in its Sunday edition this week, to today, there has been a groundswell of sympathy and support, mostly for the Pooranmal children, aged 10, 9, 8 and 7 years old. Minister of Human Services and Social Security Priya Manickchand acted with alacrity, sending a team to Pine Ground the very next day and removing the vulnerable and neglected quartet from the despicable conditions under which they existed.
Kudos have been given and rightfully so to Ms Manickchand for the swift way in which she acted. It has since been revealed that the children, who sometimes subsisted on only tea made of lime leaves, and whose heads were infested with vermin (it is hoped that this is no longer the case) had been taken for medical checks. Sadly, 10 years ago, there was no one to act on behalf of the mother of these children, who became pregnant while still a child herself at 12 years of age.
Interestingly, the 2009 State of the World’s Children report has as its focus ‘Maternal and newborn health.’ A section of the report, which deals with teenage pregnancy reads: “Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are an important cause of mortality for girls aged 15–19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths annually. In addition to delaying pregnancy, studies show that educated mothers are more likely to immunize their children, be better informed about nutrition, and use improved birth spacing practices. Their children tend to have higher survival rates and better nutrition.
“Child marriage, a violation of rights according to international conventions and many national laws, can rob girls of their opportunities for schooling and lead to pregnancies at younger ages. The younger a girl is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the health risks for herself and her baby. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. Moreover, if a mother is younger than 18, her infant’s risk of dying before reaching age one is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. Even if the child survives, he or she has a greater likelihood of suffering from low birth weight, under-nutrition, and late physical and cognitive development.”
These are well-known facts; none of this is new information. Moreover, medical personnel – nurses, doctors, midwives and medexes − would have such information at their fingertips, even if the rest of the nation was unaware. One wonders then, how and why people practising medicine who have taken an oath to save lives do absolutely nothing when a child – a girl under the age of 16 – presents herself before them pregnant. Is there no automatic mechanism which demands that the authorities be informed when this happens? And even if there isn’t, how is it that no one’s sensibilities were offended enough to do something, anything, to prevent an uneducated child from having not one but 4 children by the time she attained the age of 16?
With regard to the children after their mother left, the two who had attended school while she was there dropped out. There is supposed to be a mechanism in the education system which provides for its welfare division to be informed when a child suddenly stops attending school. Had this mechanism worked, someone would have gone knocking at their door and these children’s plight would have been discovered a long time ago.
In addition and more recently, in the wake of the floods, health officials as well as other teams from the government and NGO sectors visited these areas. This newspaper learned that the Pooranmal children received a food hamper and it was items from this hamper that 10-year-old Anita Pooranmal used to prepare a meal of boiled rice and curried potatoes for her father and siblings on the day this newspaper visited. Did no one, on any of these visits, notice the oh-so-obvious lack of parental care? Or is it that no one cared?
While Ms Manickchand has done the right thing by these children, this issue should not even have reached her desk. The minister has staff, welfare and probation officers and social workers, who should be handling these matters. What Minister Manickchand ought to do now is to investigate whether in fact the plight of these children had previously been brought to the attention of any of her officers and if this is the case then that person should be disciplined as the minister sees fit.
The case of the Pooranmal children is not an isolated one. There are many children falling through the chasms rent open by poverty and abuse on the one hand and apathy on the other.
There must be red alert systems that function like clockwork when it comes to caring for our children. State mechanisms set up to reduce their vulnerability must work, and it is the collective duty of those in authority to ensure that they do.