Alliance for Change (AFC) Parliamentarian Valerie Garrido-Lowe said yesterday that the party strongly condemns the situation where small children had to be fetching heavy wood to have their meals cooked at Kato, Region 8 and indicated that the issue was first raised two months ago.
She stated that the term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.
“The horrifying picture of little children under 12 years old and a few a little above, fetching large chunks of firewood from a far distance during school hours so that they may partake in a meal can be termed as child labour,” Garrido-Lowe said.
She said Councillor Nieem Gafoor had made inquiries into why the tractor could not fetch the wood and was told that education does not pay for fuel. She added that the councillor spoke about the incident since he came returned from the RDC meeting in Kato about two months ago and it was also brought up at a meeting last month in Mahdia in the presence of Minister of Local Government Ganga Persaud.
She added that because nothing was done about the situation the councillor took it to the press. Garrido-Lowe also stated that $1.2 billion were allocated in the budget for school feeding programmes and according to a reliable source this community-based feeding programme provides money for fuel. However, the community came to an agreement that it will contribute in whatever way to assist the programme. “Everything needed to cook, stipend to cooks, transportation, fuel to prepare the meals and detergents were budgeted for. They were also provided with monies to purchase a gas stove and freezer but this was some time ago. So, maybe they are not in working condition,” she said.
Region Eight Chairman Mark Crawford had told Stabroek News last week that he was unaware of the problem and it was not until it was highlighted in the media that he learnt of what had happened. However, he said he has since learned that the episode occurred months ago.
He added that the councillor was a miner and perhaps took the pictures when he was in the Kato area on a personal visit and chose to visit the media when he came to the city recently to also undertake personal business.
Yesterday, Chief Education Officer Olato Sam said that while he did not support “the use of our children to fetch logs to prepare meals”, he “would have expected… that a thorough investigation would have been done to ascertain the circumstances surrounding this issue prior to publishing this story.”
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Sam said the article, which was published in the Kaieteur News along with a front page photograph, would have been of significant relevance if it were established whether the fetching of logs by children was the normal practice or a one-off incident. If it was the latter, he said, the “causal factors” should have been investigated. These factors, he said include whether it was “happening in school feeding programmes elsewhere and/or what are the experiences, whether positive or negative, occurring within the constructs of this programme nationwide.”
The “deeper implications” for this and other types of programmes “for the way we prepare our young people within the context of limited resources and the clear needs of our population”, also would have needed examining, he said.
Whether there was a correlation between improved attendance rate and the school feeding programme, was another causal factor that he cited. Sam said the absence of such information, “entertains the possibility of potentially harmful conjecture, which can damage a well-established success story within the education system.”
He questioned what would be the implications for the children whose pictures were published for the world to view and whether the “circumstances warrant and justify any potential harm this might bring to them”.
The implications for the programme, which has been funded for years by a multi-national funding agency, “within the constructs of our need for such future support to effectively meet the needs of the less fortunate in this society,” was also not considered, Sam said.
He questioned what objective was served by the publication of the story.
Sam said in his statement that such questions must be asked when issues with such deep implications for our nation’s children are to be addressed in the media. “I feel, probably because of my professional bias, that when we are dealing with the nation’s children we must ask these questions and be honest with the answers. At the end of the day it would be a shame to know that the number of papers we sell, and the ‘online readership’ numbers we quote, are our only motivation,” the statement said.
On April 17, kitchen staff at the school noted that they were short of firewood and asked the teacher in charge Andrea Pereira to mobilise the children to gather same from a clump of bush about half a mile away.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Priya Manickchand had announced last Wednesday that a country-wide investigation of the national school feeding programme was underway to ensure what happened in Kato was an isolated case.
“At no time should children be asked to fetch firewood, water or engage in any programme-related activity that could be deemed as exploitation of children,” Manickchand said, while noting that it was agreed upon by the community, in a signed document prior to the commencement of the programme that parents would be asked to contribute firewood for cooking.