Region Eight councillor Neim Mohammed Gafoor, who publicised that Kato primary school children were made to carry logs for meals, is insisting that this has been a regular occurrence and that the distance travelled by the pupils was more than the half mile stated by the Regional Education Officer (ReDO).
Gafoor, an AFC representative on the Potaro/Siparuni Regional Democratic Council (RDC) earlier this month released photographs of the pupils carrying logs in April. His motives for releasing the photographs just two weeks ago have since been questioned.
Minister of Education Priya Manickchand subsequently commissioned a report on the matter from the ReDO, who said that the matter had been addressed by Local Government Minister Ganga Persaud during a visit to Kato after the April incident and that the distance trekked was just about half a mile. The report did not state if the children had ferried logs more than once.
In an interview with Stabroek News on Monday, Gafoor insisted that the use of the children to ferry logs was a regular occurrence and for a longer distance. Nothing was being done about the problem, he said, and this is why he decided to go public.
“Everything I say is true. I have videos. I have over 25 photographs to substantiate what I am saying,” Gafoor added. He said he has photos of multiple incidents.
The councilor, who represents the AFC, said that the children had to trek to a point behind the mountain and not half a mile away as the ReDO had reported. “These children have to walk where the big jungle is, they [children] couldn’t have gotten the wood from half a mile away,” Gafoor declared.
He maintained that the children frequently have to fetch the wood and that he had raised the issue a number of times but that the Ministry of Local Government never paid heed. “I have raised the issue with [Local Government] Minister Ganga Persaud and the ReDO, but they brushed the issue aside. They are always ignoring the RDC. It was brought up time and time but they never paid heed,” Gafoor said.
Manickchand at a press conference last week had said that the issue appeared to be an isolated one and that the issue of children fetching wood was never brought to the attention of the Ministry.
“Visits to the school are done regularly and this issue of children fetching wood to get meals was never brought to the attention of the Ministry of Education,” she said. Gafoor told Stabroek News that although the Ministry can say what it likes, he was not the only councilor present to see how terribly the children are suffering. “These children are always fetching wood. This incident did not happen one time.”
Local Government Minister Persaud, in an invited comment on Monday, told Stabroek News that action was indeed taken over the April incident and that the issue was also discussed in the presence of members of Parliament and other councillors.
He did not specify what that action was. Persaud also stated that the children were made to pose by Gafoor for the photos, an allegation that Gafoor has strongly denied.
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.
Manickchand at her press conference had also charged that the money had been paid for the photographs of the children carrying the logs. Gafoor says that he was not paid for the photographs.
“I took no money for the photographs. I wanted to publicise the plight of these children and show the public what grave injustice goes on in Kato”, he said.
Several questions have been raised as to why Gafoor and the council did not publicize the plight of the children in April rather than waiting until June 5th. As a councillor, observers say that while Gafoor was well within his right to provide information to the media, he appeared not to have made an attempt to approach the Education and Local Government ministries on the matter when he visited Georgetown. The observers note that his own regional chairman said that he was unaware of the matter.
ReDO Marcia Paddy-Andrews was ordered to report on the situation by Minister Manickchand in the aftermath of a news item in the June 5th edition of Kaieteur News, headlined ‘Hinterland Primary School students trek miles with logs for hot meals.’ Paddy-Andrews’ report stated that on April 17, 2013, members of the kitchen staff noted that they were out of firewood and asked the teacher in charge, Andrea Pereira to organise the children to aid in the gathering of firewood from a nearby clump of bushes. “The teacher agreed to same and gathered the children who came early to school to assist. As can be seen in the picture, the teacher supervised the children during this activity,” the report said.
Manickchand had announced 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.