Last Sunday, when the world observed Universal Children’s Day, much of the focus was on children in conflict situations. These include children who have been displaced and endangered by wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan; by ongoing conflicts in Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo; by drug trafficking in Mexico and Colombia and by economic stringencies in much of the world, but particularly in Venezuela, right next door.

According to statistics gathered by UNICEF, in Syria alone there are some three million children who are either already out of school or at risk of dropping out. The children of refugees, who are at this minute either boarding a boat to flee their war-torn country or walking across a border somewhere to be free of bombings are losing valuable months of education. Those kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, forced or coerced by extremists into becoming suicide bombers or picking up arms are losing their lives. And all around the world, the children who are victims of paedophiles, human trafficking and physical abuse are losing their childhood every hour of every day.

In a statement issued in Guyana to mark the day, UNICEF, the United Nations organisation concerned with child rights, noted that there has been significant progress here and elsewhere in the world in terms of providing children with access to quality education and healthcare, and the reduction of child mortality. But it cautioned that violence and abuse continue to be areas of concern. Indeed, it is difficult to laud these advances when so many children remain at risk and some of them are right here in Guyana.

UNICEF, through its ongoing campaign #Fightunfair, advocates for a fair chance for every child, regardless of that child’s gender or the country or circumstances of his/her birth. It rightfully posits that this is the only way to bring about an equitable world. It therefore behooves each of us, at the very least, to speak out against and report abuse when and wherever we observe it and wherever we can help children or families in need.

While much work needs to be done to obliterate the worst of children’s plights to ensure they have a shot at life, it is important to remember that all of the rights bequeathed to children by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child must be observed. Indeed, the Declaration urges that children need “special safeguards and care” because of their “physical and mental immaturity,” but this does not mean adults have the right to impose their will on them, especially on older children. In fact, this must be guarded against because what some may posit as being in children’s best interests could well be infringing their rights.

A case in point is last week’s incident at Queen’s College, which saw a number of students protesting against the construction of a cafeteria on part of the land they utilize for practical application in Agricultural Science. The students, who were neither consulted nor informed, had used their lunch break on Thursday last to stage a protest and to remove the construction material which had been placed there.

This was a situation that could have been avoided if consideration were given to the students’ rights. And even though it has since been stated that there has been a ‘compromise’ on the issue, the fact is that the construction will go ahead as planned. What the students take away from this is that their rights can easily be trampled upon and that autocracy rules. What incentive do they then have to continue to pursue Agricultural Science, which in this country should rightfully be one of our core subjects? How will they in their interactions with their peers now and with others in the future, be persuaded to be equitable?

Minister of Education Dr Rupert Roopnaraine was quoted as saying, “We have to make sure that before we make any changes, we go through a thorough process of consultation with everyone. There was a breakdown in communication. There wasn’t sufficient consultation, not everyone was on board in relation to what needed to be done. When you attempt to put things in place, be sure that you do sufficient consultation right at the beginning so that when you implement anything, you have complete buy in and you can proceed. That was where a lot of the problem was.” But he was speaking of what should happen in the future, not about safeguarding students’ rights to continue their agricultural pursuits, some of which hinge on exams they have to write in about six months’ time.

Unfortunately, true consultation is the exception rather than the rule in this country. The general modus operandi of successive governments has been to act then announce that they have acted. Civil society seems to follow this mode so that children’s rights will also suffer and the cycle will continue. Things will only change when we stop paying lip service to the fact that children are the future and recognise that there will only be a better future when we do right by them.