Guyana’s Children…A Neglected Lot?

By The Caribbean Voice

The Caribbean Voice is a New York-based NGO that has been involved in social activism since its launch in 1998.

As The Caribbean Voice and the almost fifty NGOs, Faith-based Organizations (FBO), Community Based Organizations (CBO) partners in Voices Against Violence focus on child abuse during the month, we highlight some alarming trends:

Increasing Abuse: During the first two months of 2017, 765 cases of child abuse were reported (428 girls, 337 boys), an increase of 13 over the corresponding period last year. Abuse included physical, sexual, abandonment and forced labor and the ages ranged from toddler to late teens. 337 mothers were accused of abusing their children, followed by 162 fathers, 44 stepparents, 19 grandparents, seven siblings and 55 persons unknown to the child. Perpetrators also included other relatives and guardians.

It is imperative that child protection officers be deployed nationwide as a first step to address this growing problem. Widespread parent education is also necessary and this can be done through schools in collaboration with FBOs and CBOs. Training of gatekeepers in every community is also needed, as they would be able to proactively engage parents and respond to signs of abuse and so we once again urge the government to bring back the Gatekeeper’s Training Programme. It is also critical that the community, neighbours in particular, make it their business to report abuse to the appropriate agencies.

We also applaud the move to appoint an inspector of homes to work with the current 66 children’s home to get them up to minimum standards before operating licences are granted. We fervently hope that this individual will put children first and not be influenced by politics or other considerations that can sidetrack or negatively impact his/her work.

Sexual abuse, parental neglect and victim blaming: While recent figures are not available, empirical data indicates an increase in child sexual molestation. That Guyana has the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Caribbean is due in part to sexual abuse of teenagers. Additionally, children are often trafficked to work in prostitution. Amerindian girls are particularly vulnerable, with girls as young as 12 working as prostitutes.

More than two-thirds of sexual assault occur in victims’ homes, with three out of four perpetrators known to victims and one in every five perpetrators related to victims. Fathers, stepfathers and father-figures are responsible for over 67% of family-related sexual violence. Yet there is a growing trend whereby mothers support their partners who sexually abuse their children and blame the children for the abuse.

As one local media outlet indicated recently, “..most incidents occur in the family, so the abuse is either buried deep or parents/guardians refuse to believe the victim.” Thus “the abuser is emboldened to repeat the behaviour while he or she unfortunately remains anonymous.”

The highest profile case is that of Neesa Gopaul whose mother reportedly watched as her lover murdered her daughter and dumped the body in a creek. More recently there was the case of a man who molested his eight-year-old stepdaughter. After the perpetrator was sentenced to imprisonment the child’s mother reportedly told her that she should have died.

In 2012 and 2013, approximately 10,000 children directly benefitted from the Tell Scheme, a sensitization programme to tackle sexual abuse of children. The Caribbean Voice strongly urges bringing back the Tell Scheme or something similar and implementing it in schools across Guyana. Also the Childcare Protection Agency should immediately start its proposed empowerment programme to target adolescent girls.

As well, we echo the call by a number of stakeholders for a comprehensive sexual education programme to be launched in schools. Also, we call for specific legislation to combat child sexual exploitation and a registry of sexual offenders. The Caribbean Voice currently has an online petition calling for such a registry and we plead with all readers to please log on, sign the petition (https://www.change.org/p/president-of-the-republic-of-guyana-establish-a-registry-for-all-sex-offenders or the link at the bottom of the index page of on our website –www.caribvoice.org) and share as widely as possible. Printed forms are available on request.

Child Labour: The child labour rate in Guyana is 16.4%, the highest in Latin America and Caribbean. Children in Guyana work in mining, fishing, construction, forestry, welding, agriculture, prostitution, domestic service and on the streets (as beggars or vendors). They are exposed to hazards, including lifting and carrying heavy loads, working with pesticides and other toxic chemicals, using dangerous tools and unsafe equipment and are vulnerable to severe weather, traffic accidents, crime and malnutrition. As well, the practice of sending children from poor rural families to live with wealthier relatives or friends in urban areas sometimes results in domestic servitude and sexual abuse. Now, with increasing unemployment from closure of some sugar estates, it is estimated that tens of thousands of children will be affected with many forced to drop out of schools and engage in child labour. To combat child labour, government must craft a comprehensive policy to include revamped legislation to fully protect children, provision of law enforcement with funding and capacity to enforce child labour laws and targeted social programmes to fully address the impacting factors.

Bullying: A few years ago, 14-year-old Kester De Agrella of Charity High School reportedly hung himself in the school bathroom. His parents were convinced that bullying triggered his suicide. There have been many other instances where children have suffered serious injuries at the hands of school bullies or other violent children including 10-year old, Rosanne Harris who died after being kicked in the stomach by her classmate in March. Also, there have been videos on social media of physical fights between students. Only recently, a 14-year-old was stabbed in the neck by another student, during a fight.

Meanwhile we were flabbergasted by the Director of the Childcare and Protection Agency’s statement, “that abused children are usually the ones who act out in school.” There are a variety of factors that lead to bullying and abused children is far behind factors such as family dysfunction, intimate partner violence; powerlessness, social rejection, academic failure, lack empathy, punitive home atmosphere and others. Alarmingly too is that bullied victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.

It is imperative that the Ministry of Education carry out a nation-wide study to determine the core issues that lead to bullying and then adapt a national anti-bullying strategy to target students of all ages.  The strategy should include an awareness campaign across schools; firm school-wide rules with appropriate measures to deal with bullying and programmes to promote self-esteem, peer acceptance and mutual respect.

Child Marriages: A 2006 Guyana government/UNICEF report/survey revealed that:

— 6% of children are married by the age of 15, while 23% are married by the age of 18.

— 28% of 15-19 year old Amerindians women were in a marriage or similar union at the time the research was carried out as were 21% of East Indian women and 5% of African women in the same age group.

— Child marriage is most prevalent among the poorest 40% of households, rural communities, and girls who only had a primary school education.

— Child brides are more likely to be married to men who are 5-9 years older.

Since Guyana is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there needs to be amendments to the law, to raise the age of consent to 18 years to match the legal adult age. In fact, the recent Meeting of Caribbean Youth Leaders on sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS called for this alignment to enable young people to access sexual and reproductive health services. The Caribbean Voice currently has an online petition calling for this and we urge readers to log on (ttps://www.change.org/ p/hon-president-david-granger-of-guyana-we-urge-you-to-raise-the-age-of-consent-in-guyana-to-18-years?recruiter=11079902&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink) or via the link at the bottom of our website index page – caribvoice.org – and support by signing and sharing as widely as possible. Printed forms are also available by request.

Guyana should also bring all national legislation in line with the provisions of the convention. Police, the judiciary, social workers and other stakeholders must be trained to investigate, prevent, remedy and prosecute cases effectively. Government must focus on active policing and involvement in areas where child marriages are most likely to take place. Effective prosecution of adult husbands for statutory rape can serve as a deterrent to marrying underage girls.

As well, government must expand support services for girls in rural communities including scholarships and other opportunities that will keep them in school long term. Parents and community leaders should also be involved in the education process in order to effect an attitudinal change towards child marriage. And government should provide social services that reach out to former child brides to prevent them from falling into the social traps they are most predisposed to, such as poverty and domestic violence. One such service could be night school programmes, to allow former child brides to finish their education.

Other Issues: Not only is adequate training lacking for teachers but there are also limited resources to deliver proper lessons to children with special education needs according to President of the Guyana Teachers Union, Mr. Mark Lyte. We therefore urge that special-education teachers be trained and deployed in schools across Guyana and that schools implement a process to diagnose special needs students and craft Individualized Education Plans for them. Additionally, The Caribbean Voice once again indicates our willingness to provide a pro bono workshop to train selected teachers (who can turnkey the training to their colleagues nationwide) to tackle violence and address the needs of challenged students.  Our trainers include classroom management experts, counselors/psychologists and experts in special needs students. Meanwhile we reiterate our call for counselors in schools to be implemented.  In the meantime, counselors attached to the Ministry of Health should be deployed as visiting school counselors on an intermittent basis and government social workers in the various regions can also be used to this end.

The Caribbean Voice can be contacted via email at caribvoice@aol.com or phone at 644 1152, 646 4669. Our website is www.caribvboice.org.

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