Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Child’s month 2016 has ended. Disturbingly, we are still reeling from the very harrowing and heart rending stories which emerged regarding the state of our children. The nation was shocked during the week of May 9 upon hearing of the murders of two students. One student was from Hopewell High School and the other from Oracabessa High School. The theme chosen this year was “Healthy Children Build a Stronger Nation”. As a society we have been found wanting with regards to keeping the nation’s children safe. We have turned away from the principle of it takes a village to raise a child and have become insular and selfish. Disturbingly, this change of values has removed the safety net from under the feet of our children. These shifts in values and attitude have opened the doors for child abusers to have an almost free reign regarding the abuse of our children. On April 27, 2016 when we woke to the horrific news that three year Leashay Thomas was killed by her father and her body dumped. The society was outraged and rightly so. Sadly, the Jamaican society lacks the sustained advocacy which in other jurisdictions is able to galvanize support and encouragement necessary to bring about meaningful change.
Since the Office of Children Registry was established in 2007 more than 47,000 reports of child abuse cases have been reported. This is a drop in the bucket; one could argue the number is probably twice since there is no way to account for unreported child abuse cases. Child abuse manifests itself in many ways such as physical, emotional, sexually and neglect. Child neglect is a form of maltreatment related to the failure to provide needed, age-appropriate care. It is probably safe to say that more children suffer from neglect than from physical and sexual abuse combined. Conversely, neglect as a form of child abuse has received significantly less attention that physical and sexual abuse. Under the Child Care and Protection Act a maximum sentence of three years can be imposed if convicted of child neglect.
It bears thought that the punishment given to those convicted of child neglect is rather insufficient and speaks to a popular mindset that child neglect is not as serious as other forms of child abuse. This is an area needing more consideration if it is that we are serious about safeguarding our children from exploitation.
During Child’s Month a series of four Keep Children Safe fora were held to discuss issues and arrive at solutions regarding how best to keep our children safe. The last in the series was held at Knutsford Court Hotel where online exploitation of children was discussed. There were representatives from the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), Counterterrorism and Organized Crime Investigation Branch- (C-TOC) Communications, Forensic and Cybercrime Division, the Children’s Advocate, UNICEF Jamaica and scores of students as well as other stakeholders. The stores of child abuse were horrific and mind shattering and revealed a high level of depravity and a culture of silence in the society which facilities numerous child abuses cases to go unreported.
The forum also highlighted the hard work of state agencies in responding to, prosecuting and providing support for those youngsters who have become victims of child abuse. It is amazingly to see how much is achieved by these agencies with limited resources. We tend to believe that only girls are victims, however, boys too are preyed upon by adult women for sexual favours. It bear thought that given our culture and socialization process boys who fall victims of child abuse by women are unlikely to report such matters until and unless something seriously occurs, for example, they contracting a sexual transmitted infection (STI).
Our culture of silence to report instances of child abuse is just as strong as the “Informa fi dead” culture which prevents us carrying out our civic responsibility as law abiding citizens. There are multiple factors regarding causes of child abuse in Jamaica. Among the causes is the culture of tolerance for the abuse of the rights of children. As a society we have moved away from the notion of a collective protection of all children. This is very troubling and provides a window to those among us with evil and sinister intentions toward our children.
Distressingly, in spite of legislation, such as the Child Care and Protection Act of 2004 too many instances of child abuse go unreported. Under this Act there are inflexible fines for breaches. Under Section 6 ii, a fine not exceeding $500,000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both maybe applied if convicted for failure to report child abuse. There is an urgent need for a more sustained public education campaign regarding the Child Care and Protection Act to inform the society of their responsibilities towards this very important piece of legislation.
Additionally, the tough economic conditions, as well as, a dysfunctional family life have all contributed to a cycle and culture of child abuse. Affordable housing is also another contributing factor of child abuse. In too many instances our children are exposed to adults having sexual relations due to the cramp living conditions a significant number of Jamaican families experience. In many instances our children’s innocence and virginity are used as dowry to acquire material possessions by parents, shockingly by mothers too.
The Secret Gardens Monument, located in downtown Kingston, was erected to record the names of Jamaica’s children killed under violent and tragic circumstances. This is an ever present reminder of the callousness of some adults in the society. Chillingly, the nation was informed that 664 names were recorded to date and that space was running out for additional names. Amidst the mayhem our children face is the ongoing discourse between pro and against lobby groups regarding content in sex education literature. The advocacy group against the literature has called for a review of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Health and Family Life Education curricula. Let us not fool ourselves; for the most part our children’s views of sexuality and gender identity are not acquired from a classroom. Children are exposed to social media which is largely responsible for informing our children about sexuality. We live in a digital age where information on all subject matter is just a click away.
Parents have an awesome responsibility to provide care and protection for their children. Parents also need to empower themselves by acquiring some form of digital literacy in order to monitor their children online presence and activity. No parent should provide a Smartphone or any other communication device to his/her child while ignorant of the skills to surf the internet. Our children are smart, and usually they are one step ahead of parents and guardians with familiarity with chat room acronyms. Among the popular ones are, “Dwl” meaning dead with laugh, “Pos” which means parents over shoulder, “Ttyl” meaning, talk with you later and “Smh” meaning shake my head.
Ananda Alert was established in May 19, 2009. The programme was named after Ananda Dean who went missing in September of 2008; her body was found after a 2 weeks search. The Ananda Alert child recovery strategy is a very useful tool but more can be done to enhance its effectiveness. It would be meaningful if those state agencies responsible for the Ananda Alert were to utilize social media more, for example (Facebook and Twitter).
We need to expand the circle of Jamaicans committed to ending child abuse and violence. It is important to engender a culture of trust between child and parent in safeguarding children and building a stronger nation.
In the words of Henry Ward, child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
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