We have failed our children
Over the past few weeks, there has been a plethora of incidents reported in the media concerning our youth being abused or killed. Two pregnant 14-year-old girls were murdered, Three children were burnt to death after being locked in a house by their uncle.
A four-year-old girl and a young boy were sodomised. Adults turned up at a school to beat up a third-grader. A young woman was found naked and chained in a cellar. A traffic warden was shot outside a school,
Schoolchildren became ill and were sent home after being enveloped by smoke from the Riverton City dump fire. And the sexual abuse of children by clergy was exposed in a front-page article in The Gleaner.
Growing up in Jamaica isn't easy. Our children are bombarded by physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse. Jamaica's teenage pregnancy rate is among the highest in the region. Eighteen per cent of pregnancies in Jamaica occur among teens, and many of those responsible for the impregnation are grown men, sometimes even relatives or persons in positions of power and leadership in this country. But arrests for sexual activity with underage children are few and far between.
Sadly, in many instances, communities protect predators, girls are pimped out by parents for economic gain, and some of our youth end up being trafficked.
We continually expose our children to inappropriate sexual content. Bootleg DVD vendors display their wares with graphic images on sidewalks, and irresponsible bus drivers blast X-rated lyrics from their speakers while 'ductors' pursue schoolers for their sexual pleasure. All this while age-appropriate and necessary sex education is withheld by prudish, myopic and ill-advised administrators who appear to have little understanding of adolescent sexuality.
The average age of first sex for our boys is 14 years, and 16 years for our girls. According to the National Family Planning Board, almost half of sexually active females between the ages of 15 and 24 report being coerced into having sex at the time of their first encounter. Without being equipped with knowledge of family-planning methods, many would not be in a position to take measures to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The abstinence-only approach to sex education is unrealistic and ineffective.
Our educational system, overall, leaves a lot to be desired, with some of our educators themselves in need of education. I have heard a teacher who teaches language arts tell me about a "cerfitickit", and I've seen a literacy teacher spell the name of her school incorrectly on a form.
The disparity in quality among schools is enormous, and an unacceptable culture of compulsory extra lessons has crept into several institutions in our educational system, as teachers fail to administer prescribed curricula during school hours.
A friend of mine informed me that she was told by teachers at her daughter's school that she is obliged to pay for extra classes, and her daughter is only in grade three. And the large gender gap of young people matriculating for tertiary-level education persists as our young men continue to be left behind, with female students filling the majority of spaces in most faculties of our universities.
Our places of safety for children are cause for concern. Families of victims of the Armadale conflagration are yet to be compensated, and we have seen serious issues at several other homes, some of which have had to close, while the iconic Alpha Boys' Home had to cease boarding its youngsters. Meanwhile, too many children are out on the streets during school hours hustling or begging, as we post a high ranking in the region for truancy.
We often set up our children for failure before they are even born. Women all too often knowingly allow themselves to be impregnated by men that they know will not stick around or will be poor role models for their children. And of the many absent fathers, only a minority are dragged to court and made to pay up.
Our nation's leaders continue to set bad examples for our youth. With our endemic corruption, dishonest and unethical behaviour among our politicians is rarely followed by appropriate consequences, sending a message to our youth that the 'a nuh nuttn mentality' is okay, and also helps to fuel voter apathy in the younger generation.
Why is all this important? Because raising a traumatised, scarred and neglected children sets us up to be nation led by dysfunctional individuals in the not too-distant future.
It is up to the adults among us to intervene and break the cycle. How can we do this? We must nurture, affirm, discipline and show love and respect to our children. We must report - and not turn a blind eye to - injustices such as abuse, neglect and exploitation. We must be proactive.
We must get involved in mentorship programmes and join children's advocacy groups and apply pressure to the Government to urgently address issues adversely affecting our kids. For example, the Child Care and Protection Act is to be reviewed, as is the Adoption Act, as persons have been known to wait for more than a decade before being able to adopt a child.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act, which would facilitate the investigation of institutions exploiting our children by engaging them in child labour, needs to be passed.
Also, the issue of sex education must be addressed.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Among other issues, this treaty recognises access to age-appropriate sex education for children to be a right. Our Government ratified the treaty, but shows little interest in travelling down this road.
If the Government can fast-track legislation to enable us to pass IMF tests, it can do so for child-welfare matters.
As a nation, we have failed our children miserably and ought to hang our heads in shame. If we continue on our present trajectory, Jamaica is doomed. We all need to not just speak out, but to act - and act promptly.