Betty Ann Blaine | Failing the children: a call to action!
With a little over 700,000 children up to age 18 living in our country, and with a superministry and a host of other governmental agencies, one would think that the state of the Jamaican child population would be satisfactory.
The opposite is true.
Available statistics support the grim reality of the degree to which the nation is failing our youngest and, arguably, most vulnerable citizens.
Data provided by UNICEF in its analysis of excluded children in Jamaica tell much of the story.
While only 37 per cent of Jamaicans are children, almost one of every two Jamaicans who live in poverty is a child. According to UNICEF, “These are the most in need: the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the abused. They are currently beyond the reach of research, government programmes, and budgets.”
Among a variety of statistics in its 2018 Overview of Jamaican Children, UNICEF reports that approximately 85 per cent of Jamaican children experience some form of psychological or physical violence administered through discipline, including in schools, where corporal punishment is still legal.
As far as sexuality and sexual crimes are concerned, UNICEF reports that one in four adolescent girls aged 15-19 have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Teenage pregnancy, the report concludes, is 12 times more likely for girls from the poorest households, with 70 births per 1,000 born to adolescents 15-19 years old.
Statistics from our own government sources are equally damning.
Quoting figures from the police and from the Child Protection and Family Services Agency, there were close to 13,000 reported cases of child abuse within the first eight months of 2018. Of that number, 230 children were impregnated as a result of sexual assault. Add to those statistics double-digit murders each year, and the countless other atrocities against children, and the picture being painted is indeed very bleak.
Equally alarming is the persistent problem of missing children, and one which Hear The Children’s Cry has been tracking for the past 10 years.
In 2009, there were no reports of missing children in the parishes of St Thomas, Portland, St Mary and Hanover. Today, children are being reported missing from all 14 parishes. In fact, the police report that children are going missing at a rate of one every six hours. In other words, four children per day.
Although most of the children return home, approximately 20 per cent are described as ‘unaccounted for’, month after month, and year after year. Some of those who were reported missing have been murdered.
Home visits in relation to missing children, undertaken by Hear The Children’s Cry under its Runaway Prevention Programme, continues to reveal the broad swatch of problems children are faced with in their day-to-day lives. Inhumane living conditions, including overcrowded sleeping space, lack of basic amenities, i.e,. running water, toilet facilities, etc, as well as other poverty-related dysfunctions are common.
Then there is the issue of the gaps and disparities in education. Given the myriad of problems children face, it can come as no surprise that a large percentage of them are underperforming in school.
In an article published in The Gleaner on June 24, 2018, former Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites described the situation as “a crisis in education and training which is self-delusion to ignore”.
Thwaites cited figures showing that 60 per cent of 12-year-olds are falling below the minimum standard in mathematics, while 45 per cent of the same age cohort lack sufficient command of the English language.
Information provided by UNICEF tells us that 50,249 adolescents of secondary-school age are out of school, 60 per cent of whom are boys. The problem is compounded by the 38,000 children between five and 17 years of age working in hazardous child labour conditions, most of them also being males.
There is no longer any denying or delaying the fact that Jamaican children have become an endangered species. The monument in downtown Kingston that is dedicated to children who have died violently and tragically is completely out of space, not even having room for those who have perished over the past three years.
Gov’t response needed
It must be clear to all of us that the crisis of our children deserves an urgent and dedicated response. Our nation just cannot continue to fail the children in this way.
The long arm of government needs to reach out across party lines and across its network of ministries, agencies, the private sector and civil society to devise and implement a National Plan of Action for Children that will ensure unity of purpose, planning and practice, and will achieve a joined-up, collaborative approach to serving the nation’s youngest.
Among the first tasks should be the commissioning of an islandwide child and youth audit to secure critical information about the status of children in each household. Workable solutions cannot be found without accurate and reliable data. A logical place to start is in those zones of special operations, where some degree of security and structure is already in place.
Harnessing the political will and bipartisan support, as well as collaboration from all major sectors and stakeholders, including parents, I am certain that we can fix the problems affecting our children in short order.
This is a call to action!