Wednesday 19th April, 2006

 

Archaic laws killing real progress

Children crying out for help

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Sean Luke

T&T has an advantage over the rest of the Caribbean. With our oil and gas reserves, projections of economic growth and burgeoning industries, the country rests comfortably atop the pile of rapidly progressing nations.

In T&T, as compared to other Third World countries, children are not “under attack.”

Rather, we face the afflicting condition of children growing older without experiencing a childhood.

Our social circumstance is not as extreme as armed conflicts which draw children into civil wars, or political regimes that force families to flee for the sake of preserving life. Or is it?

We face a pervasive scenario that cannot be revealed by world indexes, or regional statistics unless one is willing to read between the lines, do the math, or is jolted out of a position of comfort by a tragic incident.

For many, the recent murder of six-year-old Sean Luke has once again shone the spotlight on members of our society often overlooked—children.

The United Nations define childhood “as the state and condition of a child’s life,” in essence, the quality of years spent between the ages zero and 18.

How are our children’s lives progressing?

T&T joined 191 countries in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, therein pledging to be the “protector” of our nation’s children.

Reporter Cordielle Street will take a look at the status of our children approximately 15 years after the convention.

Have the aims of the convention been brought to life by the Government and society alike or is it nothing more than dried ink on paper?

The quandary in which T&T finds itself is not one unique to the world, but it is one unshared by many in the Caribbean.

T&T is “oil rich” but “society poor.”

None bear the brunt of this contradiction more than children.

They rest uncomfortably and unheard at the lower tier of society’s pecking order, only to be seen when one of these vulnerable people are gravely violated or killed.

As the law stands, colonial-era legislations continue to dictate modern-day life.

Meant to govern a few thousand, these laws still reign over progressive treaties signed and sealed by past and present governments.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to date, remains the most ratified human rights document in the world.

Nevertheless, much of the rights outlined in the CRC have yet to become a reality for children today.

Belize stands as the only Commonwealth country to incorporate the CRC into national law.

Fifteen years later, the simple ideology that “children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity” is yet to be reflected legally, politically or socially.

WHO IS A CHILD

Article one of the CRC states a child is any human being below the age of 18.

In T&T, this is more a generally understood norm than a legal proclamation.

The Children’s Authority Act 2000, which would empower the edict, remains un-proclaimed by the President.

Therefore, existing law dictates a child can be looked at as one 16 years and under.

Ironically, for the sake of prosecution in cases under the sexual offences act, a child is one that has yet to achieve the age of 18.

In the juvenile courts in the United States, a study revealed that more than 91 per cent of children standing trial were between the ages of 12 and 17.

This state of confusion in the law is but one of the muddled scenarios through which children manoeuvre.

CHILDREN’S AUTHORITY ACT

Even without a legally supported definition, most children in T&T have benefited one way or the other from the CRC adopted on December 5, 1991.

While the Children’s Authority Act would, for the first time, bring a definitive and encompassing body catering solely to the needs of children, there have been snippets of law reform inclusive of minors.

Yet a concern remains that 15 years later, the Caribbean has not adequately addressed the general principles of the CRC and have reacted fragmentally to issues concerning children.

PROMOTING HEALTHY LIVES

The promotion of healthy lives for children is an ambitious and wide-ranging goal. There are about 197 million children living in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Under the CRC, the government has pledged (article 24) to recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.

Regionally, the Caribbean has achieved near universal immunisation of children.

This has been reinforced in T&T by the requirement that a child must be immunised in order to attend school.

When the causes of infant and childhood deaths in the Caribbean are examined, according to the State of the World’s Children report 2005, many are found to be preventable and or easily treatable.

It is often routine for newspaper articles to highlight the plight of families seeking “assistance” from the public towards medical attention for an ailing child.

Intervention by the state in these cases are often individualistic, while the issues behind the inability of public facilities to cater to these needs are often unaddressed.

Waiting lists for surgeries at public hospitals, even life-saving ones, are long and over transcribed.

Yet restricting a “healthy lifestyle” to mean access to excellent healthcare is detrimental to the state of a child.

Childhood requires “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development”—CRC article 27.

Therefore, childhood becomes directly linked to the level of education, the earning ability, the societal standing and even the gender of their main caregiver.

Studies have shown that poverty tends to be higher among single parent, female-headed households.

In T&T and throughout the wider Caribbean, we are seeing an increase in single-parent households. More than 19 per cent of households nationwide are headed by single mothers.

PROVIDING QUALITY EDUCATION

Enrolment in primary schools nationwide has achieved a high of over 90 per cent. However, education remains compulsory in T&T only to the age 12.

State schools are free, many private schools are assisted and tertiary level education has now joined the ranks of 100 per cent government-funded.

Overcrowding remains a constant problem and is now joined by disturbing reports of sexual abuse and student violence.

Eighty cases of reported sexual abuse have been received from 60 of 480 primary schools, according to the Ministry of Education’s 18-month-old Student Support Services Division.

New trend of sexual altercations amongst infant children in schools reported.

In T&T, learning disabilities ranked second amongst disorders in school children.

Most schools are not equipped to facilitate physically-disabled students.

Teenage mothers make up yet another category of children that are falling through the gaps of education by not returning to schools post-pregnancy.

The school has now taken on roles once reserved for the family group.

Education has grown to mean more than “reading, writing, arithmetic.”

In addition to teachers and principals, social workers, guidance counsellors, nurses and family health life educators are roles that need to be fulfilled according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Bearing the brunt of neglect, however, are mentally and physically-disabled children, who, under the CRC, “should enjoy a full and decent life” in conditions which promote “self-reliance.”

Of sweeping significance is the little known fact that the most prevalent disability in children in the Caribbean was difficulty in learning.

There are no reliable statistics on sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of children in the Caribbean.

At present, the judicial system is taking a harsher stance on acts of sex with a minor and more cases of sexual molestation especially within the homes are being reported as society becomes sensitised to these issues.

The problem of child sexual abuse is worsened by the reluctance of parents, guardians, caregivers, teachers and other professionals to report it—Unicef.

In the Caribbean, 48 per cent of females and 32 per cent of males between the ages of 10 and 25 reported forced sexual initiation.

The age for sexual consent in T&T still remains fairly low, at 14 years for girls and 16 years for boys.

Intercourse by a woman with a 16-year-old boy is only punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Sexual abuse has taken precedent over other types of abuse and exploitation when pertaining to children.

Physical abuse is still within a shadow realm, as society traditionally supports corporal punishment.

There is no comprehensive government policy on child labour and minimum age remains at 14.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in T&T remains at seven years of age.

A Paho study revealed many young people reported a history of violence in their lives.

In the Caribbean, one in five boys and one in eight girls say that they have belonged to a gang, according to the study.

In 2005, 25 children under the age of 18 were murdered in T&T.

COMBATTING HIV/AIDS

Every day, about 1,700 children become infected with HIV worldwide.

Nearly half of all new infections are reported in the age group 15 to 24.

This does not discount the susceptibility of newborns to contracting the disease from mothers unable to access anti-retroviral therapy.

The effects on children who may be orphaned due to a parent or both parents dying from the disease are yet to be fully explored.

The debate over children being allowed access to information on sex, HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted disease in schools continues to remain highly contentious and controversial.

A Survey of Caribbean adolescent have shown that more than 40 per cent had their first sexual experience before 10.

More than 50 per cent reported that they did not use any form of contraception during their last sexual encounter.

From 2001 to 2005, there was a 48 per cent decrease in reported Aids cases in T&T.

More than 15,940 HIV/Aids cases recorded in T&T since 1983.

The Government pledged to reduce HIV prevalence amongst young people (15 to 24) by 25 per cent by 2010.

NGOs continue to lobby the Government for the introduction of age sensitive family life and health education in schools.

Losing one or both parents to Aids-related complications make children more vulnerable to HIV, according to Technical Director of the National Aids Co-ordinating Committee Dr Amery Browne.

 

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