There is so much I learned from my years in Guyana, but the lesson which had it’s biggest impact on me – my life, my career – was that youth are absolutely vital to creating and sustaining positive change. Today I read an article from Starbroek News (online) that reminded me of this lesson:
National Childrenâ€™s Conference
Stop the violence, children say
It was only three words ? stop the violence ? but when 120 Guyanese youths raised their voices to say enough is enough and â€œwe canâ€™t take it any moreâ€? it played like a chorus blasting from the Convention Centre at the Ocean View Hotel where the National Childrenâ€™s Confer-ence wrapped up after two full days of youth empowerment.
From the soft-spoken to the outspoken the youths assembled to say how tired they are of being neglected, physically abused, sexually molested, forced into early labour and left unprotected, among other things. They spoke directly to President Bharrat Jagdeo.
â€œMr President, we need more social workers to investigate what is happening with us across the country, we need harsher penalties for child molesters, we are asking you to drop food prices and please, stop the violence!â€?
Rueshanna Boyce of St Roseâ€™s High School captured their feelings in a gripping address on the opening day of the conference, which was organized by EveryChild Guyana in collaboration with Unicef and the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security.
â€œIf you love us will you hurt us, will you keep us away from school? Will you abuse us and cause us hurts and pains and will you allow us to be victims of child labour? We are loitering on the streets; we are being physically or sexually abused by a stepfather, grandfather, grandmother and worse our own parentsâ€¦Â it is obvious that these very adults who should be protecting us children, instead, protect the familyâ€™s image,â€? Boyce said.
Of major concern to the nationâ€™s youths is their protection. The issue of child protection was a recurring one during the two-day national conference, which drew children from across the country. The children pointed to their parents and teachers as their immediate protectors, but singled out government and their communities as important factors in child protection.
In her address to the conference, Boyce said that children are expected to rise above waking up to violence in the homes, being cuffed, kicked and screamed at, even hearing that they are dunces and good for nothings, and still feel good about themselves. She said that while some put up with it, others leave and live on the streets. But more importantly, she said they are making poor choices.
Where are our mentors? Boyce asked the question as did a host of other children who found the courage to speak up during the conference after initial moments of silence. They unanimously agreed that it is right to first seek out mentors in the home and at school and in their communities.
They are also looking around for role models. The children hope they can find Guyanese with integrity, caring spirits, love in their hearts and intelligence to fill these positions. Their optimism is ripe and according to one child, â€œwe need more role models other than mommy.â€?
Guyanese youths are also calling on the government to make additional provisions in the budget that will give them greater access to education, health care and social services. As they wrapped up the conference and started to present individual views, they called for a stronger education programme and more schools in the less fortunate areas.
â€œWe need more schools in regions nine and ten and not just that, but also better programmes that will allow children there to have the best education,â€? one child said while onstage articulating what he and his group of peers wanted to see happen.
Even the police were considered. The children said they hope for a police force that is more responsive to them, and they would also like to see more honest police officers. They called on members of the Guyana Police Force to stop taking bribes and for them to investigate matters more thoroughly before making arrests. Though this evoked laughter among some adults in the room, the children noted that they were being very serious.
The conference was aimed at empowering children across the country to speak out on issues affecting them and to stand up as advocates for child protection. Some of the children Stabroek News spoke with are eager to go back into their villages and speak out on the issues.
Omattie Seaforth, County Director of EveryChild Guyana, had noted that the compelling factor for the childrenâ€™s conference is the high incidence of violence and abuse that is perpetrated against children in the Guyanese society. She said that the idea behind the conference was that children would leave with a clear understanding of child protection issues and how to safeguard themselves.
Seaforth said she had hoped that the children would bring their dreams, hopes, fears, challenges and enthusiasm to the conference, in the spirit of bringing alive the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Human Services Minister Priya Manickchand, who spoke at the opening of the conference, re-affirmed her commitment to have legislation in place that protects the nationâ€™s children. She said that childrenâ€™s rights must be respected, but urged the youths to know what those rights are.