'We live in fear': Children appeal to parliamentarians for protection
Ngozi Wright, 7, addressing Parliament on Tuesday. (Photos: Marlon Reid)
The nation’s children on Tuesday pleaded with parliamentarians to do more to end violence, especially that which directly affects them, during a historic sitting of the House of Representatives.
The sitting marked the first time children addressed the House and they did not hold back as they used the occasion to let politicians, including Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips, know the ills they suffer, often at the hands of adults.
Such ills included physical, verbal and sexual abuse, including incest.
The special session was held on the eve of World Children’s Day and marks the culmination of activities led by UNICEF throughout 2019, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC30), with a focus on violence against children.
Ten-year-old Keino King making his address to the House.
Seven-year-old Ngozi Wright, one-half of a twin, had one of the biggest voices on the day as she made her plea in both her prepared speech as well as a recital piece in which she condemned perverted older men who prey on young children.
“We are here today as advocates for a violence-free Jamaica. We love our country but we hate the violence that is hurting the bodies, minds and spirits of Jamaican children,” said the Southborough Primary School student to applause from parliamentarians.
“We hate the violence that is making children so afraid, the violence that is taking their lives,” Ngozi said.
Her twin brother, Tafari added: "Many of us are afraid to go to school, afraid to go home, afraid to go outside in our communities. We live in fear that we will be the next victims of violence."
Shaneille Hall, 18, shares her emotional story.
For his part, 10-year-old Keino King told parliamentarians that “a lot of children in Jamaica are dealing with a lot of pain.”
He traced Jamaica's culture of violence to slavery, which he said has caused children on the island to be bullied, beaten, sexually and emotionally abused and murdered.
“What are you doing to break the cycle (of violence)?” Keino asked before providing his own answer. “One thing you can do is listen to us”, he stated.
Keino shared some of the violent experiences of children which they shared over the past three months at Unicef town halls in several parishes.
Holness shares a light moment with young Keino.
He said one child told of experiencing physical abuse between the age of five and 10 and being beaten to the point where it “felt like nothing”. Another child shared that they had witnessed gunmen kill men and yet another admitted to being sexually abused by their father’s friend, while another kid detailed seeing parents abuse their children verbally and physically, because they got poor reports.
In such cases, the children were told they were worthless and would not turn out to be anything good in life. Keino said this caused some children to feel unwanted with some becoming suicidal.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Shaneille Hall shared her tearjerker of a story about losing both parents when she was only three and being sexually abused by her grandfather from the time she was just five The abuse continued until she reached age nine, before she became a ward of the state at 11.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday, the first time my grandfather abused me sexually. This started at about age five and continued to about age nine,” Shanielle shared.
“I was taken advantage of by the person who should have loved me and protected me the most,” she said, while admitting that she suffered in silence as she did not tell anyone about the abuse for years because she did not understand what was happening.
Holness... said all forms of violence against children are unacceptable.
Shaneille said she was unable to distinguish between a "good touch and a bad touch”. She said her grandmother was aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it.
Shaneille eventually told a family member who had repeatedly asked her if she was being abused. That family member kept asking because she too had been abused by her grandfather. The matter eventually went to court and that too was a painful experience for Shaneille as she was forced to face her grandfather in court for three years.
She said she tried to take her own life on several occasions.
“I share my experience here today (Tuesday) for every girl or every boy in Jamaica who’s subjected to sexual violence,” the now confident teenager said, noting that children are suffering everywhere, “in upper St Andrew, downtown Kingston and right across Jamaica.”
Children address Parliament
Shaneille recommended steps that can be taken by the authorities to make the country safer for children. These include frequent consultations with children to give them a voice in issues that affect them. This, she said, would help the government to develop proper policies and laws to protect/assist children.
She also said children want parents to get help so they can be better parents. Specifically she wants parents to be taught about other ways of disciplining their children rather than resorting to corporal punishment.
She said children also want greater enforcement of penalties for those who abuse them. Shaneille said many don't feel confident that people who commit violence against them are being prosecuted. And, she said children want better relationships with the security forces.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the presentations by the children will help to change the minds of the people who can effect the necessary changes needed to stem violence against children.
Holness said he is "100 percent" in agreement that all forms of violence against children are unacceptable.
Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips said the prevalence of violence in Jamaica is now affecting more children, causing trauma and wreaking havoc in their lives. Phillips said that the members of the house must resolve to break the cycle of violence against the island's children.