Guyana: The Children are Our Future

Joel Simpson is a Guyanese Chevening scholar currently pursuing a Master of Laws in Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham, and Co-Chair of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD).

Around the world, governments, civil society groups and international organisations will once again commemorate May 17 as International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). The IDAHO observance, which was started in 2004 by French Caribbean academic Louis-Georges Tin, has gained unprecedented global recognition in all parts of the globe and among high-level intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States. May 17 marks IDAHO as the date in 1990 when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the Internal Classification of Diseases, bringing a formal end to medical homophobia at the global level.

But homophobia and transphobia still persist. In Guyana, SASOD has been observing IDAHO since 2006 as part of our relentless efforts to raise awareness and rid our country of seemingly acceptable forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Our thematic focus for IDAHO tends to relate to the thrust of our work at the time. Our recent work has focused on raising awareness and promoting protecting children from all forms of violence, abuse and discrimination. In December 2012, SASOD launched its Child Protection Policy to provide a framework to assist all our representatives in carrying out their duties to safeguard children’s welfare and promote awareness of child protection issues in Guyana. In January this year, SASOD partnered with Red Thread, Artistes In Direct Support (A.I.D.S.) and Family Awareness Conscious Together (FACT) to present a joint submission under the UN Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) on “Sexuality and Gender Issues Affecting Children in Guyana” to the CRC Committee at its 62nd session in Geneva. Then in March, we made a submission to the special select committee of the National Assembly considering the matter, supporting the abolition of corporal punishment in Guyana’s schools.

Stemming naturally from this work therefore, SASOD’s theme for IDAHO this year is ‘the children are our future’ – part of the first line of Whitney Houston’s classic hit, “Greatest Love of All” – to draw particular and urgent attention to addressing related issues regarding institutionalized violence, abuse and discrimination affecting children which have deleterious and lasting impacts not only today, but on all future generations as well. We must confront these issues, and confront them now.

That “corporal” or “physical” punishment is a form of violence, cruel or degrading form of discipline is not even debatable. According to the CRC Committee, it includes any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of discomfort or pain, however “light” it may be. So egregious a violation it is that the Committee dedicates its General Comment Number 8 to the Right of the Child to Protection from Corporal Punishment and Other Cruel or Degrading Forms of Punishment. The abhorrent practice directly conflicts with the equal and inalienable rights of children to respect for their human dignity and physical integrity.

In our March 2013 parliamentary submission, SASOD stated, in no uncertain terms, that beating children in Guyana’s schools is an abuse of the power of adults over children. Guyana must overcome our living history of institutional violence being used as a form of discipline, as it was during slavery, indentureship and colonialism. Complete independence should mean that we also do away with these barbaric, colonial practices which our laws and policies still legitimize and promote. As the great Caribbean cultural icon, Bob Marley sang, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds. Brother Bob’s “Redemption Song” is still relevant for us today.

The 2005 UNICEF/Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security/Red Thread report entitled, “Voices of Children: Experiences with Violence” found that 20% of children interviewed received corporal punishment for performing below expectations in academic subjects. The use of corporal punishment to sanction academic performance is all the more intolerable. By creating a psychological association between physical punishment and school work, it causes children who are unable to meet these expectations to consider themselves failures, and this no doubt contributes to school drop-outs.

SASOD’s submission to parliament also noted that physical violence is masked as corporal punishment in all spheres of Guyanese society, homes, schools and other institutions, and it is a significant contributing factor to violence that prevails and plagues our society today. Such behaviour towards children teaches them at an early age that resorting to violence is an acceptable way of dealing with conflict.

The CRC Committee’s recommendations to Guyana in its concluding observations on this issue at the January 2013 session reiterates that of previous reviews: explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in all settings, particularly in the domestic and school contexts; strengthen and expand awareness-raising and education programmes and campaigns, in order to promote positive and alternative forms of discipline and respect for children’s rights, with the involvement of children, while raising awareness about the adverse consequences of corporal punishment on children.

Prevalent forms of violence against Guyanese children include neglect and negligent treatment, physical and mental violence, and sexual abuse and exploitation. In its rationale for General Comment Number 13 on the Right of the Child to Freedom from All Forms of Violence, the CRC Committee emphasizes that measures to end violence against children must be massively strengthened and expanded in order to effectively eliminate these practices which jeopardize children’s development and societies’ potential non-violent solutions for conflict resolution.

A respectful, supportive child-rearing environment free from violence supports the realization of children’s individual personalities and fosters the development of social, responsible and actively contributing citizens in the local community and larger society. The CRC committee indicated that research shows that children who have not experienced violence and who develop in a healthy manner are less likely to act violently, both in childhood and when they become adults. Preventing violence in one generation reduces its likelihood in the next.

Guyana’s Child Care and Protection Agency reports that there were 4,102 reported cases of child abuse for 2012 – an astonishing number in a context where underreporting is likely to be very high – with 742 being cases of sexual abuse, 729 cases of physical abuse and 1,547 were abandoned by their parents while 879 were taken into custody.

The issue of child sexual abuse is a particularly vexing one. While the passage of new legislation, like the Protection of Children Act 2009 and the Sexual Offences Act (SOA) 2010, aims to strengthen legal mechanisms and increase access to justice and is worthy of commendation, there is need to establish procedures and guidelines to ensure mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and exploitation cases pursuant to the SOA 2010, as the Committee has pointed out. Indeed, as recently as International Women’s Day on March 8, civil society groups picketed the Office of the President for lack of the full implementation of the well-intentioned SOA 2010.

Guyanese children also have to face commonplace forms of abuse which pervade adult society. Children who are seen to be outside gender norms are often labeled as ‘different’ because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They often face discrimination and abuse in the school system and their communities. In schools, there is little or no support for these children. Students face discrimination and are targeted not only by their peers but sometimes by teachers, who hold intolerant views. Students have reported being harassed by their peers to SASOD and when they approached their teachers for support, they were the ones punished, instead of the offenders. Many feel there is no recourse for them in the school system.

For instance, an adolescent student reported in 2012 experiencing continuous verbal abuse and harassment by one of his teachers, stating that at one point he could not take it anymore and retaliated by pushing her physically as a result of his frustration. When questioned why he did not complain to the head teacher, he responded by saying that nothing would have been done, so he did what he felt would stop the abuse. Many instances of abuse perpetuated against children because of sexual orientation and/or gender identity at school are unreported and undocumented because there are no proper mechanisms in place to treat with these issues, much less sensitively.

In another instance, a gay youth shared that he dropped out of school fearing continuous harassment and discrimination because of his sexual orientation, whilst others have indicated a decreased interest in school work and absenteeism due to their struggles with these abuses.

In its first-ever General Comment Number 1 on the Aims of Education, the CRC Committee stated clearly that “a school which allows bullying and other violent and exclusionary practices to occur is not one which meets the requirements of” the provisions of the Convention.

Acknowledging these violations, the CRC Committee expressed its concerns about discrimination against Guyanese children based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity and urged Guyana to ensure that its programmes address discrimination against children because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Further to that, the Committee this year published a new General Comment Number 15 on the Right of the Child to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, which addresses issues of non-discrimination. The Committee indicated that states “have an obligation to ensure that children’s health is not undermined as a result of discrimination, which is a significant factor contributing to [their] vulnerability.” The Committee also indicated that sexual orientation and/or gender identity are prohibited grounds of discrimination, that attention should be paid to any other forms of discrimination that could undermine children’s health, and that multiple forms of discrimination should be addressed.

As we commemorate IDAHO this year, we should also reflect on how homophobic and transphobic discrimination affects Guyanese children, as part of an institutionalized system and culture of violence and abuse that robs them of their innocence and dignity, and damages the next generation. But we can, and we must change that.

As the special select committee of the National Assembly is currently conducting consultations on the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, and will later consider discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, we also need to recognize that these issues are more connected that they appear. The colonial shackles of violence and abuse must be emancipated to build a free Guyana.

by Joel Simpson
Source – StabroekNews