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Ad hoc planning for children

By Sheila Rampersad

 How does a mother and grandmother—who also happens to be leader of the country—not know that a handicapped Children’s Authority, established since 2009, does not have nearly the staff required for it to function?

The Prime Minister’s exposition at the re-launch—I hope the PM knew that UNICEF’s Break the Silence campaign was launched in T&T three years ago and Wednesday’s Hyatt Regency Hotel event was in fact a re-launch—delivered information that seemed new to her. It was “unacceptable,” she said there, that of the 97 vacancies, only 19 had been filled. This comes five years into the life of the Authority.

It is the same with the statistics on child abuse that she presented.

The PM also spoke about the public fury that is precipitated each time a horrific act against a child is publicised. Yet that has been the quality of the PM’s own leadership on the issue of protecting children. After the death of Daniel Guerra—the accused in this case has since been released and there is no indication that any new arrest is imminent—she announced the Daniel Decree, “a social agenda” involving all NGOs, police, army, government and private sector in a partnership to tackle “issues of crime and child neglect and abuse in the myriad forms.”

Nothing was heard about that after her March 2011 announcement.

Following the death of Keyana Cumberbatch late last year, the PM fumbled in her announcement that the old televised public awareness campaign asking “Do you know where your children are?” will be re-introduced. This has not happened and no mention has been made of it since.

Even as the densely populated Child Protection Task Force was appointed and applied itself to its work, Cabinet hastily announced the approval of $191 million for construction of ten new facilities for assessment etc of children, incidentally part of the major initiatives set in train by former minister Verna St Rose Greaves. The announcement was made by acting Gender Affairs Minister, Marlene Coudray, who, within days of being appointed in 2013, announced that the role of the ministry was to set policy, not deliver services.

Clifton De Coteau joined in with word that a national child registry was coming, yet another initiative by St Rose Greaves which she announced in Parliament in April 2012. (The unproclaimed Children Act (2012) was also passed under St Rose Greaves).

The PM’s Gender, Youth and Child Development Ministry has the distinction of being the most shuffled in her Government, moving from suitable to less suitable to least suitable—Mary King to Bhoe Tewarie to Verna St Rose Greaves to Marlene Coudray to Clifton De Coteau—and lacking therefore in consistency of approach.

The Task Force submitted an initial report well ahead of its deadline but thus far it has been kept secret except for the PM’s choice disclosures on Wednesday, where the irony of gagging the Task Force members and secreting their full report while endorsing a break-the-silence campaign was lost of her.

How does a mother and grandmother—who also happens to be leader of a country—defend four marriage acts that give cover to child rape? In all the disclosures, Cabinet approvals for buildings etc, the PM has uttered not a word about the national gender policy, the 1923 Marriage Act, the Hindu, Muslim and Orisha marriage acts that legalise marriages for girls as young as 12 years old and boys as young as 14.

All legislation serious about protecting children would be anomalous with these marriage acts and legislators would face a conundrum if they are not repealed and the age of consent raised to 18 as determined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which T&T is signatory.

The PM must know these things, as she must know that her Government’s 2011 report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) listed free laptops and the Children’s Life Fund as its lofty achievements in protecting the welfare of children. 

That report also boasted: “In a Commonwealth survey published in 2011, entitled ‘Because you are a girl; growing up in the Commonwealth’, Trinidad and Tobago ranked third out of 54 Commonwealth members as the best place for raising a female child.”

There is little to report that is different from this country’s 2006 report.

In order to protect children and thus improve the country’s prospects for the future in terms of less crime and violence, peace, ethical behaviour, responsibility, patriotism—all the things that are blatantly lacking now—Government has to get not only serious but co-ordinated.

A project here, a public service announcement there and a few buildings over there is not what is needed. Coherence is. The Child Protection Task Force should generate a thorough plan of action and a schedule for implementation of those actions. Both Government and Opposition should publicly endorse the plan so that, should governments change, the incoming would continue the work started by the incumbent.

This way, the country can identify the work being done as part fulfilment of a larger strategy that will ultimately improve the social landscape of a country that is bleeding out even as our present condition creates more and more reason to fear rather than embrace the future. 

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