“It is the first time serious attention is being paid to the safety of children and the problem of child sexual abuse,” said Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, chairman of the Child Protection Task Force.
Mahabir-Wyatt made the comment in response to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s announcement on Friday that a special unit of the Police Service will focus on offences against children, including teen pregnancies.
The Prime Minister said the growing number of teenage pregnancies was “a grave danger facing the nation’s children.”
About 2,500 teen pregnancies are reported annually, according to Minister of Education Dr Tim Gopeesingh, who made the announcement in the Senate last Tuesday.
The National Security Council also mandated the Child Protection Task Force to expand its scope of works to provide solutions to the social problem.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Mahabir-Wyatt said: “It is the first time I am seeing positive action. It has been referred to the Child Protection Task Force. It is interesting...it is amazing. She (Persad-Bissessar) is very serious. There is the new push to deal with teen pregnancies, particularly those which result from statutory rape or sexual intercourse with any child under 14. There is serious legislation to deal with children who are pregnant at aged 16 and under.”
Mahabir-Wyatt said there was a high mortality rate for both mother and child “in the old days”.
“The pelvic region is not developed to deal with childbirth. In the old days, we had a high percentage of mothers dying in childbirth and babies being born dead. The extremely young mothers’ bodies were not capable of dealing with the trauma of childbirth.”
Mahabir-Wyatt said about eight interventions have been made by the Task Force within the last two months with regard to the protection of children, ranging from the establishment of assessment centres to transitional homes.
“The purpose was to ensure things get done. Cabinet has agreed to the funding of a family court in San Fernando and the establishment of two other assessment centres for abused children, plus transitional homes for children and young people. The draft Youth Justice Policy has come out of the Ministry of Justice. The public has been waiting for it over the last to three to four years. There is a campaign about numbers to call if you know children are abused.
“They started the mentoring and masculinity programmes. They are being pushed and the Child Protection Police Unit is being set up. You have eight realistic steps being taken to deal with the problems of crime against children and abandonment. All of this is happening within the last two months. It is amazing.”
Asked about attorney Nafeesa Mohammed’s view that the Children’s Authority Act needs to be fully implemented, Mahabir-Wyatt said: “She is right about the Children’s Authority Act. It needs to be fully proclaimed, and those parts which have been already proclaimed in order to allow it to be fully operational. It just means the President Anthony Carmona has to proclaim it.
“There are about six or seven parts of the Act which have not been proclaimed. It would include things like taking a child at risk out of a situation where it has been harmed or has the potential to be harmed. At the moment, those powers belong to the police. The Children’s Authority is working with the police. Proclamation will allow it to extend its activities throughout the country using its own staff.”
In her statement on crimes against children, Persad-Bissessar also said anyone found guilty of having sex with a girl under the age of 14 is liable to life imprisonment, with 12 years in jail for first offenders who have sex with girls between 14 to 16.
For second-time offenders, it will be 15 years on conviction.
The Prime Minister said a lack of awareness by the public of the offence will be addressed by the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development in a public education programme, as ignorance of the law was not a defence.