Children in protests
February 14, 2004
On Tuesday last, Winfer Gardens Primary School was handed over to its Headmistress with as little fanfare as possible. A far cry from several weeks prior, when some pupils of the school and their parents protested outside the Ministry of Education for the school to be completed because they were fed up of being accommodated in a building that was not conducive to learning and which posed serious health risks to children. The next week, a letter writer in the Stabroek News (05/02/04) condemned the involvement of children in that particular protest, calling it unacceptable behaviour and questioning whether there were "no lines of demarcation that govern protests" that could perhaps preclude children's attendance at them.
Children's involvement in any kind of protest is the decision and responsibility of their parents. Child protests have been going on around the world for a very long time. Among the more recent are the worldwide 'Not in our Name' and 'Books not Bombs' anti-Iraq war protests in March last year. In Britain, 12 and 13 year olds walked out of schools in London to chant and picket outside the Prime Minister's residence. Many parents took younger children to anti-war walks and rallies around the country. Reports from Australia and other countries and many states in America revealed the same trend. One particularly poignant photo, which was put online, showed four and five year olds in Bangkok holding posters which read 'No Bush, No War'.
In a survey conducted in the US last month, on the topic 'parenting versus protesting: are they mutually exclusive', writer Kirsten Anderberg found the overwhelming response to whether it was irresponsible to take children to protests was that it depended on the nature of the protest. Many people felt that if the issue directly affected the provision of children's services - education, health and so on - then children's presence was warranted.
With regard to political protests, some parents believe that there could be positive outcomes to including children, once the protest remained peaceful. The thinking behind this is that children would learn how to voice their dissent in an organised and responsible manner. However, it should be noted that even though rioting and violence at protests are not part of the planned activities, these things do occur and are mostly outside the control of the organisers. This has happened so often in Guyana that the word "protest" now seems synonymous with violence, drives fear into people and is viewed as perhaps the worst thing that could happen. This is perhaps why the Winfer Gardens protest seemed distasteful and wrong.
There was a valid reason to protest. The completion of the school building was dragging out and perhaps it would not have been handed over on Tuesday, if there had not been a protest. But the organisation of the protest was flawed. It succeeded, but it also made the children involved look like a bunch of rabble rousers.
No doubt, there will be need at some point in the future for school children to protest again. And maybe it is time for parents and teachers to shy away from street protests. Advocacy can take several different forms and still achieve the same result. For instance, children can be encouraged to initiate signature campaigns; they can write letters to the ministers of Education/Health/ Human Services, depending on the nature of the problem, or even to the President. They can write letters to newspapers for publication (this has been done by University of Guyana students and has brought about change). They can host press conferences and interviews with the media in which they (the children) speak for themselves. All of these methods and other non-confrontational ones can be effective in bringing about change and at the same time providing educational upliftment.
Certainly children of a certain age should be given some amount of latitude to express themselves. But parents and teachers need to ensure that this is done correctly and in a controlled environment.