Committee set up to probe child marriages, child labour at Cane Grove
Stabroek News
May 13, 2007

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Child marriages and child labour are rampant in Cane Grove and its surrounding communities and Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Priya Manickchand with the help of residents has set up a committee to deal with these issues.

The committee's immediate responsibility is to get the names of all the children in the area who are not attending school.

In addition, the committee must find out the reason for the children's non-attendance at school and the minister pledged to return to the village in an effort to address the problems.

She warned that the marrying of young children should not be tolerated as the laws of Guyana clearly states that any person having sex with a child under the age of 16 could be charged with rape.

Complaints about the child marriages, child labour and the non-attendance at school were raised during a meeting at the Cane Grove Neigh-bourhood Democratic Council (NDC) office. In attendance at the meeting were the minister and a number of other officials, including Special Advisor to President Bharrat Jagdeo, Sri Prakash Gossai, Jamal Imran of the CIOG, the area MP Anil Nandalall and Region Four's Regional Chairman Clement Corlette. Residents raised a number of issues from garbage disposal to the problems faced by the dust emanating from a rice mill and the delay in the issuing of land titles. It was a teacher who raised the issues affecting children.

Some residents said poverty was the reason parents in the area sent their young children to work rather than to school and why they "married off" young girls. Some were not too keen on the issues being raised. Grumbles were heard in the audience as the teacher spoke and some men in the room were heard quietly trying to dissuade the teacher from speaking. One man got up and left the meeting after the minister and the other officials took a serious stand on the issues.

According to the teacher, who was later supported by another teacher, parents were keeping their children away from school and sending no excuse for the absences. He said teachers were afraid to visit homes, as parents were sometimes very abusive. Recently one parent even went into the school and abused a teacher and the police were called in, he recalled.

"We are afraid. Parents cussing you up when you talk to them but it is a serious problem; child labour and children marrying children," the teacher said. While no indication was given as to the number of child marriages in the communities, they appeared to be rampant as none of the residents, even those who disagreed with the issue being raised, denied that it was a major happening.

The teacher said one young boy told him if he does not take money home, his mother beats him.

Last week there was to be a wedding between two children but the ministry got wind of it and it was stopped. However, according to some persons there was still some sort of celebration at one of the homes as music was heard and people had gathered on the day the wedding was expected to take place.

Some residents feel parents have no alternative because of the poverty situation. "You can't blame de parents dem. You gaffa understand dat people have to eat and in dis community de digging of trench and drain is a big moneymaker. But now is only some people and dem family getting de contract so parents have to send dem children to work," one resident reasoned. Some residents also alleged that only some persons received public assistance.

While Pandit Prakash Gossai and Mr Imran from CIOG emphasised the importance of a good education they both stopped short of saying child marriages is wrong.

Gossai informed the residents that the first 25 years of a Hindu's life should be spent on being educated. He said he found the situation very worrying as parents are not thinking about the progress of their children, while in every part of the world the focus was on ensuring children received at least basic education.

"If parents prevent their children from receiving education they are sinners," he warned. He stressed that no one knew the potential of a child and it would be unfair for that child not to be given the opportunity to realise his/her full potential. The pandit is of the opinion that a law should be implemented, which mandates a penalty for parents who refuse to send their children to school. This remark was greeted with a rousing round of applause from the residents. He said if parents do not send their children to school then Cane Grove will become one of the most illiterate communities in the country.

Pandit Gossai read a letter from the headmistress of the school in the area, who was unable to attend the meeting due to illness. In it, she said late attendance at school was 20%; there are a number of children who are irregular at school and no excuse is sent by parents; and school dropouts and under age employment are big problems.

Mr Imran told the villagers that according to the Koran, God says if a person should make one step towards him, he would make several steps towards that person. He urged parents to take up the responsibility of their children's well-being, including ensuring that they are educated.

"Poverty should not be an excuse for you not to educate your child," the religious leader stressed. He said in the end the children are the ones who will punish.

Minister Manickchand urged the religious leaders in the area-Imans, Pandits and Pastors-to refuse to marry under aged children and to tell parents that it is wrong. The minister suggested that they also counsel the parents and give them guidance. She said religious leaders are the first to know about these intended marriages and they should contact her ministry and inform officials about the cases. "Any person who has sex with a girl under the age of 16 is committing rape; that is the law of Guyana. You [the religious leaders] have to be on the ground to stop it," the minister said.

The pandit in the area told the minister that he knew each and every family in the area and was aware of those who do not send their children to school. He also said he knew about the child marriages but did not say if he officiated at any.

He said he had no intention of marrying the two children who were expected to get married last week, as it was a child getting married to a child. He also pledged that he would be on the committee visiting homes to find out the reasons for children not attending school. He said he already knew which parents needed assistance to send their children to school. "I am not scared to undertake this job. I would go into people's house and talk to them. I just need one or two persons to stand by me," he said.

It was at this point that the minister constituted and tasked the committee with finding those children not attending school. She said she is not in favour of disciplining the parents, until the reason for their children's non-attendance is received and the assistance is given to them. If after they receive the assistance the child is still not sent to school then the parent should be made to answer.