June 12 was World Day Against Child Labour. But, of course, the problem is still with us. This year’s theme is ‘children in hazardous work’. It’s not the kind of subject we like to savour over Sunday brunch. But we really can’t turn a blind eye as thousands of children in Jamaica suffer abuse every single day. Forced to enter the labour market prematurely, ‘dem just a juggle outa road.’
Children helping parents around the house doesn’t count as ‘labour.’ It’s actually good for children to do little jobs that develop responsibility. Enforced economic activity that exposes children to risk and keeps them out of school is criminal. Most times, the perpetrators of abuse are the parents of the children, usually the mother.
According to the Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA 2004), it is an offence to employ a child under the age of thirteen. The law does make an exception for children thirteen-fifteen years old. They can be employed; but only for light work. Children fifteen and over must not be employed in night work or in any industrial or hazardous work. It is also an offence for a child to be used for indecent or immoral purposes.
But traditional practices often clash with the law. There is a long-established conviction in Jamaican culture that children are wealth. Literally. It comes from the Bible: ‘Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.’ (Psalms 127:3-5, English Standard Version).
Incidentally, the same backward people who think it’s sacrilegious to translate the Bible into Jamaican also have difficulty accepting new versions written in modern English. If there are no ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ in scripture then it’s not holy enough for them. Their God communicates only in 17th century English. But that’s really another story.
Jamaican men just love to fill their quiver with arrows, especially when they have absolutely no intention of taking care of them. To update the instrument of war from the arrow to the gun, Jamaican men don’t like to fire blank. So they spray their seed like bullets far and wide.
The presumption that children are a source of wealth also has West African origins. In Jamaica, we often conceive children as ‘old age pension.’ Women, especially, assume that the more children they have, the bigger the reward. But proverbial wisdom warns that ‘one mother can look after eight children but eight children cannot look after one mother.’ Many times, the investment doesn’t pay off in the long run. So, more and more parents are trying to get returns on their children in the here and now.
One of the most violent forms of abuse of children is enforced transactional sex in the home, a hush-hush subject in Jamaica. Mothers often prostitute their daughters. This is a familiar tale that is documented by Mrs. Kay Anderson, multi-talented artist, writer and teacher.
The mother in this true story is a domestic servant. But the exploitation of children transcends class barriers. Kay recalls one of her schoolmates from a nice middle-class home: ‘She used to play Mary in the school play so you must know what she looked like.’ The girl committed suicide. She, too, was a victim of sexual abuse.
Ah Wonda Weh Sandra Deh?
– Teacher, yu just don’t understand; di girl don’t come home.
– You mean she did not go home last night?
– No, teacher, is a week now since ah don’t see ar.
– Well, teacher is really a long story but, well, it really go like dis. Yu see di genkleman I am along with is not fi-Sandra father; in fact im is not any of the pickney-dem father, although this one ah carrying here is fi-im own. Well, Sandra is the biggest one and when she go home in the evening she have to cook an clean for I do . . . . , well really . . . , I is a domestic and I don’t get off of work early . . . , an really most days I stop een because I can’t afford di bus fare. Well, Sandra she . . . , mi tell yu seh di lickle gyal lie yu see, she seh dat Rupert, dat is my . . . genkleman, dat in di night when di lickle one dem gone to bed dat Rupert beg ar.
– Beg her?
– Yes mam, she seh im beg ar an im tell ar if she tell me im going kill ar. Well, ah tell yu, mam, when di lilly gyal tell mi dat, ah bax ar dong pon di grong, an ah sidong pon ar head, an tell ar seh ah gwine learn ar fi no tell lie pon big people.
Ah di same Rupert have fi drag mi offa ar. Ah was going kill ar dead. Well when im wouldn’t let mi go, mek mi bruck de lilly Jezebel neck, ah tell ar fi kum out a mi yard for if she old enough fi a look man, she must go outa door and look man fi arself fi look aafta ar, like Rupert look aafta mi, an lef mi man alone.
Ah sorry teacher, is just dat everytime a tink bout it, it mek mi blood bwile. Well, di facey gyal no lef an from dat night mi no see ar. Mi thought she gone a ar granny a Waterworks; but when mi check, she no di deh an im granny seh im never come deh at all. Well, even doah di gyal so forward, she a still mi pickney an mi wouldn’t like fi know seh nutting happen to ar. So a it mek mi check ya today fi see if she still a come a school or weh she deh.
Mi naa tell yu no lie, mi no really want ar back weh mi deh. But ah woulda like fi know dat weh she is, she is quite alright. Ah ten pickney mi ha; dis one eena di belly meck eleven. An Rupert kind an good to mi, an mi naa meck no one, not even mi owna kin, box di bread outa mi mout.
Well, thank yu den mam. Ah sorry to give yu so much trouble . . . .