'Human Rights Need Your Leadership' – IACHR tells Guyana Government
Joint Media Release from Red Thread, FACT, A.I.D.S. and SASOD
Four Guyanese civil society organisations - Red Thread, Family Action Consciousness Togetherness (FACT), Artistes In Direct Support (A.I.D.S.) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) - working on intersectional rights issues affecting child across the country, made submissions at a hearing with the state of Guyana before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on "Violence, Sexuality and Gender Issues Affecting Children in Guyana" during its 149th Ordinary Period of Sessions in Washington, D.C. on Monday, October 28, 2013.
The hearing focused on three specific issues currently affecting children in Guyana: (1) corporal punishment; (2) discrimination and abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and (3) comprehensive sexuality education in schools.
Karen De Souza, National Coordinator of Red Thread, reported that the principal narrative on corporal punishment is that children are out of control and teachers need the whip to regain and/or maintain control of and exercise authority over them. The Ministry of Education’s guidelines on maintaining order speak to the regulated and documented use of corporal punishment in schools “as a last resort.” However, the use of corporal punishment in schools is commonplace, to the extent that teachers appear not to recognize when they are using this form of abuse on the children in their care. Additionally, the very fact of allowing “regulated and documented use of corporal punishment” gives teachers permission to use it.
Children have suffered needless injuries because of teachers’ violence. Past newspaper reports of dislocated shoulders, fractures and marks left on children have only served to intensify the chorus that children are out of control and that teachers need protection. Eight-year old Guyanese Daria Nicholson, who presented at the hearing, described her feelings of shame, anger and sadness having received several lashes from her class teacher because she forgot her exercise book at home. She was never asked by her teacher to provide an explanation.
Daria Nicholson (centre) presenting at the hearing, flanked by Karen De Souza (left) of Red Thread and her mother Zenita Nicholson (right) of SASOD
For the second time, in 2012, the National Assembly appointed a select committee to receive submissions on the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools, but the committee has not yet reported to the National Assembly. The civil society delegation reported that the government seems to be pandering to the misguided view that discipline is equivalent to punishment, rather than honouring the state’s obligation to put an end to all forms of violence against children. “Corporal punishment must be abolished,” De Souza reiterated at Monday's IACHR hearing.
Annette Jaundoo, Executive Director of FACT pointed out that, “the state has no effective systems in place to deal with these kinds of issues where children are violently abused because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, whether real or perceived, by their families, teachers, caregivers or persons who are responsible for their wellbeing and safety.” There is little or no support in schools for these children. Students face discrimination and are targeted not only by their peers but also sometimes by teachers, whose personal views may be homophobic.
Further, information about health and sexuality is one of the only critical tools that young people have to protect themselves from disease, and to make informed decisions about well-being and sexuality. Desiree Edghill, Executive Director of A.I.D.S., shared that NGOs working along with the teachers to implement the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) programme in schools found that the teachers were not only behind in the roll-out of the HFLE manual, but they were also selecting certain exercises to conduct, rather than following the format of the manual and how they were trained to execute them. “It is important to follow the format, because the exercises build on and flow into each other,” Edgehill told the IACHR hearing on Monday. She also reported that children were more comfortable discussing sexuality and gender issues and issues of abuse with NGO staffers, rather than their teachers.
(From left to right) Desiree Edgehill (A.I.D.S.) presents with Annette Jaundoo (FACT), Karen De Souza (Red Thread), Daria Nicholson and Zenita Nicholson (SASOD)
The Honourable Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Ms. Jennifer Webster, M.P. responded on behalf of the Government of Guyana at the IACHR hearing. Unfortunately, the Government misunderstood the nature of the hearing and spent the better part of the allotted time challenging procedural matters related to individual petitions, which this hearing was not. Commissioner Dinah Shelton, who is the Rapporteur for Guyana, reiterated the IACHR President's response to Minister Webster that the hearing was not an individual petition, but a general hearing, as no individual name or case was the basis for requesting the hearing.
(From left to right) Civil society presenters, IACHR Comissioners (centre table) and Hon. Minister Jennifer Webster, M.P. and Guyana's Ambassador to the OAS, H.E. Bayney Karran
The delegation proposed several recommendations to the Government of Guyana and the IACHR, including that the Sex and Sexuality theme of the HFLE curriculum is reviewed and objective information on sexual orientation and gender identity aimed at preventing violence, abuse and discrimination in schools is incorporated, as well as providing training at Cyril Potter Teachers Training College curriculum on understanding of sexuality and gender issues affecting children in Guyana's schools.
Concluding her responses to the Minister's report that the National Assembly has convened a special select committee to hold public consultations on these issues, which are still ongoing, Commissioner Shelton emphatically stated that human rights shouldn't be put to a vote, and that these issues need government leadership, even in advance of public opinion, including positive measures to prevent violence.
IACHR Commissioners at the Guyana Hearing (left to right): Rosa Maria Ortiz, rapporteur with responsibility for children's rights, Jose De Jesus Orozco Henriquez, President of IACHR, and Dinah Shelton, rapporteur responsible for Guyana
The IACHR is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organisation of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere and act as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. It is composed of seven independent members who are elected in their individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly, serve in their personal capacity and do not represent their countries of origin. Created in 1959, the Commission has its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Video Recording of the Hearing on Violence, Sexuality and Gender Issues Affecting Children in Guyana on the IACHR YouTube Channel: http://youtu.be/vFTa6ZL1UBk