“I share my story here today for every girl and every boy in Jamaica who is subjected to sexual violence, and they are everywhere. There are children who are keeping horrible secrets in Upper St. Andrew, in downtown Kingston, and all across rural Jamaica”
As I listened to Shaneille speak, my eyes welled up with tears. Her voice, steady and unwavering, commanded the great room of the George William Gordon House.
It was November 19th, 2019 and for the first time in Jamaica’s history, children were directly addressing the House of Parliament. Led by seven-year-old Ngozi, her twin brother Tafari, ten-year-old Keino, and eighteen-year-old Shaneille, the Special Parliamentary Session on the eve of World’s Children’s Day focused on violence against children. For over twenty minutes, Ngozi, Tafari, Keino, and Shaneille spoke for children across Jamaica, and they delivered their message to the most powerful men and women in the country*.
This historic day was the culmination of a year’s worth of work on the part of UNICEF and the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA). To mark the 30th Anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 2019, these partners organized three Children’s Townhalls across the island to directly engage youth on child rights and violence. In all, close to 1,000 boys and girls participated and shared their thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams for a violence-free Jamaica (see slideshow of some messages from children below). From these townhalls, four children were selected as representatives to address Parliament and make a plea for government action (a link to the full session is included below). Although November 19th was the conclusion of a year’s worth of planning and a celebration of thirty years of work in the field, the day also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Jamaican history.
Over the last few months, I have spent countless hours combing through reports, surveys, and evaluation materials, pulling out relevant statistics surrounding the state of adolescent health in Jamaica. As I have detailed in my previous blog posts, my main task has been to create an implementation guide for a pilot adolescent health program that details program strategy, lessons learned, suggestions for improvements, and recommendations for scaling up. While I spent a considerable amount of time gathering qualitative data through interviews with government officials and the teen center staff, statistics also played a key role. Data on the current state of adolescent health helped make the case for improving access to quality sexual, reproductive, and mental health services.
But statistics aren’t enough. Behind all of our data points are individual children. On November 19, 2019, I was reminded of this fact. I watched four brave advocates speak up, without fear or hesitation, to the highest members of government and demand action.
I suppose sometimes it’s easier to deal with statistics, to keep an arm’s length from individual stories that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds. But we must make a conscience effort to lift our heads from behind our computer screens and listen to what children have to say. In their stories, we may not only hear problems, but solutions.
As I leave Jamaica, I carry hundreds of these individual stories with me. Stories from adolescent mothers to survivors of sexual assault to spirited teen performers to the fearless Ngozi, Tafari, Keoni, and Shanielle. Stories of pain. Stories of hope. Stories of resilience. Stories of peace. These stories will always remind me of the courage and spirit of Jamaican children and of the committed community members who stand by their side and listen.
To my colleagues, thank you for welcoming me into your family. I could not have asked for better teachers.
* For those who are interested, I suggest that you watch this powerful moment for yourself (minutes 34:00 to 1:15:00).