love, not licks

Love, not licks

Posted On February 27, 2015 In Daily,Features

Whack! The sound of an object forcibly landing on flesh was clear, penetrating the walls of both houses and the yard in between. Equally clear was the other sound that followed – of a child crying, “Ow! Ow! My back hurting. My belly hurting. Ow! I can’t breathe.” As she cried, the other children in the house could be heard laughing.

Who didn’t get “licks” growing up? That is common among we people, right? The folks who didn’t get any licks while growing up seem to be as rare as the golden frog of Kaieteur. Much has been said and written over the years on the issue of corporal punishment – aka beating children. Research has shown that there are significant long-term negative impacts on children who are beaten regularly – from poorer cognitive and emotional development to reduced academic performance and social functioning. Of my own (mostly good) childhood memories, it is telling that one of the most enduring is of an incident when major licks were sharing. I don’t remember the exact reason for the licks, but the fear and absolute terror I felt as the adult around me went seemingly violently mad is still crystal clear, decades later.

Numerous alternative discipline methods have been proposed, tried, and proven effective over time. Laws have been passed to protect children and educational and media campaigns embarked upon to educate the populace and try to change social norms. However, the beating of children continues in Guyana, around the Caribbean, and in numerous other societies worldwide. Violence, somehow, continues to be our default reaction when we’re frustrated, stressed out, and otherwise challenged – by children, as well as other adults. The beating of children also continues because we are impacted by our environmental and cultural influences, and because we most often repeat the patterns of behaviour that we’ve been socialized into. None of this however, is excusable.

20140815health logoPatterns of behaviour, no matter how compelling, can be changed, and new, more positive behaviours cultivated as long as the will to change and a supportive environment exists. Corporal punishment persists, in large part I believe, because people don’t want to make a change badly enough. We are also living under a great deal of denial and delusion. One way in which the survival mechanism of humans functions is by blocking memories of trauma and abuse in order to allow people to move forward with their lives. Because we have all experienced violence, and because violence is now so pervasive and such a common element of our societies and daily lives, many have come to believe that it’s normal and inevitable. Because we survived, no matter how scarred (so much so sometimes that we cannot even recognize the damage that’s been done), we believe that as long as the children survive, everything is ok. There is a huge difference however, between surviving and thriving. Survival is merely achieving the bare minimum of life; thriving is about being able to reach our fullest potential, to achieve our dreams. Thriving therefore, not mere survival, should be our gold standard for life.

When children laugh on seeing another child being beaten by an adult and hearing her/his cries of pain, it is clear that something is dangerously wrong in our society. When children cannot express themselves without shouting and hitting one another; when empathy is scoffed at and sensitivity to pain and suffering scorned, it is clear that something is seriously amiss. When adults fail to encourage compassion and themselves perpetuate systems of violence and oppression, the society that forms is one that has cruelty as its base and that will continuously reproduce negativity, as is evident in Guyanese society today.

When children are beaten by their parents and other caregivers who are supposed to love and nurture them and told it is for their own good, the lesson they then learn is that violence and loving attention go hand in hand. No wonder then, that intimate partner violence remains so disturbingly high in our society, with many victims refusing to press charges against their abusers and continuing to endure the abuse time after time. No wonder then that when these children grow up, many are violent towards their own children and partners; this is simply the behaviour they know. (*It is not inevitable that the abused becomes abusers; many victims do turn away from violence. However, patterns set early in life are very impactful and can be difficult to break.) Children seeking to escape violence within their homes also become prime targets for predators. Because they are desperate for love and kindness, they can be easily manipulated and taken advantage of.

Violence perpetuates a cycle of negativity that impacts numerous spheres of life. From child health and well-being to academic performance to unhealthy adult interpersonal interactions, as well as to how funding and programmatic decisions are made on a structural level—what gets prioritized/ignored—there are innumerable ways in which violence gets re-inscribed and reinforced in society. The individual instances when persons witness violence and choose not to intervene is but the tip of the iceberg. State violence against the citizens of a nation: brutality, torture, intimidation by police and other government forces, as well as discrimination, official neglect of the poor and other minority groups, inadequate provision of necessary goods and services, delay and denial of justice in cases where abuses have occurred are also clear instances of violence and its perpetuation.

Laws can be placed on the books but it’s individuals who have to uphold and enforce them, and unless and until societal norms and behaviours change to make violence, especially violence against children, unacceptable, the dysfunction will continue. People have to want things to change, first and foremost. Then they have to believe that they have the power within themselves to effect change. Last but not least, the most fundamental way to ensure real, sustainable change is by socializing the children into an ethic where violence is the exception, rather than the rule. Let’s make it happen!

Sherlina can be contacted at

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Child sexual activity: it’s happening. We have to deal with, not ignore it.

Child sexual activity: it’s happening. We have to deal with, not ignore it.

Children having sex. Children recording and taking pictures of their and others’ sexual activity. Children having sex for money. Children having sex with adults. Adults grooming children for sex. Adults taking advantage of children. Parents encouraging children to stay with abusive partners. Parents abusing their children. Children having children.

According to data from the 2008/2009 national Guyana Biological Behavioral Surveillance Survey, the average age of first sexual activity of Guyanese children is 14. Almost a quarter of the children surveyed (24%) reported having been forced to have sex. 27% of schoolchildren were sexually active. Other statistics recently released by the Georgetown Public Hospital- the largest and busiest public hospital in Guyana- show that almost a quarter of the births (22%) at that institution in 2014 were to teenagers between ages 14 and 18. Clearly, we have a serious problem in Guyana today when it comes to children and sexual activity.

Curiosity about one’s body and its functions is a normal part of human development. Experimentation and the establishment of intimate (though not necessarily physical) relationships with peers are also expected as part of normal child development. However, being forced or tricked to have sex, performing sexual acts for money or material items, having sexual relations with much older persons, and being abused or exploited- as is happening to too many Guyanese children today- is neither healthy nor developmentally normal; these are signs of a sick society that is unable or unwilling to protect the most vulnerable- its children.

Adults and institutions continue to fail the children. The Ministry of Education refuses to allow anything other than abstinence-only education in the public school system, despite overwhelming evidence of the ineffectiveness of that strategy. There is still no National Youth Policy, years after the idea was first raised and numerous ‘consultations’ held. There is no policy to help teen moms re-integrate back into school. There is no comprehensive effort to stop adults from abusing and taking sexual advantage of schoolchildren; for every case that may get reported to the police or child welfare officials, numerous others get away scott free, often by paying off the victims and/or authorities.

There is no serious attempt to alleviate poverty and increase meaningful employment, especially for youth, so they don’t feel pressured to exchange sexual favors for material goods. There is no attempt to halt the playing of degrading songs and showing of exploitative images in the media and public spaces. The socialization of girl children as sex objects continues and many still subscribe to the patriarchal belief that men are inevitably meant to dominate all spheres of society. And although there are women in high profile political and public positions, and even after numerous trainings and much talk about empowerment, violence, abuse, and exploitation of women and children remains widespread in Guyana today. Something is obviously very wrong.

In a healthy society, children would enjoy their childhood unmolested. In a healthy society, with law enforcement and judicial systems functioning as they should, those who violate and abuse children would be apprehended and punished for their crimes. In a society that values children, they wouldn’t be beaten and attention would be paid to their mental wellbeing. In a healthy society, parents would earn living wages at jobs that allow them time and energy to spend at home with their children, providing proper guidance. In a healthy society, everyone, children included, would have access to the information and resources necessary to protect themselves and thrive, regardless of socioeconomic status or political affiliation. Sadly however, Guyana today is far from healthy.

There are too many children having children. Too early pregnancy and childbearing can have serious negative effects on the child-mother, both physically and emotionally. Children need time to grow and develop properly- again, both physically and emotionally- in order to become successful and fully functional members of society. Raising a child is no easy task- it goes beyond just providing them with food and shelter- and is not something that anyone should be forced to deal with before they are ready; that is just a recipe for more dysfunction.

Sex is a fundamental part of life and it’s perfectly fine to desire and enjoy it (apart from just for procreation purposes); this is not something to be ashamed of or to avoid discussing. It is a myth that talking about sex will encourage children to engage in it before they are ready. In fact, research shows that when individuals have more information about this topic, they make better decisions and have better health overall. Children need to be taught about their body, its functions, and how to care for it, as well as trained in how to relate positively to others, how to identify and communicate their wants and needs, how to clearly express their thoughts, emotions, and ideas, how to peaceably resolve conflicts, and how to establish loving, mutually respectful, and healthy relationships with others. Each child develops differently and the age when discussion about these topics becomes appropriate may differ, but address sex and sexuality with children we must.

Education about sexual and reproductive health and rights needs to be widespread and provided early in the school system. Contraception must be encouraged and made more accessible. Currently, only 40% of the Guyanese population uses contraception and 16% of first time users stop within the first week. This is a massive failure of the public health system. For the best outcomes, childrearing should be desired and planned. Persons who find themselves pregnant when they don’t wish to be must have easy access to safe abortion services. The Georgetown Public Hospital is finally providing this service, but it’s still not adequate. Women and girls from the hinterland who are unable to travel to Georgetown to access care are being woefully underserved. Safe abortions must be made available at all public healthcare facilities around the country. Women and children are key members of our society and deserve much better. Without this, progress in Guyana will remain forever elusive.