The article “Child criminals on the increase,” featured in Kaieteur News of Sunday, 2nd November, 2008, made for quite disturbing reading.
Indeed, Guyana’s child criminal phenomenon is a very worrying one. At 11, it is questionable whether a child’s sense of right and wrong is sufficiently developed to enable that child to adopt the right role as defined by the good society.
The observation that “the age of criminals appears to be getting lower and lower” is a sad reflection of society as a whole. As with so many areas, the backdrop is change.
The statistics are well known. The proportion of single-parent families and of children under the supervision of one parent only (usually a working mother) has gone up steadily.
The number of children living, more or less, alone has also risen. Even in the absence of accurate, up-to-date family statistics, it is reasonable to assume that in present day Guyana only a minority of children are brought up in a ‘traditional’ context, where father and mother are married and/or are living in the same household as their biological children.
As a consequence, the influence of a father is usually absent from this basic institution of civil society. One must, however, give recognition to the fact that, given adequate resources, single parents are able to bring up children just as satisfactorily as couples can.
The fact that we have, as your article states, a teenage “gang that hides out on Sussex Street near Saffon Street in the nights,” presumably engaged in petty crime and hooliganism, highlights this absence of effective parental supervision and control.
Without the continuous guiding influence of a father/father figure, a strong united family household, or a powerful matriarchal environment, some young boys tend to go astray, seeking out the companionship, camaraderie and approval of their peers.
And as dysfunctional one-parent families proliferate, so, too, will child or teenage gangs. Our ministry responsible for social services and, by association, the family need to organise more research into this phenomenon and into the nature and mores of the non-traditional Guyanese family.
Nevertheless, we know from study groups in foreign countries with a similar problem that joining a gang has a lot to do with the symbolic expression of masculinity. Guyana is no different, even if this expression of masculinity has become somewhat exaggerated and abhorrent.
There are many reasons why this expression of masculinity has become deformed and has evolved into an unacceptable (to the good society) machismo.
Not least among these is the advent of ‘ dance-hall’ culture, which almost glorifies violent behaviour, gangsterism, and disrespect for women while embracing visible material accumulation by any means necessary as its answer to ‘ s— jobs’ and ‘slave wages’.
Secondly, it is a culture that devalues women and reduces their role in society to that of a supine plaything for the male gender to indulge itself.
Once this gender-based, rebellious male attitude takes hold, single parent mothers tend to lose control of their male children.
This usually happens between the ages of 10 and 13. Peer pressure then takes over, and, in the absence of any countervailing ideology or moral influence, these children can become delinquent.
In Guyana, the problem of child criminals is further complicated by political innuendo, prejudice and propaganda. Some politicians, as well as jaundiced analysts and social commentators, insist on putting an ethnic spin on the problem.
This tendency finds its way into our race-based political culture and practice.
It plays on fears and ethnic insecurity, and is used to divide and polarize whole communities.
Stereotypes have emerged, and once this ethnic perception of a child criminal type becomes embedded in the nation’s psyche, the deviant children to whom the stereotype is applied begin to feel that criminality is their niche and what society expects of them.
Despite the grim nature of the child criminal phenomenon, there are corrective actions that can be taken to bridle and, hopefully, reverse the trend, while stopping the descent into a life of hardened crime for those 11-year-olds who are already offenders.
Such action must begin with, and be guided by, an in-depth study of juvenile criminality and its causes. The Social Services Sector Parliamentary Committee can make this happen.
What might help, subject to the findings of critical analysis, is the creation of structures aimed at embedding deviant juveniles in social relations that can act as a constraint on criminality. To this end, mentoring programmes need to be widened and institutionalised.
Government needs to establish more localized recreational centres and sport facilities. Imaginative ways have to be found not only to fund these facilities, but also to staff and maintain them.
Literacy programmes should be expanded and intensified, with special emphasis on inner-city areas. In this regard, the PNCR, with its limited resources, should be commended for its sterling efforts, particularly in Sophia. In order to promote early apprenticeships as an integral part of skills training for young school leavers, Government should introduce an incentive system for companies willing to participate and craftsmen willing to impart their skills and craft to pre-teens and teenagers.
Serious consideration needs to be given to the establishment of a Voluntary National Youth Service (VNYS) which would train young people in the arts, craft and a wide range of marketable skills. In the VNYS, literacy and health education should be compulsory for all youth.
Those who enroll in the VNYS would be paid a modest monthly allowance based on attendance, punctuality and assessed behaviour/attitude.
Fatherlessness, according to a world view, is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from child crime to adolescent pregnancy, to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women.
Though we are dealing with profound processes of change in everyday life, some undesirable trends are well within our capacity to reduce and reverse. I believe that, given the political will, child criminality can be one of them.
F. Hamley Case
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