It is the summer of 2004 and Spanish Town, Jamaica’s former capital, is an urban centre rocked by violence. Gun violence and gang wars have become all too common, especially for residents in a number of low-income or informal settlements on the outskirts of the town.
Children First, a youth-centered non-governmental organisation which operates in the heart of Spanish Town, has taken 81 children between the ages of 10 and 18 out of this urban violence to a rural seaside retreat for a summer camp.
Many of the young participants live in volatile and economically depressed areas of Spanish Town. Some have witnessed violence in their communities. Children First has chosen these children to be trained as peer educators who will carry the lessons learnt about Child Rights, Violence Prevention, HIV/AIDS, Drug Abuse and Advocacy back to their homes, schools, clubs and communities.
Using “participatory action research” methodologies, two Children First facilitators who received training under UNICEF’s “Right to Know” adolescent project, conduct a session on Child Rights with a group of 10 to 13 year olds. They ask them to use dough, made from flour and water, to mould models of persons in the community who violate their rights.
Tamara and Shanel have both moulded gunmen, armed with weapons, and explain that the gangs of gunmen take away their right to an education when they cannot go to school because of violence in their communities. The gangs also take away Shanel’s right to home and family as she cannot visit her aunt because of fear.
Cruise has moulded two sets of figures who violate his rights – gunmen and police. “The gunmen fire guns and we cannot leave the house and we have to hide in the cellar. And the police take away my rights also because they cannot protect me because they have to run from gunmen too.”
A few years ago, the young trainers from Children First were in the same position as their trainees. The NGO’s programmes have provided them with the skills necessary to help their peers and make a change in their communities. Now, a core group of 25 of the 81 campers will be selected to be trained for leadership to ensure sustainability of Children First’s activities.
The whole focus of Children First is to ensure that programmes are relevant to youth and have their full participation. The session in the afternoon is a lively dramatic presentation on the issue of drug abuse, which has the campers’ full attention. Popular music and dance are fully utilised.
The highlight of the day however is a visit from one of the more popular young entertainers. Twenty-one year old Jeffrey Campbell holds them spellbound as he talks about the dangers of unsafe sex and early sexual activity. He is part of the group “Artistes Against AIDS”, which has produced a UNICEF sponsored song and video on condom use and safe sex.
Hopefully the enthusiasm and interest generated among the young campers will be carried back to Spanish Town to make a positive impact in their troubled communities.