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Committee on the Rights of the Child review report of Guyana

15 January 2013

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the combined second to fourth periodic report of Guyana on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Jennifer Webster, Minister of Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, said that the steady progress achieved over the past six years in poverty reduction, gender equality, education and infant and child mortality had translated into an improved quality of life for all in Guyana, especially children. The Government remained steadfast in its pro-poor and pro-growth approach to eradicating poverty, improving equal access to services, expanding and diversifying the economy and creating an enabling environment for domestic and foreign investments. Despite the relatively positive economic outlook, Guyana was at a critical junction in time in which it faced a number of challenges in the realization of its commitments to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Millennium Development Goals, and the Education for All targets of 2015. Guyana also faced the challenge of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, which impacted food security, disaster preparedness and increased expenditure on prevention, particularly for a country whose coast was below sea level.

Committee Experts welcomed the commitment of the Government to the well-being of children, and emphasized the importance of having in place specific policies for children, national action plans and earmarked resources. Committee Experts expressed concern about high rates of sexual and physical violence against women and girls, violence and abuse against children, including corporal punishment in schools and homes, the situation of street children and numerous teenage pregnancies. Experts inquired about measures undertaken to address the high rates of neonatal, infant and maternal mortality in the country, particularly in the interior and riverine areas, and about the actions by the Government to support the large number of female headed families and to protect children left behind by their parents.

In concluding remarks, Kirsten Sandberg, Committee Rapporteur for the report of Guyana, said that the legislation in Guyana seemed to be very good and noted the need to improve its practice. The Committee could help Guyana to improve the situation of children in the country, for example in the juvenile justice areas or corporal punishment.

Also in concluding observations, Gail Teixeira, Adviser to the President of Guyana on governance, said that reporting to the Committee was an important area of governance and that being able to look at one’s progress and challenges was an important aspect of international treaties. Guyana had a clear understanding of the importance of the provisions of the Convention and would continue to implement them, despite the challenges and hurdles it still had to overcome.

Jean Zermatten, the Committee Chairperson, in closing remarks agreed with the delegation of Guyana that reporting to the Committee was extremely important for the promotion and protection of the rights of children in Guyana.

The delegation of Guyana consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, the Rights of the Child Commission and the Adviser to the President on governance.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be on Wednesday, 16 January at 10 a.m. when it will begin its consideration of the second periodic report of the United States under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (CRC/C/OPSC/USA/2) and the second periodic report under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC/C/OPAC/USA/2).

Report

The combined second to fourth periodic report of Guyana can be read here: (CRC/C/GUY/2-4).

Presentation of the Report

JENNIFER WEBSTER, Minister of Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, said that since the submission of its combined periodic reports in 2010, Guyana had undertaken considerable efforts to create an environment where children could thrive within available resources. As a result of the 2010 Universal Periodic Review process, Guyana was now holding country-wide consultations to abolish the death penalty and the issue had been tabled in the National Assembly and sent to the Parliamentary Committee which would invite the views of the public. Guyana was a country the size of the United Kingdom but with only one hundredth of its population, of which 58 per cent were below 35 years of age. Progress had been steady over the past six years, with an improved quality of life for the people, especially children. Progress demanded more people and more skilled people and special skills presently not available in the country. To cushion the impact of the crisis on the poor and vulnerable, especially children and women, the Government had introduced specific measures which helped control the cost of living and prevented increases in poverty levels. The Government remained steadfast in its pro-poor and pro-growth approach to eradicating poverty, improving equal access to services, expanding and diversifying the economy, and creating an enabling environment for domestic and foreign investments. The 2011 report on progress in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals had demonstrated clear progress in poverty reduction, gender equality, education, and infant and child mortality; key challenges remained in maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS and malaria. The national plan had been drafted to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Guyana had almost achieved universal primary education and had achieved gender parity in primary school enrolment and completion. It was now turning its attention to attaining secondary enrolment and completion by 2015 and improving the quality of secondary and tertiary education. Secondary education had been provided for the first time to the majority of Amerindian (indigenous) children in the interior and riverine areas, which was a considerable achievement.

Despite the relatively positive economic outlook and the good progress in eradicating extreme poverty, Guyana was at a critical junction in time and was faced with challenges in the realization of its commitments to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Millennium Development Goals, and the Education for All targets of 2015. The continuing challenge, particularly in the reporting to the United Nations treaty bodies, was availability of disaggregated data, especially ethnic data which was only collected in the health and security sectors. The connectivity remained a challenge and the Government was investing in fibre optic technology to provide a platform for connectivity across the country, which was a critical component to equalizing access to services for all Guyanese along the coast and the interior. Guyana faced the challenge of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, which impacted food security, disaster preparedness and increased expenditure on prevention, particularly for a country whose coast was below sea level. Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy was an innovative approach to this enormous challenge. The second and most recent complex challenge had emerged recently at the political level and concerned crime and violence in the country which posed the greatest threat to the society’s democratic and developmental gains.

Questions by Experts

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Guyana, welcomed the positive economic outlook in Guyana and the commitment expressed by the Government to the well-being of children. The Country Rapporteur commended Guyana for ratifying the two Optional Protocols, on the sale of children and the involvement of children in armed conflict, and asked about Guyana’s intentions concerning the signature of the Third Optional Protocol on a Communication Procedure and how the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was ensured in the domestic legal system. The Committee wished to see specific policies for the children, especially the national action plan for children, which was still not in place, and inquired about the resources specifically designated for the benefit of children. Concerning the body in charge of the coordination of policies and the implementation of the Convention across different sections of the Government, what was the coordinating agency, did it have enough staff and resources to carry out its tasks, and how did it implement its functions in the hinterland and remote areas of the country?

Ms. Sandberg acknowledged the challenge in data collection in the country and the progress made in this area and asked the delegation to comment on the two separate data collection systems that existed in Guyana. Turning to the issue of discrimination, she noted the efforts of the Government in favour of Amerindian children and asked about the system on the ground to address child protection issues and poverty reduction, particularly in the interior and remote areas. Was the language used by Amerindian children a basis for discrimination? Levels of sexual and physical violence against women and girls were rather high in the country, noted the Country Rapporteur, and asked about specific measures to address violence against Amerindian women and girls who often had to turn to prostitution due to poverty. Violence and abuse of children remained a key concern for the Government which had undertaken a number of measures and programmes to address this phenomenon; could the delegation comment on the effectiveness of those measures and about the actions taken to address complaints of abuse and violence lodged by children? How was the best interest of the child, now instituted in the law, applied?

AWICH POLAR, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Guyana, raised the issue of the cooperation of the State with civil society and asked about their involvement in the preparation of the reports, about the permissive legal system that enabled civil society to cooperate, and about the capacity of civil society to participate. Could the delegation provide more information about the protection of children from street violence, prevention of suicide and the avoidance of death from infectious disease and road accidents?

Another Expert took up the National Rights of the Child Commission and asked about its mandate, structure and composition, and how compliant it was with the Paris Principles. Were the Commissioners capable of establishing a dialogue with children? What was the complaint mechanism in place and was the Commission accessible to children and other citizens? Tradition excluded children from equal participation, particularly in schools, and the Expert wondered what was being done to ensure respect for the views of the children and about the results of child-friendly schools.

How did the law define violence against children and was it specifically prohibited in the law? What legal measures were taken if a child was abused in the context of the home? Another Expert commended the legislative initiatives undertaken in the country and asked about the measures to further bring its domestic legislation in line with international norms. What steps were being taken to ratify the Hague Conventions, particularly the one on adoption and international cooperation? Were judges familiar with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and were its provisions cited in the courts?

Turning to the issue of birth registration, a Committee Expert commended Guyana’s commitment to universal birth registration by 2015 and noted that problems still existed in this respect, particularly among the Amerindian population in the areas bordering with Venezuela. What was being done to strengthen the birth registration system and to inform parents about the importance of registration, especially in rural areas? The Committee welcomed the raising of the age for sexual consent to 16 years and asked what the exact legal age for marriage was. Corporal punishment remained a serious issue in the country and the Committee was concerned that it remained culturally acceptable, was widely practiced and was tolerated by law, including in schools.

Mr. Zermatten, Committee Chairperson, expressed the concern about climate change and asked how the legislation on the Low Carbon Strategy and the climate change legislation and strategy worked together, and how they included children?

Response by Delegation

In response to these questions and comments, the delegation said the Constitution of Guyana made it very clear that the human rights conventions Guyana had acceded to would guide the workings of the three branches of the Government and the Convention on the Rights of the Child was specifically listed among those Conventions, which meant that a specific law was not needed to ensure its application in the courts. The delegation assured the Committee that the resource allocations to the education and health sectors originated from the human rights-based approach and recalled that the development of democracy in Guyana was based on human rights. The role of the Government was to ensure that the allocation of resources was in consonance with the democratic thrust and the human rights-based approach. Prior to 1992, 54 per cent of children in the country were malnourished; many did not go to school, particularly in the interior and riverine areas. Guyana had a tiny population of some 700,000 people and resources were limited; special principles needed to apply in their allocation. The indigenous peoples of Guyana had been discriminated against for centuries and Guyana had granted absolute titles to communal land to its indigenous peoples and 40 per cent of the country’s land mass was now held in communal titles which were absolute. The land issue and the right of indigenous peoples to govern their land and to have access to health, education and work were all human rights and resources had been allocated to specifically target interior areas in order to implement those rights.

The right of children to education was critical and the Government offered free education and free health services. There were private schools in the country, but the majority of children attended public schools and benefited from the public health system. The Government was struggling to improve the quality of education and there were specially targeted programmes to the interior, with school feeding programmes to encourage and improve attendance and performance of children in poor areas. Regardless of the progress made in the eradication of extreme poverty, further efforts were needed to reach targets in poverty reduction and address the existing pockets of poverty in the country.

The Rights of the Child Commission was a constitutional body and its members, who mainly came from civil society organizations, were appointed though the Parliamentary process in which the agreement of two thirds of members was required to ensure a high degree of political agreement and consensus. The current membership in the Commission would come to an end in 2013 and the Parliament was now in the process of identifying new members of civil society organizations for membership in the next three-year cycle. This Commission was fairly new and it was intended to fully comply with the Paris Principles. All its 15 commissioners who were selected and vetted by the Parliament came from various professions and various civil society organizations and had considerable experience in working with children and on child issues. Children were being involved at all levels and in all regions, regardless of how difficult access to those regions was, and participated in the Children’s Parliament. The Commission could carry out independent investigations and reported to the Parliament on an annual basis; the child protection agency dealt with specific protection issues.

The delegation said there were four human rights commissions in the country and that it had taken a long time to establish them because of the required degree of political agreement. Those Commissions were independent and had the authority to deal with complaints, take issues to courts and establish their own tribunals. The Commissions could investigate in their own right, and had mechanisms at their disposal to deal with criminal or other findings. The ultimate body responsible for the coordination of children’s rights and policies was the Cabinet, while children’s issues and the child protection agency were located in the Ministry for Human Services and Social Security.

The Government interacted with civil society organizations, including religious ones, at a number of levels and through several mechanisms; registration was not a requirement for civil society organizations to receive governmental support. The Government aimed for the Rights of the Child Commission to fully comply with the Paris Principles and to bring it to the level to represent a national human rights institution for Guyana; it was still however early for this and there was more learning to be done before full compliance happened. The Hague Conventions, including the Convention 33 on international adoptions, were not ratified as yet, but the national law on international adoptions dealt with the issue, particularly for citizens of Guyana living abroad.

On birth registration, the delegation said that it was important to note that in the last 15 years birth was registered by midwives or health workers and that was why 93 per cent of births were registered in the country; the issue was with the persons aged 60 or over who often lacked birth certificates. Parents had a responsibility to ensure the registration of the birth and that children were issued with birth certificates. Twenty-nine per cent of families were headed by women: mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and for many children the issuance of a birth certificate was put on hold until the father recognized the child and put his name on the certificate.

Questions by Experts

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Guyana, addressed the issue of the family environment. She noted the significant proportion of single parent families and the parental abandonment of children due to poverty and asked about the measures to support female-headed families, childcare for working mothers and the absence of fathers. What was being done to address high levels of violence and abuse in child care institutions and the overcrowding? What were the strategies in place to convince young people to stay in Guyana? What activities were in place to support children’s play and leisure?

Committee Experts further asked a number of questions concerning the juvenile justice system, such as the age of criminal responsibility, the most common crimes committed by juveniles, and the special facilities for pre-trial detention of children younger than 16. On education, Experts asked about measures undertaken to ensure the quality of education in all schools in the country, including the adoption of modern technologies for those purposes, training of teachers and incorporation of street children into the school system. What were the root causes of school dropping out and what was being done to address the dropping out of boys? What was being done to protect children from labour in fishing, agriculture and construction sectors? Could the delegation provide information about the access of children to confidential counselling and the confidentiality of children’s files?

Was there a study on violence in the country and what were the prevalence rates of violence against children? How many people had been sanctioned for not reporting violence against children and what were the consequences of non-reporting? A good portion of children under five were left home alone or under the care of an older sibling and the Committee wondered what was being done to address this problem. Were there cases of sex tourism in Guyana and did children have easy access to child help lines? What was being done to address the tuberculosis and child and infant mortality rates which were the highest in the region?

Concerning infant and maternal mortality, a Committee Expert asked which body was in charge of data collection, how the data was collected and whether it reflected geographical disparity in maternal mortality. What action was being taken to reduce high neonatal mortality rates and what programmes were in place to prevent teen pregnancies, since one fifth of babies in Guyana were born to teenage mothers? How was the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child addressed? Could the delegation provide more information about efforts to promote and support breastfeeding in Guyana and how early childhood development was being implemented?

An Expert noted that policies in dealing with street children were rather strict and took precedence over their educational and health needs.

The Experts took up the issue of teenage pregnancies and asked about specific measures to understand and prevent this phenomenon and to protect the rights of pregnant teenage mothers and their children, and about specific health services available for teen mothers so that their privacy was protected at all times. HIV/AIDS rates in Guyana were among the highest in the Caribbean and were the leading cause of death for the population aged 20 to 44 years; what was being done to address this issue, particularly among adolescent mothers? Was data available on children left behind and what measures were being taken on their behalf? What assessment measures were undertaken before children were institutionalized? Could the delegation provide more information about the process of domestic adoption?

The delegation was further asked to comment on measures and actions to address sexual abuse of children and why its incidence was on the increase; on the plans for compulsory early childhood education; and what steps were taken by Guyana to ensure timely reports on the International Labour Organization Conventions and Recommendations on child labour.

Response by Delegation

In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation said child and maternal mortality data was collected on a quarterly basis. The high levels of maternal mortality were found in cities partly because complicated cases were referred to the cities from the interior of the country. The neonatal mortality rates were indeed high and the delegation agreed that surveillance systems must be put in place. About 20 to 25 per cent of babies in Guyana were born to teenage mothers, who were usually aged between 17 and 19 years of age; it was extremely rare to find 13, 14 or 15 year old mothers. Adolescent health and well-being programmes were in place and their ability to teach sexual education to adolescents was impacted by religious, cultural and traditional beliefs and practices of parents. The rates of mother-to-child HIV/AIDS transmission had declined from about 4 to 1.5 per cent. One of the main contributors to the reduction of infant mortality in the interior was the fact that Amerindian women tended to breastfeed their babies until two years of age.

There were nine distinct Amerindian languages which were not written languages and therefore were not taught in classroom; however, the Government had been working to compile vocabulary and was supporting the use of these languages in different settings to keep them alive. Abortions were legal in Guyana; in the 1990s they had been the main cause of maternal death, but that was no longer the case. Confidential counselling of adolescents and pregnant teenagers was available within health centres. HIV/AIDS rates were steadily declining and Guyana hoped that in 2015 the country would be able to meet some of the Millennium Development Goals and targets related to HIV/AIDS. Culturally, the family was defined as extended and not nuclear, and it was a part of tradition to take care of each other’s children, which had both positive and negative aspects. Children left behind were taken care of by extended family members, regardless of whether mothers died or left the country.

Children had full access to nursery schools for half a day free of charge and nursery schools existed in each village. Free school uniform vouchers provided by the Government were among the measures that had helped low income families, and especially single mothers, to send all their children to school and not be obliged to choose and pick which one would go. Boys dropped out of school at the age of 14, 15 and 16 and a study had been done by the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of Guyana on the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Programmes and whether they offered opportunities to young people.

In a follow up comment, the Committee Chairperson noted that Guyana would have to think further about the definition of child labour and at which age one could carry out economic activities that were dangerous or hazardous.

Turning to the Child Protection Agency, the delegation said that it had been created to protect the interest of children; it was independent in the implementation of child protection laws and policies and had sufficient resources to conduct its work. In the regions, there were child protection officers whose role was to support the Child Protection Agency in its work. Children had access to the complaint mechanism and when sexual violence and abuse against children was reported, the children would be immediately removed from the abusive environment. The Government cooperated with the Amerindian structures in providing protection to indigenous children. Visiting Committees had been set up in the latter part of 2012 and were tasked with visiting all the children’s homes, both public and private, to ensure compliance with minimum standards. The Child Protection Agency placed a lot of emphasis on early childhood development services and would strive to expand childcare services and provide childcare services also in the evenings to ensure that those parents working at night or weekends had proper care for their children. Early childhood development services covered children aged 0 to five years of age.

There was an Adoption Board in place and in 2011, nine children had been adopted, three internationally and six nationally, while in 2012, nine children had been adopted domestically and six internationally.

The new legislation concerning sexual violence allowed citizens to report cases of violence against children and a helpline had been put at their disposal. A lot had been done to address domestic violence, particularly the Stamp it Out campaign and the national dialogue on domestic violence and gender-based violence. This national programme targeted several communities across the country to understand the root causes of violence in the country and based on those findings, the national strategic plan would be created to address the phenomenon. The issue of corporal punishment was being examined by the Parliamentary Committee at the moment and it was hoped that the Committee would soon present its recommendations to the National Assembly.

An Expert said that the question was what the Government was doing to eradicate corporal punishment, particularly in schools, and to raise awareness among the populace on this issue which was culturally accepted.

The delegation said that people were slowly moving away from acceptance of corporal punishment to alternative methods of punishment. No person in Guyana could be held without charges for longer than 72 hours and this constitutional provision applied to juvenile offenders as well. Juveniles under the age of 16 were kept separately from adults and could be sent to juvenile detention centres, where they could remain until the age of 17.

In follow up questions, Committee Experts asked the delegation to confirm that children aged 10 or older could be tried as adult criminals. More information was also requested about juvenile magistrates and juvenile courts, and about the number of juvenile offenders tried.

Answering to those and other questions, the delegation said that although criminal responsibility of children was set at 10 years of age, it did not mean that all children committing offences were automatically put in prison. The probation officer in charge of each case had to prepare the report about the child and the particular circumstances and recommend specific alternative measures to detention. If detention was found to be the only measure, the magistrate would send the juvenile to a juvenile facility for no longer than three years, while the juvenile criminal record would be expunged at the expiration of that time. The delegation agreed that this law needed to be revised and said that the suggested reform would propose raising the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 12 and would look into how to differentiate between the treatment of small offences, such as pick-pocketing, and serious crimes.

An Expert asked about alternative measures to imprisonment for minors and measures to ensure the reintegration in the society for offending minors. The delegation said that there were a number of alternative measures, such as a decision by the magistrate to send the minor to a relative, orphanage or another type of home which was not a detention centre. Once a juvenile was sent to a juvenile correction centre, the child would be enrolled in the closest school, while those sent to juvenile detention centres received basic training in English and literacy. Many benefited from skills training programmes as a part of the reintegration efforts.

Turning to questions concerning children with disabilities, the delegation said that there was a Government report on education and special needs. There were three special needs schools in the country, all of them located in the capital, with specially trained teachers to provide children with disabilities with more choices. It was only recently that Guyana had started to be aware of the specific needs of children with disabilities and to address them, and it was facing serious problems in mustering capacity and skills to provide specialized services and facilities. The building codes had been amended to improve access for persons with disabilities and ensure easy access to buildings. A number of surveys had been conducted to ascertain prevalence and types of disability in the country and to map it geographically so as to understand where major needs were.

The percentage of persons under the age of 18 who committed suicide was rather low and the studies on suicide done so far had not taken into account the issue of sexual orientation or sexual preference. The delegation had no knowledge of children being harassed in school because of their sexual orientation.

The best interest of the child was enshrined in the Constitution and the mechanisms to uphold this principle existed in the courts, which together with laws represented an effort to improve the legal framework and architecture for the implementation of best interest of the child. The next stage was to ensure the implementation of this architecture and have trained personnel in place. Guyana was aware that its people had prejudices and that there were people who disliked those of different ethnicity, culture or linguistic backgrounds; the Constitution prohibited discrimination and extended full protection to Amerindian children.

The Family Court had been created to deal with all family matters in a separate building specifically equipped and under specific rules which had been issued by the Judicial Commission in 2012. The next step would be issuing commencement orders for the Court to start operations.

Guyana appealed to the Committee and the international community for support and assistance in providing services to children with disabilities, particularly in the provision of education and specialized training.

Concluding Remarks

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Guyana, thanked the delegation for the information and clarifications it had provided and noted a number of points which still remained to be discussed, such as the coordination mechanism and allocation of resources. The Committee could help Guyana to improve the situation of children in the country, for example in the juvenile justice areas or corporal punishment. The legislation in Guyana seemed to be very good and there was a need to improve its practice.

GAIL TEIXEIRA, Adviser to the President of Guyana on Governance, said that reporting to the Committee was an important area of governance and that being able to look at one’s progress and challenges was an important aspect of international treaties. Guyana had a clear understanding of the importance of the provisions of the Convention and would continue to implement them, despite the challenges and hurdles to still overcome. Guyana believed strongly that the children must be the focus of efforts and it had made significant progress considering the difficulties that existed only 20 years ago. Financial and technical assistance for poor countries to reach the Millennium Development Goals and targets had been extremely frugal and Guyana had had to rely on itself to find the resources and capacities to progress. Challenges were not over, they changed and Guyana dealt with new ones, including those facing children in the developed world. Ms. Teixeira said that the Committee could support training programmes for the country’s civil servants in preparation of reports, and could assist the country in devising new data collection systems.

JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, agreed with the delegation of Guyana that reporting to the Committee was extremely important for the promotion and protection of the rights of children in Guyana.

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