Each year on November 20th, the world observes Universal Children’s Day, which aims to improve child welfare worldwide, promote and celebrate children’s rights and promote togetherness and awareness amongst all children. It reminds us that we must not only bring about awareness, but we must take decisive actions to ensure the nurturing, protection and elevation of our children in society.
This year, the day is being marked by Children Taking Over and Turning the World Blue, and it is indeed fitting, as I, and the party which I lead, have called for more young people to “take over” and take up roles in all aspects of society such as media, sport, business and politics. We need to support our children, and help them to raise their voices in support of their peers who are being denied basic rights, or who may have no access to education, protection or opportunities to develop and fulfil their potential.
Since my entry into politics, one of the first issues I campaigned on was “Children First” back in 1995. Since then, I have made and continue to make the development and protection of our children the central focus of anything that we do during my time in the political arena. Between 2010 and 2015, the Government I led made significant strides towards ensuring our children were well taken care of. In fact, one of the very first initiatives of my government was the establishment of the Children’s Life Fund by Cabinet Note No. 1 of 2010.
Thereafter, we introduced several programmes and initiatives all geared towards the development and protection of our children’s wellbeing. These included
· The introduction of the baby care grant
· Special Child Grant for parents who are unable to financially provide for their special children.
· Increase in School Supplies Grant for both Primary and Secondary school children.
· Increase in Education Grant
· Passage of the Trafficking in Persons Act, 2011 – this Act provides the legislative framework to suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
· Created URP Social, so that mothers of children with cerebral palsy would be paid to look after their children
· Introduction of the Laptop initiative. By 2015, every secondary school student had received a laptop giving every child a fighting chance at a sound education
· Construction and commissioning of The Couva Children’s Hospital built and furnished with most modern equipment
· Attained Universal preschool education (one of the few nations to achieve this UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG)) where children two to five years are given a strong foundation for learning. 53 such schools built.
· A Civil Child Abduction Authority had for the first time been established pursuant to the Hague Convention. Upon demitting office, T&T had already partnered with 48 countries in the world to protect the rights of children.
· Primary schools benefited from the improvement of security, computerisation, establishment of a School Health Programme and visual arts and performance theatres.
· All secondary schools were equipped with functioning computer labs, as well as more than 300 primary schools.
· Created 21st century smart classrooms, with audio-visual labs, in several schools.
· Ministry coordinated with major stakeholders for “special needs” students (Inclusive Education Model).
· Conducted more than 4,500 infrastructural, repair and maintenance projects, in more than 850 schools
· A consultancy was initiated for full neurodevelopmental and related screening, assessment and treatment of all students in eight ECCE centres and eight primary schools, which will determine the incidence and prevalence of the various special needs.
· Constructed 93 new primary and secondary schools throughout the country, and left 91 more under construction. 57 new ECCE Centres have been constructed, with another 52 under construction at the time of demitting office.
Our country has made significant strides in protecting and ensuring the basic needs of children as recognised in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and The Convention on the Rights of the child, but we must continue to work, and do more to help our children realize their potential, and become innovators, champions and leaders.
Today, however, it is disheartening to see the work of the government I led being undone by the present administration to the detriment of our nation’s children.
How many stories must we read in the newspaper of children being unable to access funding for life-saving surgery? How many times must we hear about children being denied meals as a result of an inefficient school feeding programme? How many instances of mothers being unable to care for their babies with no intervention by the state must we learn of?
It is said that we do not own this land but rather, we hold it in trust for our children. As a country, we must ask ourselves if this is the Trinidad and Tobago we wish to leave for our children.
We need to do better. We must all work to provide avenues to encourage our children to dream, and to inspire them to work towards fulfilling those dreams, as our country needs bold and visionary individuals to take us further along a path of development.
On this significant day, I reaffirm my pledge and commitment to continue working assiduously to ensure the protection and development of our children. I ask that we work, together, towards building a Trinidad and Tobago that is stronger, more prosperous, and filled with opportunities for our children, and for all our citizens.
Leader of the Opposition