What does the word “Jamaica” conjure up in your mind? Long, glittery beaches? Azure-colored water? Fancy resorts? Those are some of the images I would have thought of until recently. But, as I’ve learned, they’re only part of Jamaica’s very complicated reality.
|UNICEF/ HQ08-0267/Susan Markisz|
You see, for years now, Jamaica”that small vacation paradise about the size of Connecticut”has had one of the highest murder rates on the planet. In fact, it’s often referred to as “the murder capital of the world.” In 2007, more than 1,500 people, out of a population of only 2.7 million, were murdered. That equals more than four people a day, and includes an estimated 100 children. This year over 700 persons have already been killed.
|UNICEF/ HQ08-0272/Susan Markisz|
My colleague, Afreen Akhter, spent a year in Jamaica working for a grassroots theater collective. She describes Jamaica as two separate, almost opposite countries”one very wealthy and quite safe, the other desperately poor and very dangerous. “You can drive 20 minutes in one direction,” she says, “and all you see is affluence. 20 minutes in the other direction and you might see a dead body.”
Drug trade, gang warfare, corruption, national debt”all have contributed to Jamaica’s plight. UNICEF is particularly concerned with the children who get caught in the middle of all the violence. Children need to be able to grow up in a peaceful, stable environment. They shouldn’t have to live with the fear that someone they’re close to might be the victim of violence. Yet, in a recent national survey, 60 per cent of kids 9 to 17 years old in Jamaica reported that a family member had been a victim of violence, and 37 percent have a family member who has been killed. Children shouldn’t have to worry that the act of going to school might be dangerous. But in Jamaica, schools have actually been closed due to the intense gang violence surrounding them.
|UNICEF/ HQ08-0296/Susan Markisz|
Now UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) are urging the Jamaican government to step up its efforts to contain the weapons’ flow through the country, and embark on a social intervention drive to cut the incredibly high rate of armed violence.
In addition, UNICEF is supporting violence-prevention programs, mediation and conflict management. We’re also creating safe child-friendly spaces in violence-prone communities to give children a haven, and a place to learn. We’re focusing attention on quality education and early childhood development to try to break the cycle of poverty and violence in Jamaica’s poorest areas. The children of this small, beautiful country deserve better.
Does it surprise you to learn about the “two sides” of Jamaica? What would you do to help children there? We’d love to hear from you.