Jamaicans Unite for Peace
KINGSTON, 8 February 2008 – In the heart of Jamaica’s conflict zones, it is not unusual for a silent night to be shattered by the roar of gunfire. It is not unusual for children who live in these communities to sleep underneath their beds, deathly afraid of stray bullets, or to keep a pair of shoes close by at all times, ready to run for their lives.
Jamaica has earned an unwelcome reputation of being one of the most violent countries in the world. The statistics are grim, the stakes are high: children are increasingly the victims of violent crime and sexual abuse, scores of children are physically abused by their families, disillusioned and disempowered young people are swept up by drugs and gangs.
But the vast majority of Jamaicans, refusing to accept this as the story of their lives and the future of their nation, are saying a defiant no to this violence. Leading this call is the Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA), an umbrella group of highly committed private sector companies, government agencies and several NGOs, who are passionate about building a movement to combat violence with peace.
Beginning February 7th, UNICEF and other VPA members are reaching across Jamaica’s capital to mobilize thousands of people from all walks of life for the country’s biggest Peace Month celebration to date. The 30-day “Peace for Prosperity” campaign, built around a range of peace-building activities, will culminate in a massive march and rally on Peace Day, March 4th.
During Peace Month, some 20 communities in Jamaica’s major crime hotspots will take on workshops, cultural and sports events to explore concrete ways to end the scourge of violence. On the invitation of UNICEF and the Jamaican Parliament, Professor Paulo Pinheiro, who led the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children, will address an unprecedented special session on the impact of violence on Jamaican children.
Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah, who spent most of his childhood as a solider in brutal warfare, will also visit Jamaica for the first time, talking with groups of young Jamaicans about how to shed a lifestyle of drug abuse and violence, including ways to get out and stay out of gangs.
UNICEF and UNDP will host a consultation of Caribbean and Central American countries to exchange ideas on ending the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and launch a report detailing the nature and extent of the devastating problem.
Peace Month comes at a time when Jamaica is grappling with the growing epidemic of crime and violence. In 2006, over 1,700 children were victims of major crimes including murder, rape and robbery. Children and adolescents made up an alarming 78 per cent of the patients referred to health facilities for sexual abuse in the same year.
The disturbing statistics point to the severity of the problem, but they also cloud the sense of hope and optimism shared by UNICEF, the VPA and countless other Jamaicans who believe that it is possible to build lasting peace.
Professor Barry Chevannes, one of the main architects of the VPA, describes the Peace Day march as a “powerful symbol of intention, a sacrament that can bring inward strength and grace” to Jamaicans who long for lasting peace.
Speaking at the launch of Peace Month, UNICEF Jamaica Representative Bertrand Bainvel said the road to peace begins with community leaders and members who “face their daily lives of poverty and the threat of violence with hope, and above all with courage.”
Thirteen-year-old Rajay, a former victim of physical abuse, summed up the call of Jamaica’s anti-violence campaign in a poem. “All the gunshots need to cease,” he told the audience. “All oppressors need to leave their turf. We want relief from these disturbances.”
Jamaica’s Minister of Health and Environment, the Honourable Rudyard Spencer, struck the most resounding note when he called on all Jamaicans – not just those who live in violence-plagued communities – to play their part in ending violence. “A threat to peace anywhere in Jamaica is a threat to peace everywhere in Jamaica.”