Former Child Soldier to Jamaican Children: Don’t Be Defeated by Violence
KINGSTON, 30 April 2008 − Wrapping up his first mission as UNICEF’s Advocate for Children Affected by War, former child soldier Ishmael Beah today said that Jamaican children need more opportunities, support and hope to resist and rise above violence.
The twenty-seven year-old, who was forced at thirteen to fight in Sierra Leone’s civil war, turned his life around with help from UNICEF. He was in Jamaica for two days to share his experience with children and young people whose lives are affected by violence and conflict.
Beah visited Trenchtown, Arnett Gardens, Federal Gardens and Dunkirk with representatives from the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), where he talked with children about what it takes to stay away from gangs and navigate difficult circumstances without resorting to violence.
“My life was all about weapons, drugs and violence,” he said during his visit. “Now I teach people to resist violence and to use that energy to do other positive things with their lives. I encourage them to see that it is possible to have a life outside of violence.”
Violence is a major threat to Jamaican childhood. Eighty-seven percent of children aged two to 14 are subjected to at least one form of psychological or physical punishment. Only 28 per cent of children think their communities are safe.
Children are being pressed into gang warfare, where they are used as spies and look-outs and are often forced to conceal and use guns – not unlike the use of child soldiers in the world’s conflict zones.
Beah, who regained his humanity through the constant and unconditional support he received at a UNICEF-supported rehabilitation centre and later from his adopted family, maintains that the key to curbing this widespread violence lies in the type of interventions, care and support provided to children.
“Every child has the capacity to do great things,” he said at a presentation at the University of the West Indies (UWI) on Tuesday evening, co-hosted by UNICEF and the Violence Prevention Alliance and attended by some 200 people.
“No one wants to take up a gun. It is circumstances that push children into violence. What you provide and how you engage children is what makes the difference. It is possible to refocus and reshape their lives,” said Beah.
Beah had the opportunity to meet and learn more about several courageous frontline workers in Jamaica who put in a daily effort to help children find a way out of violence, visiting UNICEF-supported programmes run by NGO Children First in Spanish Town and the Eastern Peace Centre in Mountain View.
Both programmes cater to at-risk children, providing a range of recreational activities, remedial education, conflict resolution and life-skills training and income-generating opportunities in safe and child-friendly environments.
Beah also visited a successful income-generating project in Federal Gardens, which includes a community-owned and operated banana plantation and chicken coop, and talked with community leaders in Arnett Gardens about the positive impact of homework classes, green spaces and summer programmes targeting vulnerable children.
UNICEF works closely with the government of Jamaica to support and strengthen laws, policies and programmes that reduce the vulnerability of children to abuse and violence and mitigate their impact. UNICEF advocates for greater investment in early childhood education, which evidence strongly suggests is the best investment for reducing violence.
“Many Jamaican children are facing the same kind of uncertainty that Ishmael struggled with so many years ago,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF Representative, speaking at the UWI Forum. “Ishmael Beah’s story has the kind of good ending that many Jamaican children need to hear, believe in, and one day experience themselves in their own lives.”