Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH-CARIBBEAN: Community Programmes Help Stem Wave of Violence

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, Oct 10 2003 (IPS) - Nineteen-year-old Dwayne Hutchinson knows firsthand the effects of violence. Living in one of the most volatile areas of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, he became involved with gangs, guns and knives as early as 13 years old.

But then he discovered the Area Youth Foundation, a performing arts group made up of young people from the inner cities, which preaches themes of love, peace and unity.

"The group changed my life," he told IPS. "I never have anything to do, and the group is somewhere I can go instead of wasting time. People are attracted to the group because of the message we’re preaching, and the reality we’re showing, and because people need something to elevate their minds," he says. Hutchinson has experienced first-hand what experts call an epidemic of violence gripping the Americas, including Jamaica.

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says that although violence is a global problem, the Americas has particularly high levels of violence.

Approximately 120,000 people are murdered every year in the Americas, and 55,000 commit suicide. According to PAHO, the homicide rates per 100,000 people are 65 in Colombia, 55 in Honduras, 50 in Guatemala, 45 in El Salvador, 44 in Jamaica, and 35 in Venezuela.

In Jamaica, the cost of treating violence-related injuries is over 8 million dollars annually, with over 12,000 people treated at the major hospitals last year for violence-related injuries.

"Studies have shown there is often beating with an object, slapping or verbal aggression in the home," Jamaica’s Health Minister John Junor told a recent conference on violence prevention. "Forty percent of children reported being beaten up by an adult in the past month, and 6 percent reported severe violence, being threatened with a knife or a gun. Boys were more likely to be beaten up than girls."

Jamaica has one of the highest rates of homicide in the world, and in this island of 2.6 million people, there have already been over 700 murders so far this year.

But even in the traditionally more peaceful islands of the Caribbean, violence is increasing, says St. Lucia’s Minister of Health Damien Greaves, prompting him to call for a regional programme of violence prevention.

In St. Lucia, he points out, homicides have moved from being the tenth leading cause of death in 1998 to the fifth leading cause of death in 2002. Even though homicide levels may be much lower in St. Lucia, with 125 recorded between 1998 and 2002, he says the increase of violence everywhere is proof that a common approach is needed.

"Jamaica is part of the Caribbean, St. Lucia is part of the Caribbean, Turks and Caicos is part of the Caribbean. In the same way that CARICOM has looked at the Single Market and Economy, in the same way that CARICOM has taken on the issue of the CCJ (Caribbean Court of Justice), I believe that this issue of violence is so important now I believe that there needs to be a CARICOM approach to the prevention of violence," Greaves told IPS.

The Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, is a regional political and trade association. Greaves is proposing that CARICOM Ministers of Health should put the issue on the agenda for recommendations and discussion by the region’s heads of state.

So far, Caribbean countries have been responding to violence in the wrong way, argues Greaves.

"We’ve been concentrating on increasing the numbers of policemen, increasing the numbers of vehicles for policemen, we have been building new prisons, but what about the prevention strategies? That is perhaps where the focus should be," Greaves said.

"The crime rate is increasing, we cannot wait before it reaches a certain level before we take action, that is the problem we have been facing, we allow a lot of things to escalate and then want to reverse them," Greaves said.

He says that more community-centered programmes are necessary.

"Letting the community take ownership, in much the same way as we do for HIV now, I think this is the way we need to go," he said.

It is this community-based approach that members of the Area Youth Foundation say has been so successful for them.

The group initially came together in 1997 to produce one play. It has since evolved into a performing arts ensemble, utilising song, poetry, drama and dance to spread its core message of peace and unity. The artists perform not just locally, but overseas as well.

Because its membership consists of inner city youths, participants are well versed in the language of violence, but speak equally fluently of the difference the programme has made in their lives and their communities.

"We went to London and formed an Area Youth group there, we’re planning to launch in other parishes (of Jamaica) and across the world to spread our message, because violence is everywhere," said Dwayne Hutchinson.

Another group member, Omaal Wright, tells an audience at the violence prevention conference of his own experiences with violence, losing a brother and a father.

"The music saved me," he says, before launching into his songs of peace.

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