KINGSTON, Jamaica – The United Nations' child welfare agency said Wednesday that it is deeply concerned about what it describes as "unrelenting violence" against youngsters in Jamaica, including the recent beheading of a 4-year-old girl.
Robert Fuderich, UNICEF's representative in Jamaica, said a recent spate of grisly crimes targeting schoolchildren has underscored a chronic and disturbing problem in the Caribbean country that has put authorities on alert and parents on edge.
"The killing of several children, in close succession, is a tragic reminder of the violence being meted out to children on a daily basis," Fuderich said Wednesday.
In recent days, two men were killed in an apparent reprisal killing for the slaying of an 8-year-old girl in the troubled southern city of Spanish Town. A note was left on one of the dead men's bodies stating, "Children are our future, rapist must die." Another young girl's battered corpse was found dumped in a latrine in a nearby area.
In perhaps the most gruesome attack, the decapitated body of 4-year-old Natasha Brown was found last week in a sinkhole in a rural town in northwest Jamaica. Police say the ex-girlfriend of the child's father allegedly butchered the child in a jealous rage about five months after her relationship with the father ended.
Earlier this year, Jamaica made international headlines when an 8-year-old British schoolgirl visiting relatives in a rural village was fatally shot by a gunman who fired at a group of family members congregating in a roadside shop.
UNICEF reports that 40 children were reported murdered in 2012 on the island of roughly 2.6 million inhabitants. In just the first four months of this year, 16 children were killed - almost half of last year's total.
Reports of child abuse, including neglect and rapes of schoolchildren, are also increasingly frequent. Last year, Jamaican child welfare authorities received 8,741 reports of child abuse compared to 7,826 the year before.
Fuderich believes this can be considered "good news" because it suggests that more islanders are reporting suspected or known abuse. "Early reporting can mean the difference between life and death for a child who is being abused," he said.
Jamaica has long struggled with high rates of violent crime. But the recent spate of attacks on children have renewed a sense of fear and outrage among crime-weary Jamaicans. Even in tiny, one-road communities in the countryside, some parents are reassessing whether to allow their young children to walk to school alone or run around outside unattended.
Four years ago, Jamaica launched an island-wide alert system for missing children, named after a schoolgirl whose beheaded body was found in bushes off a rural road in 2008. The "Ananda Alert" system, in memory of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, was based on the U.S. "Amber Alert." Each day, police issue reports of missing children. Many of the alerts are cancelled when the youngsters return home, but some remain missing or are eventually found dead in ditches and cane fields.
Nearly 400 children were murdered between 2000 and 2008, and nearly 6,500 were reported to be victims of rape and other sexual abuse, according to Diahann Gordon-Harrison, Jamaica's children's advocate.
After Natasha's decapitated body was found last week, Youth Minister Lisa Hanna said instances of children going missing or victimized by violence are too common. She urged Jamaicans to be on the alert for threats facing youngsters and said the expansion of community counselling and mental health services is urgently needed to help islanders deal with domestic stress and psychological problems.
"It is sad that our youth and our children have to face such horrendous realities based on domestic tensions," Hanna said.