Beatings with switches from fruit trees, fan belts from cars, terrazzo strips, rulers and sticks. This is what my friends and I remember of our primary school days at a denominational school. So much for the happy years of childhood. At the prestigious secondary school in central Trinidad, discipline was instilled by brute force. The Dean of Discipline was not the only person responsible for this. My classmates and I were routinely slapped, punched and kicked by teachers. This, coupled with a daily diet of insults and humiliation, traumatised the young children who were supposed to develop into holistic, law-abiding citizens. My friends were constantly bombarded by negativity, peer pressure and bullying, while at home many were demeaned and condemned by older siblings and parents. Many felt this was a wholesome education, but it was given in a warped environment. The perpetrators of such depraved acts against innocent boys created a generation of maladaptive and unfinished men. In a vicious cycle a few of my friends became fathers and teachers but the emotional scars they bear lead them to also use violence to earn respect and promote discipline and obedience.

Both my primary and secondary schools were recognised for their prestigious scholarships and a high percentage of successful graduates. But there was a nefarious side to this as many students were forced to excel at examinations. I felt pity for those boys who failed exams or dropped out of school. Some became suicidal and depressed. I survived and excelled because of a strong family structure at home. Others were not as lucky. I genuinely wanted to help those who were marginalised and had fallen through cracks in the education system. However, I was a young historian and had no training in mediation, counselling, or psychology.

As a young adult, I wanted to find solutions to this abusive psychodrama that was part of the education system. I decided to promote men who didn’t use violence to exact discipline. These were some of the reasons I conceptualised and launched International Men’s Day in 1999. In the early years my organisation, International Men’s Day Trinidad and Tobago (IMDTT), was refused funding from the government and private businesses. Despite these setbacks, we held workshops and seminars in public libraries, schools and community centres. We visited parks, rum shops, neighbourhoods and businesses to ensure the messages of peace, equity, equality and empowerment were being absorbed. IMDTT relied on the goodwill of counsellors, psychiatrists and trained coaches who volunteered to speak to men at risk. Free counselling, advice and medicine helped save the lives of numerous men.

Subsequently, I also thought of the thousands of boys in Trinidad and Tobago who were experiencing cruel and harsh punishment at home, in schools and neighbourhoods. These boys urgently needed assistance and were being neglected by NGOs and the government. In 2018, to counter this abusive sub-culture, I created World Day of the Boy Child to highlight their challenges and to give a voice to those who were suffering in silence. I wanted Trinidadians and wider Caribbean society to appreciate the need to protect our boys. I wanted others to understand that boys become traumatised when they are abused and that it is often difficult to heal these wounds. Of course, some critics say that the Caribbean is patriarchal, consequently men and boys are privileged.

It is impractical to create a customised education programme for each boy but teachers and parents need to be mindful of the varying coping mechanisms and mental aptitudes of boys. While collaborating with social workers and activists, I learnt of the many cases in which boys with special needs such as autism and epilepsy were left at home due to an absence of trained teachers or lack of educational facilities. Such cases were more prevalent among boys residing in rural areas. Education systems in the Caribbean should reject one-size-fits-all models.

There is a glaring absence of research and statistics on abused boys in Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, on 7 May 2016, the headline: “Children abused at alarming rate” appeared in the Trinidad Guardian. The article revealed that during the past year more than 5000 incidents of child abuse were committed. These statistics raise red flags. First, the cases of abuse were lumped together as ‘children’ and there were no statistics on the number of abused boys as opposed to girls. Second, the report did not indicate the corrective treatment provided to these abused boys. The few NGOs dealing with boys, such as YMCA, were hesitant to address the plight of boys because they feared they would be stigmatised and their funding from the government curtailed. In 2016, I called the relevant ministry and asked for statistics on abused boys from 1990-2015. They said none was available from surveys conducted so they couldn’t provide any information. In 2021, I made another appeal for statistics of abused boys from 2016 to 2020 and the ministry did not respond. 

Caribbean governments should stop overlooking the importance of creating enabling environments for the boy child. We need to identify at-risk boys and rescue them from pervasive waves of hopelessness and pessimism in the region.

Boys must be taught how to turn their anger and depression into success. If given sufficient support and encouragement, at-risk boys will make worthwhile contributions to society. However, the pandemic has made many more boys vulnerable to a multitude of negative forces. Boys who are victims of violence and abuse will become emotionally incompetent. Some will attempt to erase the debilitating memories by turning to addictive drugs. We need to come together to help boys who are struggling to heal.

Jerome Teelucksingh is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at UWI, St Augustine. His work focuses on the history of Afro-Caribbean activists, Indo-Caribbean Diaspora in North America, as well as trade unionism in Trinidad and Tobago. He has also written poetry and children’s stories. His books include Achieving Peace, Equality and a Healthy Environment and Sleepy Stories for Children Who Cannot Sleep. He created International Men’s Day (19 November) in 1999 and initiated the observance of World Day of the Boy Child (May 16) in 2018.