A Study of Child Vulnerability in Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines

Mark Loudon

The Child Vulnerability Study was conducted during 2005 by the Governments of Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines with technical and financial assistance from UNICEF. Its aim was to enable the three countries to fulfill their obligations to children in terms of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other international and regional instruments. The Governments agreed that the study should be carried out concurrently in the three countries to allow valid comparisons.

The study aimed at defining what constitutes child vulnerability in participating countries, determining the physical and psychological needs of these vulnerable children, and identifying the barriers (and the means to overcome these barriers) to satisfying these needs and protecting child rights. This study is intended to serve as a planning tool to reassess national policy and develop national plans of action for vulnerable children; a communications tool to build awareness, advocate for action and mobilize human and financial resources; and a baseline study against which the impact of any interventions can be assessed. It incorporated a random survey of over 2,300 households in the three countries (780 each in St. Lucia and St. Vincent and 784 in Barbados); qualitative research involving key informant interviews and focus-group discussions with both adults and children; and a review of literature to describe existing data on child vulnerability, identify knowledge gaps and produce an inventory of institutional role players.

The major findings indicate that:

  • More than half of the children in St. Lucia and St. Vincent and a third of those in Barbados are ‘at risk’. The main risk factors are food insecurity (or poverty) followed by chronic illness of a parent. Poverty is the major obstacle to accessing nominally free social services, including education and health care. Sometimes the issue is financial (e.g,, having to find money for drugs or specialist services), while significant barriers for others are the stigma attached to using free services, enduring long waiting periods and perceptions that free services are inferior.

  • The abuse of children – particularly sexual abuse – is a serious concern to many. The issue is hugely complicated by a lack of data, by inhibitions and denial, and by a lack of capacity to protect victims and those at risk. Physical abuse, including corporal punishment, is also a significant concern – particularly as it still forms part of the ‘tradition’ of schools, the judicial system and the home.

  • Children with disabilities and children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS are seen by many respondents to be especially vulnerable, despite the fact that so little is known about them and not enough is done for them. There are concerns that more children are being drawn into crime and the trade in and use of drugs, particularly in St. Lucia and St. Vincent, due to a combination of poor quality education and lack of career prospects. Perceptions that those who are living with the virus are judged harshly, and actively discriminated against, by social service providers, religious bodies and society in general. Worrying misconceptions and prejudices – e.g., children and adults who seriously suggested that isolating people living with HIV/AIDS was the answer, or that death was the inevitable consequence of infection. 

  • A lack of national planning and coordination of action for children affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly in terms of evaluating the coverage and impact of existing programmes in adolescent prevention.

  • Sexual activity among adolescents is the root of much vulnerability, including to HIV infection and early pregnancy, and the children born to them may be shifted between caregivers and separated from their fathers, mothers and siblings.

  • Juvenile justice is a major concern. Inconsistencies in the definition of a child, anachronistic laws and procedures, and a lack of appropriate facilities and training for the police, judiciary and legal profession all appear to be contributory factors.