PARAMARIBO – Anthropologist Marieke Heemskerk is “surprised” that the United States added Suriname to a list of 74 countries where children are subjected to labour abuses. Heemskerk was hired by the US government to research child labour in the Surinamese gold industry. She concluded that in Suriname things are not that bad. ‘I think they misinterpreted my report’, Heemskerk says.
Last month the US Department of Labor stated in a report that children employed in goldmines in Suriname run the risk of mercury poisoning. Child prostitution would also be prevalent. However, Heemskerk, who published her research last January, concluded that compared to other countries conditions in Suriname are relatively mild. Children are not employed full time in the goldmines. ‘In Nigeria, for example, children attend two hours of Koran school and then are forced to do hard labour for the rest of the day,’ the anthropologist says. ‘In Suriname, in the interior, the majority of the children go to school, but they sometimes use their spare time to mine for gold.” Children here do not work because they have no other means of existence. Heemskerk concluded that the young people in the interior prospect for gold because there are no other industries around to employ them.
Minister Michael Miskin of Labour had earlier voiced his doubts about the report, a stance Heemskerk supports. She admits though that exposure to mercury in the gold fields could be hazardous to young people. ‘That is what they seem to be focusing on in the US. It is impossible to ban the use of mercury right now because it is cheap.’ The American concerns about child prostitution are based on wrong data, she says; of the 101 prostitutes Heemskerk interviewed in the hinterland, only one admitted to being a minor.
Heemskerk thinks that better education can improve the situation of children in the hinterland. ‘Right now the school system is very child-unfriendly. Vocational education is lacking and there are too many children per classroom. Many children repeat classes three to four times because of the language barrier and teachers are often not qualified.’ The anthropologist argues that the best teachers should be hired for teaching in the interior. It would help if there were teaching assistants who could translate for the children. This method has achieved good results in French Guiana, she says.