Anecdotal evidence suggests it happens both within families and outside, at all socioeconomic levels and has done so for a long time. The subject is shrouded in secrecy at every level, however. Breaking the silence that surrounds child sexual abuse is the first step in putting and end to this highly destructive cycle.
The new Children Law, which comes into effect this month, will make it mandatory for many of those who work with or care for children to report any suspicions they may have of a child being sexually abused. Failure to do so could result in a jail sentence or a $2000 fine. If properly enforced, this law could begin to change a pattern of thinking that has prevailed for generations.
Nobody is Talking
The silence that surrounds sexual abuse does so at every level. Most abused children, wherever they may be, know that what is being done to them is wrong but they tell nobody. If they do tell someone and that person does not believe them, the chances of them ever reporting abuse again are zero. Parents or carers may even know the abuse is taking place but choose to remain silent.
“We live in a small society,” said Marilyn Conolly, authorised facilitator for the Darkness to Light Workshops which aim to educate adults in the prevention, recognition and responsible reaction to child sexual abuse, “and if Uncle John, or Pastor John or Coach John – or Jane, because it could be male or female – did anything, parents naturally think about the repercussions in society. They think about the social ramifications and, rightly or wrongly, they balance that in their mind as to what they should do, and often the child is the one who is left to suffer.”
In some cases the children may be too young to know what is occurring or have the language to speak out about it. “One of the most horrendous cases I prosecuted,” said Julene Banks, a former crown counsel and chair of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, “was a neighbour that sexually abused the two-year-old next door. His excuse was he was drunk. It was the fact the child had a sexually transmitted disease that alerted the mother that something had happened.”
With older teenage children sexual abuse is in some cases instigated - and encouraged - by the mothers, said Conolly and Banks. Mothers who are in financial difficulty may offer up teenage daughters to an older man, in return for financial favours. “Mothers will take money from these men, or their rent is paid, or he buys them groceries. It’s prostitution. It’s a Caribbean thing,” said Conolly. A 2008-9 UNICEF study of the child sexual abuse in the Eastern Caribbean, found this form of ‘transactional abuse’ to be common on numerous islands in the region.
If a person in a position of authority is abusing a child it makes it even harder for that child to speak out about it. In one case that Conolly heard of, a woman talked of the abuse she had suffered in high school at the hands of a teacher. It was not only her, but many of the girls in her class, who were targeted. As far as the girls were concerned the teacher was a figure of authority whose actions were not to be questioned. When the abuse came to light the girls were asked why they had not said anything before but ultimately, she said, they were asked to forget it ever happened.
When the late Estella Scott Roberts began visiting schools as part of the Sexual Assault Awareness month, she told Conolly she was barred from some schools, and was asked not to return to others.
Why does it happen?
In a society where propriety and good manners are valued, sex in general remains a taboo subject, let alone sexual abuse. Parents are often therefore not providing their children with the guidance they need in this area, said Banks. “We don’t teach our children what they need to know, and if we do, we do it in such a way we make them afraid to tell us what happened. [Growing up] sex was portrayed as a dirty thing, and it was thought that sex education would only encourage people to go out and try it. To some extent that still exists today.”
Because nobody talks about it, there are no accurate statistics on the prevalence of this kind of child abuse. It can only be estimated. “Some background investigation by the Family Resource Centre puts the number at around one in three girls and one in five boys,” said Conolly. “This is not something new. It’s been going on for a long time.”
The prevalence of this type of behaviour is deeply rooted and tied up with cultural norms. The Caribbean culture is a male dominated one, said Banks, where “women are not regarded as being of value, children even less so.” Men may regard their wives and daughters as theirs to do as they wish with.
Conolly recounts one case of a girl being abused by her father. “The father’s reasoning was that he was going to taste the cherry before anyone else got to the tree. It was his right,” she said. “These stories are persistent and consistent and they will stay that way until we start to deal with it.”
It is a well known fact that many of those who have been abused, go on to become abusers. It’s learned behaviour, and creates a cycle of abuse.
Breaking the cycle
Eliminating child sexual abuse requires a complete paradigm shift, said Banks, a new way of thinking. If things are to change, adults - whether parents, educators or others working with children - must all take responsibility for the protection of children. In the past, she said, the onus was on children to keep themselves out of trouble. “If you weren’t where you were supposed to be, you were asking to be molested,” she said. “That was the norm in society.”
Now attitudes must shift and it is up to adults to be vigilant, ask questions about the people caring for children, find out what kind of screening policies are in place and minimize opportunity for abuse. With the summer holidays now in full swing, the staffing of summer camps is an added cause for concern, said Conolly. “If you have a youth programme, a paedophile will want to be in it. They will come knocking at your door, they are the ones that will want to stay late and have one-on-one time with children.”
Conolly and Banks urge any kind of child or youth programme to screen volunteers and staff: just because you know someone, or trust them, they say, does not mean you can assume they are harmless.
Additionally, interested adult or organisations involved with children may participate in the Darkness to Light Workshops, which are scheduled on demand, to learn more about preventing, recognising and dealing with child sexual abuse.
Most importantly, if an adult suspects a child is being abused, they must step up and report it. This can be done anonymously, by calling the Department of Children and Family Services, on 949 0290. The new Children Law makes this a legal obligation as well as a moral one.