No innocent bystanders: fighting child sexual abuse in the Caribbean


Tamar Hahn

Kingston, Jamaica, 15 May 2012 – A nine-year old boy systematically raped by the pastor his mother left him with while she went to work, an 18-month old baby boy dying because his inner organs were destroyed when his uncle raped him, a little girl who was infected with HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes by an uncle who was in and out of prison.

Those are some of the cases which Dr Sandra Knight, a general practitioner who has worked with the pediatric hospital in Kingston for the past 10 years, has treated and which have tormented her and pushed her to take action and speak to the press. Dr. Knight’s account created uproar in Jamaica and an avalanche of front page stories on sexual abuse of children have followed. “I felt that my peers were becoming complacent about this issue,” says Dr. Knight. “But I felt I had a tsunami in front of me which was affecting me because I also have a 6 year old daughter. I saw these children dying, getting sick, being traumatized for life.”

A silent emergency

Child sexual abuse is often shrouded in secrecy and abetted by shame. While most abuse is hidden, we know that nearly 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence worldwide (WHO 2002).

In the Caribbean, 47.6% of girls and 31.9% of boys reported in a study that their first intercourse was forced or coerced by family members (WHO 2000). In Jamaica, according to the Ministry of Health, 33% of girls and 18% of boys aged 10 to 15 did not consent to their first sexual encounter (UNICEF 2011).

“Sexual abuse happens everywhere---at home, school, and in other institutions and has a serious physical, psychological and social impact, not only on girls and boys, but also on the fabric of society. It is one of the main factors that contribute to HIV infections, and that is why it is not surprising that this region has one of the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS worldwide,” says Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Our experiences in preventing and responding to sexual abuse have taught us that laws by themselves have been ineffective in protecting children mainly because of the “silence” surrounding the issue and the risks that victims face in speaking out----risks such as stigma, shame, harm and further violence. And, then often children do not know where to turn.”

In an effort to address the taboo surrounding child sexual abuse the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago developed the Teddy Bear Campaign. Using the image if a blue Teddy with a Band-Aid over his heart and the tagline “Break the Silence” this initiative has been used to raise awareness and mobilize a wide range of government and non-governmental partners in protecting children from sexual abuse.

The campaign was discussed during the Sub-Regional Meeting for follow-up to the 2006 UN Study on violence against children which took place in Kingston this week. UNICEF is currently working to expand the reach of this campaign to other countries in the Caribbean.

“Something that has touched me deeply in the discussions that took place during this conference is the really high incidence of sexual abuse in the Caribbean,” says Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative for the Secretary General on Violence against Children.

“I think everyone in the region seems incredibly committed to moving forward and very encouraged by the opportunity to replicate the Teddy Bear campaign. I am confident that the materials will be replicated and tailored to each country and we will have greater awareness, greater commitment and fewer cases to be regretted.”

Get up, Stand up

In March 2012 15 year-old Taisha (not her real name) had yet another fight with her mother who kicked her out of the house. She went to her sister’s house and was there when her 19-year-old brother came by, raped her and left. Shocked and hurt Taisha wasted no time and went to the police to denounce him.

Jamaica’s police department has a special unit dealing with these types of crimes: the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA). When a child goes to the police or to a hospital and says he or she have been abused CISOCA is called. One especially trained officer will interview the family while another will remain with the doctor while the child is being examined. “My mom didn’t believe me and I didn’t know what else to do so I decided to go to the police by myself,” says Taisha.

Unlike Taisha, most children are brought in by their mothers many of which have been themselves victims of abuse.

“It is a vicious cycle,” says Dr Knight. “Mothers who have been abused as children and who did not get help see this again in their children and don’t do anything about it or resent them for it, looking at it in a distorted way. Some of them felt so much shame that they don’t want their children to go through that and cover it up.”

Taisha is now in a safe home where she is attending school and thinking about how to carve a new life. “If I were to talk to girls in the same situation all around the world I would tell them to keep their head up high and remember that they are here for a good reason and they should not let what they’ve been through stop them in their tracks,” says Taisha. “Going to the authorities is the best thing to do because keeping it to yourself will not help.”

Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2008-0270/Susan Markisz Jamaica, 2008

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