Tania Chambers, Spotlight Initiative legal consultant

 

A 3-point integrated approach for tackling the child sexual abuse crisis in Jamaica

 

Originally published in the Sunday Gleaner 7 Nov. 2021

by Tania Chambers, Spotlight Initiative Legal Consultant

 

To the average citizen, child sexual abuse is such an anomaly, such a stark deviation from the village norms we like to uphold, that we think of it as an exception until the uncomfortable truth hits the headlines. The national gasp of shock and dismay lasts as long as the next news cycle.

The reality is child sexual violence is far too often facilitated by myths and misconceptions that have been normalized by many of our communities and families. These myths create a comfort zone for the predator and diminish the strength of the legal protection from sexual violence that children ought to enjoy. Some of the common myths that enable sexual abuse are:

  •  If a man pays the bills, he has a right of sexual access to any person in the household. ‘Man nuh fatten fowl fi mongoose’.
  • A woman having sex with a young boy is not an act of violence, nor should it be a crime.
  • If a girl acts like she is of age (“force-ripe”), then having a sexual relationship with her is not really a crime.

These norms persist, defying the relatively robust legal framework established to protect children from sexual violence. This helps to account for the approximately 2000 to 3000 reports of sexual abuse received by the National Children’s Registry every year. Almost 10,000 cases of child abuse were reported in 2020; 20 per cent or approximately 2481 were cases of child sexual abuse. The year 2021 is on pace to match 2020.  From January to June 2021, there were 1,203 reports of sexual abuse of children.

We are in a silent state of emergency and not only because the data is sobering, but because the myths are not yielding to the law.  

The local legal framework for the protection of children is bulwarked by multifaceted laws: The Sexual Offences Act makes it unlawful to have sex with anyone under the age of 16 as well as to have incestuous sexual relations with any child who is a near relative. It is supported by other laws that prohibit child pornography, child trafficking or the employment of children in potentially exploitative places such as nightclubs or bars. Additionally, the Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) requires persons – particularly those who work with children – to make a report to the National Children’s Registry every time they know or suspect that a child may be the victim of sexual or other abuse or neglect.

We must strengthen the law

Further strengthening is now in order. There are aspects of our laws that should be urgently upgraded to address sexual violence against minors more directly. For example, offences such as incest, buggery and sexual intercourse with a minor are the same whether the offender is an adult or another child. This means that the same punishment – and sentence – that is used where the two parties are close in age will apply to adult offenders. This can often result in sentences that are way too low for the nature of the crime. By identifying separate offences, the law can be adjusted to increase penalties for adults, particularly parents, guardians and persons occupying a position of trust, who treat children as sexual prey.

We can also do more by expanding the categories of those legally obligated to report observed or suspected cases of abuse. The network of duty-bearers who has special reporting obligations under the CCPA currently includes persons in the health, education and child-care sectors. But we strongly recommend that coaches and community and church leaders ought to be included as well.

Law reform good start, effectivness of the law  required for impact

Law reform is a good start, but concomitant actions are essential to strengthen impact. We must consider a tripartite approach that combines legal reform with strengthening effectiveness of the laws, while tackling the sub-culture through social and behaviour change interventions. We can strengthen the law’s effectiveness by looking at the range of support systems that are in place for early detection and rehabilitation. We need to expand programmes that target sexually abused children for psychosocial intervention and therapeutic care. The opportunity that they present for breaking cycles of violence will remain limited unless the scope of resources is more equally aligned to the scope of the problem. Recent calls to take a fresh look at the utility of our Sexual Offenders’ Registry and the way accused persons are monitored while on bail need to be examined, as do the minimum sentences applicable to all sexual abuse offences.

The increase in the number of children being sexually victimized during the pandemic is a stark reminder of the necessary protective barrier that persons who work with children help to create. Social workers, guidance counsellors and children’s officers have long been identified as having an unrealistic caseload.  More specially trained police and other frontline workers in the security and health sectors will help to make our response systems more child-friendly and trauma-informed, so that no child needs to complain that a report of sexual violation was not taken seriously.

Further, we need to spread the word on children’s rights so that every well-meaning adult becomes an active part of this net of protection surrounding our children. Public education and behaviour change communication programmes must target those communities known for higher levels of incest and sexual abuse. This will require real-time data sharing among police and social support workers so that we can strategically address the entrenched myths and misconceptions that enable perpetrators.

This points to perhaps the most difficult, but the most necessary aspect of our transformation: changing the ingrained mythologies that create a hiding place for predators. To change the narrative, we need new language, with the media fully on board as partners. An adult male who engages in intimate relations with an underaged girl does not have a ‘girlfriend’. He is a predator and a sex offender. The same goes for an adult female initiating a child into sex. This is not a good deed; you are committing a crime, not passing on a life skill. There is never any excuse that diminishes the egregious act of having sex with a minor, even if that minor is already sexually active or inquisitive. No amount of money paid to a child or their family buys the right to have sex with a child.

We are at Red Alert

A reasonable conclusion, based on the facts, is that we are at a critical point in a major crisis – A Red Alert. Appropriate crisis response is required to destroy the culturally safe spaces and loopholes enabling the predator. We must act now, concurrently tackling culture, law and intervention with decisive urgency. Spotlight Initiative’s Red Alert Roundtable on the child sexual abuse emergency (October 28) underscored the necessity for accelerated action premised on a few ‘must-haves’: We must acknowledge we are in crisis; We must move into protection mode of our children; Responsible men must rise up as visible advocates and model the change we need to see; We must listen to survivors to ensure our interventions make their mark; and We must all do our part.

Sexual violence against children is everybody’s business. If you suspect a child is being abused in any way, you have a duty to call the child abuse hotline at 211. We must act now. Your shock and dismay are no longer enough.

 

Tania Chambers is legal consultant to Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls

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