Activists are calling for the de-sexualisation of T&T’s culture, the revision of laws to protect children and to treat with perpetrators and upholders and a collective and national response to abuse and early psychosocial interventions.
The call was made in the wake of Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with the duty of Gender and Child Affairs Ayanna Webster-Roy’s disclosure on Monday of startling figures of varying types of abuse against children.
According to Webster-Roy, in 2019 over 4,000 cases of child abuse were reported to the Children’s Authority. The reported cases affirmed 54.4 per cent were female while 43.3 per cent were male, with cases of sexual abuse being the highest instances of reports received countrywide, at a 22.6 per cent rate. Neglect and physical abuse were the second and third most reported at rates of 20.6 per cent and 14.3 per cent respectively. It was also revealed that some 590 charges were laid by the Child Protection Unit for crimes against children in 2019. (See editorial on page 12)
Commenting on the issue, domestic violence survivor and sexual trauma specialist Sherna Alexander-Benjamin said it was not that laws against such heinous crimes did not exist in T&T. Rather, she said the failure to administer aggressive implementation, enforcement and evaluation of laws was the problem.
Alexander-Benjamin, founder of the Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals (OABI), noted laws also had little effect on legislating or changing unhealthy dominant norms and assumptions that guide attitudes, actions and behaviours.
“There were prevailing unhealthy dominant norms concerning the ownership of children and children’s bodies prevalent in society, combined with skewed views of conflict and violence normalised in family structures,” Alexander-Benjamin said.
She called for a more inclusive national approach to the issue, saying while laws and institutional systems were necessary for the effective functioning of society, they were not the whole. She called for a collective effort to develop counter norms by developing family and healing-centred programmes and services and participatory education models to work with families and school populations to build healthy relationships, disrupting family violence pathways.
Her theory of unhealthy dominant norms was endorsed by UWI Professor Dr Gerard Hutchinson, head of the Psychiatric Unit at the Mt Hope Hospital, who said the society continued to be violent at all levels, resulting in traumatised people passing on that trauma to others.
Additionally, Hutchinson said culturally inappropriate sexual behaviour was tolerated and the process of bringing perpetrators to justice was very protracted.
In a release, International Women’s Resource Network (IWRN) director Adriana Sandrine Issac-Rattan said they agreed with Webster-Roy’s revelations, noting the statistical findings were in alignment with statistics shared by the IWRN in the public domain earlier this week which showed nine out ten minors were abused by close relatives.
Issac-Rattan said while the work by the Children’s Authority and the TTPS Child Protection Unit presented yeoman service, it was time the Children’s Act is re-evaluated to increase, significantly, the fines and penalties for perpetrators, including those who aid and abet in crimes against children—a step she believes will result in a reduction in crimes of this nature.
Association of Psychiatrists of T&T secretary Dr Varma Deyalsingh agreed quicker justice and harsher punishment was needed for perpetrators but also noted the society needed to go back to those social and educational programmes that taught children about ‘good touch’ and bad touch’ and also taught them how to speak up.
Deyalsingh said there were many more hidden cases of this epidemic of abuse. He referenced a 2008 study by former government minister Dr Daphne Phillips on school children exhibiting violent behaviour, which revealed 40 per cent of students were being sexually abused in their homes.
He also highlighted a 2002 study done in Tobago engaging 676 young adults, which revealed 13 per cent of those between ten and 14-years-old had already had sex and six per cent had had sex with a father, stepfather, uncle or an older person.