Post 399.

Last week, Dr Hazel Da Breo of the Sweetwater Foundation in Grenada alerted us to her work on understanding and preventing sexual abuse of minors under five years old. Da Breo, a psychotherapist and child protection specialist, was speaking at a network meeting of the Break the Silence Campaign, initiated by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St Augustine Campus, and now in its 12th year. So far, it is the only long-standing national campaign to raise public awareness about child sexual abuse and incest, and to try to prevent sexual violence against children through research and social norm change. 

To understand this vulnerability better, I returned to the Children’s Authority of TT 2018 Annual Report. Children under one year old are three per cent of clients with those between one and three years old, rising to ten per cent of clients, and those between four and six years old comprising 14 per cent of clients. The majority of cases are for neglect and, second, physical abuse, but these numbers speak to overall vulnerability to sexual abuse. Among one-three-year-olds, 5.5 per cent of reports were related to sexual abuse. Among children four-six years old, 10.9 per cent of reports resulted from sexual abuse. Keep in mind that sexual abuse and incest are under-reported crimes. 

I realised that I had not given sufficient attention to the specific vulnerabilities of children, and particularly girls, under five years old. Their experience of sexual violence is so unimaginable and yet so real. This group is least able to identify and describe sexual abuse. They are least able to protect themselves. Although these numbers are lower than for older children, their real risk speaks to the necessity of age-appropriate education for pre-school teachers and children as well as health workers and others that come into contact with the youngest among us. 

Drawing on those adults who have spoken about their childhood abuse, Dr Da Breo emphasised the importance of bystanders, those who knew and did nothing, in breaking silences. Survivors commonly highlighted that “somebody always knew.” This stark injustice has stayed with me since. 

There’s always an adult who suspects or has been told. There are often children who witness or hear, and are terrified themselves, yet can also be empowered to speak out or call a hotline, as children are increasingly doing. Adults must establish a family context where children are listened to and believed as well as paid attention to for signs of harm and trauma that can be mistakenly punished as “bad behaviour.” Prevention takes a village. We are all responsible for the world that vulnerable children encounter. 

We must be honest that our homes and families are unsafe for thousands of children who report child abuse each year. We have to be real about the fact that the greatest threat of sexual abuse to children comes from those who have access to them, are trusted, and are relatives. It comes from those they are dependent on, who we least suspect and whose denial we would most believe. Predators can be adults or children, but they rely on their violence remaining a secret because of young children’s confusion and fear. 

Those most invested in championing the sacrosanct family should be at the forefront of this work. Currently preservation of the family takes priority over the safety of children. Yet, as Dr Da Breo put it, where there is violence to and violation of its most vulnerable, the family is broken. Religious groups which reach deep into family life therefore have an important role. Protection and prevention should therefore be considered as important as scripture and prayer. 

I’ve been thinking since about how the Break the Silence Campaign can produce messaging that challenges complacency and complicity, and gathers allies across both state agencies and civil society to work through what bystander responsibility means. 

Finally, Dr Da Breo called for restorative justice approaches that complement legal prosecution and create possibilities for children to hold perpetrators and complicit bystanders accountable, and to secure recognition and repair. 

Her project will collect stories from adult survivors of under-five child sexual abuse and incest, and produce standardised psychological interventions to help victims of sexual trauma across the region, as well as train service providers in law, medicine, psychological care, education, daycares, recreation and church groups, women’s organisations, and transgender agencies. It will include Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize and Suriname. These are efforts to which we can contribute and about which we should all be aware.

Post 319.

The Break the Silence Campaign, familiar to most because of its blue teddy bear symbol, enters its tenth year in 2019. Focusing on raising awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse and incest, providing training about these as issues of gender-based violence, and building communities around empowerment of children as part of prevention, the campaign has indeed seen silences broken.

There’s more reporting now than before, confusing our understanding about whether the rates have risen, or just the reporting, but confirming our position that too many children continue to be harmed.

There have been 11, 787 reports of children in need of care and protection since proclamation of the Children’s Authority. Over 2016-2017, there were 4, 232 reports of child abuse and maltreatment, averaging 353 reports per month. In relation into sexual abuse, girls are harmed at four times the rates of boys, but the rates of neglect and physical abuse are nearly the same, and in fact slightly higher for boys than girls.

At the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) meeting yesterday, researchers highlighted childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, as a significant denominator among perpetrators.

Perpetrators also spoke about lacking healthy, involved and connected father figures. This doesn’t mean blaming women-headed households, which are managing the balance of both being freed from toxic masculinities while being burdened with unequal responsibilities.

It also doesn’t mean that it takes fathers to be fatherly figures or influential role models. It takes men in boys’ lives who care, enable them to feel accepted, and loved “like a son” so that boys don’t get used to “always walking around with hurt feelings as a young boy”.

CAFRA’s data is part of larger project to shift  cultural norms in order to end gender-based violence as it affects men, women, boys, girls, and especially those from marginalized groups defined by disability or sexual/gender orientation. This makes sense once you understand how striking the data is, and how complex explanations for it and solutions to it have to be.

In 2016, 3, 312 reports were made to the national domestic violence hotline, 150 to Rape Crisis Society, and 1, 141 to the TTPS. Why do hurt people feel safer to seek comfort from a stranger on the end of a phone than to reach out to the relevant authorities?

How were those lives lived after that call? Did the violence in that caller’s life end, and did it end with a perpetrator’s conviction for the crime of violence or with counseling as a path to accountability? Was there healing? Was there greater safety in our islands with as much as 1, 240 breaches of protection orders between 2009 and 2017? What happened to the children?

In the eighteen months between January 2016 and September 2017, ninety-nine women were murdered, but 857 men. As we think about the rates of boys and men murdering other boys and men in our society, who connects such killing to what we describe as domestic violence, or the ways that power is wielded in families that lead to experiences of trauma, harm and a will to hurt.

Even more significant, who has made the connection between child sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse in boys’ lives, and their later actions that cause trauma, harm and death?

Currently, there is no national, state-led approach to prevention, prosecution and healing – including something as simple and necessary as age-appropriate curricula for primary schools that aim to change a culture that normalizes gender-based violence and forms of family abuse.

The Break the Silence Campaign is one example of a national focus on ending child sexual abuse and incest – which is so horrendous that it’s unbelievable we tolerate it enough as a society for it to exist. Any society that values family life above all else should have zero cases to report . What we have is a society that prioritizes fear, respectability, religiosity, discipline and silencing above children’s rights while children live amidst threat and vulnerability.

A decade on, the BTS campaign needs private sector and community infusion of support and investment so that it can continue to press against such silencing and violence for another ten years.

If we make the connections between child sexual abuse and incest, later domestic violence, and wider male violence and killing, we may prevent crimes before criminals are created. For the TTPS and its allies, this should be a priority, for it’s the more humane solution to the desperation of a shoot to kill policy.

 

 

 

Post 228.

Almost forty years ago, Audre Lorde wrote, “we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid”. Around the region today, women are posting sexual harassment, abuse and assault survival stories as part of the #lifeinleggings movement, precisely to overcome that silencing and fear.

The hashtag and postings were started by Barbadian women Ronelle King and Allyson Benn to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence. Can any of us say that we don’t know one woman who has experienced such threat, fear, harm and denial of choice, possibly many times?

They linked their initiative to Barbados’ 50th independence and, therefore, to the impossibility of ‘development’ without also ending gender inequalities. Caribbean states have paid scant attention to the realities of rape culture while reframing twenty years of lip service into a story of “too much focus on women”. Yet, the courage it takes to share these stories suggests that silencing remains more dominant than safe space for women’s truths about their relationships, families, communities and nation.

Breaking these silences remains a risk. Families are invested in hiding stories of sexual predation, telling women that it happened in the past or that it’s more important to just keep peace. People respond that, somehow, you must have looked for that because of your clothes, your job or smile. Others’ trauma at hearing what happened to you has to be managed, sometimes making it easier to say nothing. It’s common to not be believed or to be blamed or seen as bringing down shame or wanting attention or, worse, as a joke.

Now isn’t the time to say not all men rape, assault or harass. Women are not accusing all men, they are simply no longer hiding what actually happened to them. Women are not responsible for protecting themselves, for ‘men don’t molest decent girls’. These stories begin when we are children and modesty provides no safety. Women don’t want men’s protection, we want their solidarity. There’s one message that can change women’s #lifeinleggings, and that is that men’s sexual self-responsibility has no excuses.

From Bajan politicians to Guyanese indigenous women to Jamaican reggae singers to Trinidadian university educators to policewomen in St. Vincent to disabled girls across the region, every kind of Caribbean woman has stories. Imagine what it means when education, class privilege, fame, age, ethnicity or profession makes no difference?

Audre Lorde has written, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. Almost forty years later, in support of #lifeinleggings, Tonya Haynes, in the Caribbean feminist blog, Code Red for Gender Justice, wrote,

“Women broke every silence. We spoke of street harassment: girl, yuh pussy fat! Principals who made no room for comprehensive sexuality education but slut-shamed girls who were themselves sexually abused. Rape by current and former partners. Years of sexual abuse by fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins. Stories of men who told us that they’re waiting for our four-year-old daughters to grow up. Men who offered jobs or rides or food or protection only to demand sex. Only to split our bodies open when we refused. Men who raped us because we are lesbian, because we are women, because we are girls, because they could. We exploded every myth about how good girls and good women are protected from this violence. That good men will protect us.  That all we have to do is call in our squad of brothers and uncles and fathers. We asked, and who will women and girls call when our fathers and brothers and uncles assault them? We affirmed that asking men to protect us from male violence is not freedom. All men benefit from male privilege and unequal relations of gender which disadvantage and devalue women and girls. We demand autonomy not protection! We split this island open for every woman and girl who has had her body split open. We split this island open and let all the secrets fall out”.

If you want to break your own silences, there is a #lifeinleggings gathering, on Saturday from 4-6pm, at the Big Black Box on Murray Street in Woodbrook. Go. Listen. Share. Let all our own islands’ secrets fall out.

Post 128.

You are a teenager. Your dad tells you he wants to look at your body. He touches your genitals. After, he says he’s sorry. He doesn’t want you to tell anyone. You do tell, your mother, your aunts and the police. He says you are lying. Your mother believes you. Who will others believe?

You’ve now lost a dad and must mourn a man still walking around town, one who was supposed to protect you but who now casts you as the threat. You have no idea what rules actually matter anymore, given that the ones you thought most mattered have now been violated. Why not self-harm? Why obey anyone when adults have failed to obey the rules that they should?

Maybe you act out because it’s a way to let others know you are going to do whatever you want because, regardless of the support you have, this hell is and will be your own. Maybe you act out because you are angry, maybe to forget, maybe to test those around you to see if they really are on your side, maybe to push back at the boundaries of their love.

Maybe when you know what it means to be vulnerable, you reach in many directions for safety, even directions not right for you. Hurt, betrayal and loss are confusing. You live them emotionally, understanding your rationales and reactions only long after.

You don’t know it yet, but you will deal with this for decades. It may affect your future relationships with others, even with yourself. It may crush your ability to trust. It may lead you to take risks. It may leave you less able to negotiate control over your body and sexuality than you need to be. It may lead you to search out future abusers in one form or another. You don’t wake up one morning and find the whole experience was a dream.  You wake up on mornings carrying the experience, sometimes awake, sometimes sleeping, inside of you.

You also don’t yet know how many other girls this happens to. The women who come to hear about your abuse, who remember their own, also begin to discover how many of them were affected. They revisit their pain. If only there were less silence and less shame. If only women didn’t carry feelings of blame or hadn’t decided to forget, the stories of survivors of child sexual abuse and incest could fill every newspaper page.

These women and their stories can reduce girls’ vulnerability. Maybe, hopefully, women survivors will find a way to heal and protect where others have failed. Maybe, men who have also survived sexual abuse will also come together, not just to support each other, not just to run perpetrators, but to dismantle the kind of masculine power that makes men more likely to be sexually and physically violent to those they love.

National statistics suggest that child sexual abuse happens everyday. This teenager is real. She isn’t me, but that doesn’t matter. She is ours. So are all the others.

There is action to be taken everywhere. Like my sistren, Nadella Oya, you can make a statement on the walls of communities, you can teach children about their rights. NGOs across the country need volunteers and ideas. There is the regional Break the Silence Campaign, started by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, whose blue teddy symbol is becoming more visible. Find out what you can do.

We need to end hushed family conversations, cycles of violence and tolerance of perpetrators. Tomorrow should not add another story.