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 396.

I’ve struggled with what to express other than haunting sadness at the killing of Tenil Cupid, and my condolences to her family and her children. I’ve wanted to write a column printed with blank space, where words would otherwise fill the page, to compel a pause, a moment of quiet, when we all still our steps, as we do for the national anthem, to remember that she was just 23 years old. We are a nation where young women are not safe, where they cannot love and choose to leave, and where men’s lethal violence produces generational trauma, pulling both boys and girls into its cycle.

I’ve struggled because statistics predict such pain and loss. All the recent studies of violence prevalence in the Caribbean, from Guyana to Jamaica to Grenada to TT, point to established risk factors in young Tenil Cupid’s life.

First, entering intimate relationships before 18 years old, particularly with much older male partners (who are legally sexual predators committing the crime of rape and child sexual abuse).

Second, motherhood and, especially, adolescent motherhood, for example, beginning at 15 years old and continuing through teenage years with multiple births.

Third, limited education, as well as relatively low school achievement of male partners.

Fourth, insufficient income and economic dependency on partners with low income, particularly when children must be fed and schooled. Keep in mind that young women under 24 have higher rates of unemployment than young men, suggesting complex power relations which they must negotiate to be secure and survive.

Fifth, the decision to end a relationship and to escape a male partner’s controlling behaviours and dominance. These behaviours are an absolute key red flag for femicide, whether the triggers are substance abuse or a new relationship or financial crisis and conflict.

There are hundreds each year who enter young womanhood in these circumstances, and additional experiences of child abuse and neglect. These are girls raised without sufficient information and support to make healthier decisions, and in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to much of what Tenil Cupid lived.

In the women’s movement, we worry whether women are being killed at younger ages, at the increase in such killing and at the state’s inadequate response in terms of having social welfare workers go to vulnerable homes in communities as they used to; appropriate psychosocial intervention for children at an age when it can still make a difference; and a serious national campaign against male predation as an accepted social norm.

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence cautioned, after the murder of 29-year-old Reshma Kanchan, “we cannot run away from the intersecting relationship of domestic murders with gender inequality and harmful masculinities.”

That this intersection affects women everywhere was poignantly shown in Womantra’s Silent Silhouettes short documentary where murdered women and their children were shown in everyday places, their absence marked by the dark space and shape left by their missing bodies.

Conceptualised around 2006, by the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, to encourage us to emotionally connect to lost lives such as Tenil Cupid’s, these silhouettes also represent Jezelle Phillip Fournillier, Gabriella Dubarry, Naiee Singh, Trisha Ramsaran-Ramdass, Adanna Dick, Vera Golabie, Sherian Huggins, Joanna Diaz Sanchez, and Reshma Kanhan; all murdered by (mostly former) partners this year.

To better understand femicide prevention, the coalition has called for “comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation into domestic murders” to assess the circumstances of both victim and perpetrator, whether a history of abuse was known to family and community, whether actions were taken to protect the victim, and whether any services were sought from state institutions. It also continues to recommend “school and out of school-based interventions, gender sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging men including perpetrator/batterer interventions.”

The GBV Unit has responded, citing 220 arrests and 290 charges since January. However, convictions are beyond the unit’s ambit, and in TT are notoriously low, signalling how the judicial system slowly but surely reproduces impunity.

As Conflict Women urged this week, the Government must make “prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for covid19,” and men and citizens must “speak out, report and act against violence against women and girls,” perhaps saving another woman and her children from becoming statistics.

Meanwhile, at the end of this sentence, please stay with me for a moment of stillness, silence and sadness, for loss of words, for Tenil Cupid, just 23 years old, and taken too soon.

Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.

Post 225.

Most people don’t expect grandmotherly women in hijab to be leaders in Caribbean feminist movement building. Last Sunday’s Symposium on ‘Children at Risk’, which was collaboratively organized by Madinah House, the TML Ladies Association, the National Muslim Women’s Organisation of Trinidad,  and National Islamic Counseling Services, showed the limits of such typical expectations.

I have huge admiration for these experienced and committed women, whose consistent work to challenge and create alternatives to patriarchal domination and its harms might not seem to fit their respectability and religiosity as much as their other efforts to manage teas and celebratory functions for hajjis and hajjahs.

Yet, the history of such woman-centred public engagement dates back to the 1930s when Muslim women began to deliver lectures to mixed audiences, become members of elected mosque boards and councils, hold meetings to develop women’s groups, and participate in debates on a range of topics including, “Be it resolved that Muslim women deserve an equal social status with men”.

From the 1950s, within the Indo-Trinidadian community, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association began to be established. The ASJA Ladies Association was represented at the first world conference on the status of women held in Mexico City in 1975. Muslim women also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and challenges to their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club” for far too long.

Muslim women have also long been part of Caribbean feminist response to issues such as violence against women. Madinah House, a temporary shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse, which began operations in 1999, and is run by Muslim women, is one such example.

Beyond services are also advocacy and consciousness-raising within the Muslim community and nationally, in collaboration with the wider women’s rights movement, to encourage men to more greatly share domestic work, to call for greater commitment to ending child abuse, and to insist on collective responsibility for families free from violence.

Sunday showed such larger work to break silences about the reality of incest, neglect and abuse in children’s lives, and to provide concrete understandings of vulnerability and risk.

Supported by the US Embassy, the symposium brought a range of powerful women to the mic, including Lt. Colonel Shareda Hosein, originally from Aranguez and now retired from the US Army. Sit with your children, listen to what works or doesn’t in the family, write down what should change, and commit to it as parents, she suggested.

The indomitable Natalie O’Brady, General Manager of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago/Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reinforced the importance of stable homes, and parental time and attention. These are fundamental to child protection, resilience and rights.

Children’s Authority staff and clinical psychologist, Vandana Siew Sankar, highlighted that neglect and physical abuse is almost equally distributed amongst girls and boys, with their greatest vulnerabilities occurring before they are four years old, except in cases of sexual abuse, which become more common, especially for girls, with the onset of puberty.

Director of the Gender Affairs Division, Ms. Antoinette JackMartin pointed to the establishment of a Central Registry on Domestic Violence, precisely to address a need for accessible statistics.

Finally, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah, whose work to develop the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago is legendary, emphasised that we should take seriously the likelihood that oncoming economic decline and unemployment will increase the incidence of child abuse, which already spans from extreme and exceptional to everyday and normalized in the thousands of cases that come to the attention of the Authority, and which are largely inadequately addressed by social services.

These efforts to prioritize prevention of violence against women and children; to provide woman-run, woman-centred and community-supported services; and to publicly bring a message fundamentally grounded in a right to live free of domination, threat and fear are strengths on which the regional women’s rights movement was built over the last decades.

Consistent with such a history of Muslim women’s pious, yet path-breaking contributions to a Caribbean feminist vision, Sunday again offered lessons and inspiration.