Post 412.

THE THING about sexual abuse and sexual violence is that, in some way, we are all complicit. This is a hard truth we must confront. It’s like those in the field say, someone always knows.

Someone knows the uncle that was inappropriate to one niece, but assumes the experience didn’t happen to others. Someone knows the father who is predatory to her cousins, but assumes her siblings’ safety. Someone knows that a friend’s father tried to kiss her, but never expected he would do it to others until 40 years later, when another teenager tells her story. Someone knows the grandparent whose bad-touch behaviour they experienced, but would never jeopardise her reputation, or that of the family. Someone knows the partner who is abusive, but who he never thought would turn to murder.

Someone knows the taxi driver who impregnated a teenager, but assumed he wasn’t a violent rapist. Someone knows the cousin who tried to rape her, but didn’t tell all the other cousins, thinking maybe it happened to her alone. Someone knows the men who overlook their friends’ behaviour, the explicit photos of barely-18s which they share in the sports team’s WhatsApp group or the teenage prostitutes they eye up in brothels.

Someone knows the guy who sexually harasses new, young women in the office, and spoke to him about his behaviour, assuming that would make it stop rather than move to a different location or victim. Someone knows the powerful men and their sons, the killers and their trail of kidnapped women, and the police who traffic migrant minors for sex.

Someone always knows, but it’s complicated. Those who experience abuse or violence, particularly as children, are more likely to stay silent than tell. They may not understand what happened to them and be left confused. They may have a vague sense that telling would cause trouble and don’t want to be blamed. They may be scared, or they may purposefully or unknowingly forget, sometimes for decades.

Their survival strategy may be never to be alone with that predator, who may also be a family friend, family or a friend. They may tell a peer who agrees to keep their confidence.

Very often, they don’t expect that it’s happened to others or will happen to others, until another victim speaks out or it reaches the police, and we are surprised in our shoes at the reminder that predators, abusers or those who behave in sexually inappropriate ways inevitably do so repeatedly.

What is amazing is how many victims never say a word or never tell their closest friends for decades or never heal, how many remain afraid of what people will say and whether they will be believed, and how many wonder if speaking up might have saved another. Even survivors will likely tell you just one of many stories.

The rest of us keep secrets. For our own self-preservation, out of self-blame, because of love or loyalty, or as an act of sheer denial because we don’t want to know. Maybe we want to keep the peace or keep things in the past. Maybe it’s too messy and we cannot cope. Maybe we don’t take it seriously and think that everyone turned out okay. Maybe these are our friends or family, and everyone knows they are so already. Maybe there was nothing we could do then as bystanders or witnesses, and we remain in that place still.

So many of us have continued to include those whose behaviour should never have been tolerated, denying victims’ credibility and erasing their injury. So many of us have chosen to focus on good memories at the expense of truth. So many of us love and protect predators.

I think about this frequently. The painful stories women friends have told me about those who remain in our midst. The stories in my family about which I have kept quiet.

What is the value of such silence and what is its alternative, and who prepares you for those consequences? I think about this because we seem to believe we can separate predators from ourselves. We talk about ending perpetration. We don’t talk enough about ending complicity.

My argument is simple. Perpetrators of sexual violence, whether sexual abusers nor sexual harassers or rapists, rarely act once, against only one victim. It is rare that others around know nothing of the personality or of other incidents, perhaps even decades ago.

What, then, is our responsibility? For, one of us always knows.

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 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.

Post 275.

Women, this week, speak your truth.

March through Port of Spain on Thursday 8th March at noon, continuing a 60-year tradition started first by Christina Lewis in San Fernando. Rally from Whitehall and around the Savannah on Saturday 10th March at 3pm with others painting posters, T-shirts and banners, and highlighting the challenges of women’s realities and our demands for long-due women’s rights.

Gather with your male allies to build movements, sisterhood and safe spaces around women’s issues and their solutions.

And, if you cannot be there, know that we have not forgotten you.

Maybe you’re a grandmother looking after grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, managing just enough for passage to school and food. You’re an institutionalized woman or girl, the majority of whom have experienced childhood abuse and may now be deeply missing potential for healing.

You’re on your feet six days a week in retail stores in Tunapuna, High Street and Chaguanas Main Road, and the low wages and long hours mean you’re conserving your energy and money for waged work, work at home and managing another week. You’re the daughter primarily responsible for care of your aged or unwell parents, and don’t leave them more than you have to.

Your husband has been laid off or one of the hundreds killed by gun violence, and you’re in the kitchen after work and on weekends catering to make ends meet. You’re in treatment for cancer, but without enough strength to walk.

You’re one of tens of thousands of women living with intimate partner violence in the last decade, and you experience body pains, lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate, and it just feels too much to do one more thing in public. Maybe the bruises or the threats against your life are so bad, you’re unwilling to leave wherever you are now safe.

You’re on shift in the police force, in the army, at KFC or as a domestic worker in someone’s home. You are cleaning your temple, church or mosque as part of women’s work, keeping you away from organizing to advance struggles solely in your name.

The struggle for women’s rights is founded on common truths. Right here, on average, men make about $15 000 more than women per month. National-level prevention programmes and a coherent state strategic plan to end gender based violence do not exist. Girls’ rates of HIV infection, child sexual abuse, teenage parenthood and economic insecurity remain higher that boys. These are real harms, negotiated with great risk and backlash. Still, girls and women dust off and cope, survive and improve.

If you can’t gather, open up to your neighbor, your trusted religious elder, or your partner, so that hearing compels them to turn empathy to solidarity. Tell your co-workers, your boss, your support group so that they can commemorate your resilience. Make your survival visible on your Facebook or Instagram profiles so that you refuse shame and silence, and so that we can affirm the conqueror in you. Honour unrecognized women who are the foot soldiers holding families and nation together.

However, you can, press for gender justice, for a national gender policy, sexual harassment legislation, better services for trauma victims, ratification of ILO Convention189, and an end to corruption that steals from our children’s mouths and backpacks, and from their very dreams for a better future.

Visit the Facebook page, International Women’s Day Trinidad and Tobago, for a list of events meant to educate and empower. Whether you march or you finally leave or you speak up for yourself or you break a long held silence or you celebrate another day that you grow strong, you can stand up, speak up, get up.

Imagine and create a world in which girls and women feel collective power to make change that comes from boldly speaking our truths. However you can, this week, this is what you can do.

 

 

Post 227.

A bill now before Cabinet proposes to raise the age of marriage for girls to eighteen years old. This is because the Children’s Act (2012) defines girls under this age as children, for whom marriage and motherhood constitute a violation of rights.

There will be brouhaha about this bill, but it follows a necessary global trend and, while imperfect, is worth supporting.

Some will say that marriage of minors is culturally or religiously sanctioned. Others will argue that the age of marriage and sexual consent should be set at sixteen years old, not eighteen, and that this is necessary to counter the sin and shame of unwed sex and motherhood.

The fact is the laws need to change. The civil marriage act specifies no minimum marriageable age. The Hindu Marriage Act, and Muslim Marriage and Divorce Acts, contain discriminatory provisions which enable marriage of girls at much younger ages than boys, reproducing a patriarchal view that girls do not need as much time for development of their independence and maturity before marriage.

But, there is more at stake. Child marriage is only one example of adult predatory masculinity, which can also be seen in girls’ rates of pregnancy, abortion, sexual abuse and incest, and HIV.

There have been small numbers of girls married at twelve, thirteen and fourteen as late as 2015. Seventeen 13 year-old girls were married in 2010 along with nine 14 year-olds. Between 2011 and today, twenty-one fourteen year-old girls were married. Overwhelmingly, of the 548 child marriages that took place between 2006 and 2016, the majority of those girls were married to adult men.

These are not relationships between equally adolescent minors. These are examples of relationships in which girls’ unequal age, power, and negotiating capacity are normalized. Were the situation to be reversed, where in one year twenty-six boys under 14 years old were married to mainly adult women, this would be appear to all as a theft of childhood, and molestation.

The symbolic significance of marriage blurs our understanding of child marriage rates as only one indicator of girls’ wider sexual vulnerability.

Turn to teenage pregnancy: Between 2008 and 2015, there were 35 pregnancies to girls twelve years old or younger, 2645 to girls between thirteen and sixteen years old, and 12 551 to girls seventeen to nineteen years old. “In these statistics, said the AG, “We have recorded the actual live births of thousands of children in circumstances potentially equal to statutory rape”.

In terms of sexual offense charges, between 2000 and 2015, there were 2 258 matters in relation to girls compared to two charges for sex with males under sixteen years old. As of July 2015, there were 559 cases related to sexual intercourse with a female under the age 14 years, 128 related to sexual intercourse with a person over 14 years and under 16 years without consent, and 45 related to sexual intercourse with a dependent minor. It is well documented that girls’ sexual vulnerability to adult men vastly increases between ten and fourteen years old, the very age around which child marriage debate pivots.

With regard to abortions recorded by public hospitals, between 2011 and 2015, there were 67 among girls thirteen to sixteen years old and 683 among those seventeen to nineteen years old. Finally, the HIV statistics are telling as girls 15-24 years old have almost always had higher rates than boys of their age. In 2014, girls accounted for 60% of infections among 15 to 19 year olds.

We need further research on these numbers and their meanings as well as on the prevalence and implications of adult men’s informal unions with girl children. Nonetheless, the overall trends are totally clear.

In a context where there is no national sexual and reproductive health policy, and no comprehensive sexual education in schools, girl children are overwhelmingly being targeted by men and boys older than them, in ways that impact their empowerment, self-determination, reproductive health, and right to live free from harm.

We must ask which is more important: protection of patriarchal ideologies, symbolic ethnic and religious laws, respectability politics and predatory masculinities or public will that presses political will to provide protections that girls urgently need.

Post 115.

Ziya is two, but she’s clear about sex, her body and reproduction. That gives her a language to ask questions, assess knowledge, think about herself, identify her rights and break silences around all too common phenomena such as child sexual abuse.

If you ask her how babies are made, she’ll say that the daddy puts his penis in the mummy’s vagina, that a liquid comes out with sperm, that the sperm go up the vagina to mummy’s tummy where it “makes friends” with mummy’s egg (this part she came up with, not me), and a baby grows before coming out through mummy’s vagina. She’s seen natural births on Youtube. She knows where she came out of from my body, in the driveway no less. She’s got basic information to answer her question of where she came from, and she has gone on with life like it’s no big deal.

She also knows what to say if anyone touches her vagina or bum bum. We tell her to shout ‘No! I will tell my mummy’ and I tell her that if she feels she needs to, scrap it out as much as she can. When she throws a tantrum, she’s all flailing arms and legs, hitting everything in sight, acting like Scoobie Doo’s nephew Scrappy Doo. I tell her to hit and kick just like that if she has too, and we practice so that, if it ever happens, asserting herself won’t be new. Girls, and boys, need to be empowered from early to powerfully defend themselves from abuse.

The other day, she said to me, ‘Mummy, I have a nipple on my vagina’. I said, ‘that’s your clitoris’. She asked, ‘what’s it for?’ I had to laugh. I said, ‘it’s for you to feel good and you will discover how later on’. I’m not going to feed her nonsense about her genitals being only for reproduction and not for pleasure, because whatever hypocritical adults think, she’ll naturally discover that just as all children do.

She’s got to learn to own and love her body completely if she’s going to be the most capable of making it through life in ways that are healthy and chosen. She takes all this in stride, like learning anything else. It makes you wonder why we act like this stuff is taboo.

When we are not open about sex, when children do not learn to name the most vulnerable parts of their bodies, and when we pretend that children are too young for facts about reproduction, we are perpetuating other silences too.

We wouldn’t give children a lack of clarity about geography or history, why do that about sexuality? Don’t we want them to understand themselves better or to tell us when something is happening to them that they don’t agree to? We are also acting as if children are not living in an adult world already, learning more than we realize about it and figuring out how to talk about it through what they overhear or from TV.

Stone likes to tell me that all this is all well and good, but wait until Ziya starts school and other parents who don’t want their kids to know about their bodies or sexuality complain about Ziya’s upfront explanatory honesty.

What can I say? In a world where sexual violence is everywhere, and where children are not safe, this is one girl who is going to all the information she needs to know. Words, truth, self-knowledge, safety and power are her right and I’m going to help her to make it so.