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 401.

When will it be safe to travel by taxi? When will no one get raped in church? When will fathers not rape daughters in a security booth? When will a ten-year-old girl never again have to survive being smothered while molested repeatedly by a man the family trusted? When will we be safe in our bedrooms?

When will killers stop stuffing women into a barrel or leaving them dead on a river bank or beaten bloody on a forest floor or beheaded in front of their families? When will women never again be bludgeoned outside their work or set on fire in their home or stabbed to death outside of a school?

When will men no longer drug girls and drag them home claiming they are their daughters? When will adolescent girls no longer disappear at rates higher than any other group in our society? When will migrant girls stop being the most vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation?

When will the threat and fear of sexual violence not define the lives of girls and women from birth to death? When will a baby always be free from rape and incest? When will there be sufficient safe houses? When will perpetrators be put out by police so that families can be safe in their homes?

When will male partners, husbands, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, police officers, church elders, teachers, taxi drivers, bandits, businessmen and traffickers stop sexually violating, raping and beating women, girls and boys?

When will we acknowledge how many pregnancies result from unwanted sex, forced sex, and rape? When will we acknowledge how many miscarriages result from women being beaten while pregnant? When will we be honest that women are raped by their partners in front of their children because making children witness violence is a known and common practice to instill silence, compliance and fear?

When will the media not describe a man’s sexual assault of a mother with the headline that she was smoking ganja as if that was an invitation to rape, when he pointed a gun at her head and at her baby? When will we no longer say a woman was raped or beaten or killed and instead report that another man beat, raped and killed, putting attention and responsibility on those committing acts of violence?

When will state officials stop speaking as if women choose violence by wearing a skirt, going to lime, agreeing to a relationship, playing mas, or wanting to keep their job?

When will more men hold their bredren accountable for their violence? When will they stop men from preying on young girls as happens every day? When will the majority of men stop staying silent? When will they only show boys to obey women and girls’ right to be free and safe? When will someone always intervene?

When will we realise women stay because they can’t financially afford to leave, they fear the licks they’ll get if they do or they believe they or their children will be murdered if they go? Don’t we see that women are at greatest risk of being murdered when they try to leave? How can we blame women when perpetrators leave a trail of victims as they go from relationship to relationship?

When will churches and mosques and temples acknowledge that women are deathly afraid and may have nowhere to turn because families send them back and religious leaders advise women to stay, to keep trying, to be forgiving and to be more submissive? When will religious leaders stop telling men that their rightful role is to lead women when these very beliefs are the root cause of so many women’s vulnerability?

When will mothers never again be complicit in the abuse and prostitution of their children? For no children should be sacrificed by adults, regardless of their own fear and trauma or need to survive.

When will every perpetrator be named by those who know them? When will there be programmes targeted at perpetrators?

When will we stop being asked for solutions after repeating the solutions again and again year after year amidst political lip service, state under-resourcing, and leaders’ misguided admonitions of women? When will one little girl or boy be too many? When will one more woman killed be considered a reason for a national emergency? When will Ashanti Riley’s horrific murder become a wake-up call for action and measurable results that create transformation? When will we finally do enough?

If not today, if not now, when? When?

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.