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 407.

“WE WANT justice!” is the powerful cry echoing across the country, and one can’t help but think that political elites are watching from behind security protection, waiting for gatherings to die down so that we can be thrown scraps of disconnected reform.

When citizens take to the streets in these numbers, it is a sign of widespread desperation, of a system so failed that people feel they must shout to be heard, of trust so broken that people will gather in anger outside of our institutions, believing justice cannot be found inside.

I keep wondering if we will see continued protest, knowing that we can expect dozens of women and girls to be killed or go missing this year. When will numbness or a sense of powerlessness set in? Or, as I hope, will feelings of horror, trauma, fear and anger continue to build with each report that confirms men’s war against women, prompting more to the streets?

This is not the time for men to say, “Not me.” Not when grandfathers, uncles, fathers, cousins, neighbours, maxi drivers, teachers, pastors, bandits and other forms of predators roam with impunity in our families and communities, or are on extended bail, or are freed by a court system that appears corrupt, inefficient and haphazard, in which it takes years to start a trial. Women’s and girls’ right to justice is not and has never been anyone’s priority.

To this day, we blame women. To this day, we do not yet hold men, including at all levels of leadership, sufficiently accountable for a world in which they are dominant. Men must make this change, without taking over or speaking instead of women or trivialising decades of ongoing feminist advocacy. Certainly, our investment in patriarchal power must be destroyed, despite all the discomfort that may bring. Women cannot continue to be fodder for this violent monster.

Young women are living in terror; nowhere safe. They are panicked about using public transport, as they long have been. They feel abandoned by state and society, as they should, for they face the greatest risk of daily harm in homes, on streets, in taxis and at school, by any or possibly every man. They are growing up in a state of perpetual self-defence, and even that offers no real protection. Women are driving with a weapon in one hand. Women and girls are under greater surveillance from brothers, fathers and boyfriends than ever before, further sacrificing freedom. We can do everything right and still be killed.

Amidst these disappearances and deaths, we struggle, as we have and as we will for real solutions. “No bail for rapists” is one call, but the bail amendments proposed holding suspects without charge for 120 days. What happens when they must be released if no charges are laid? What happens when court delays, magistrates’ decisions, and police absenteeism lead to rapists being freed, as with Andrea Bharatt’s alleged kidnapper?

Even if we make rape a non-bailable offence –, because who doesn’t want to get rapists off the streets – keep in mind that murder is non-bailable, and killings continue unabated. Hanging has remained legal, but has not been a deterrent. Neither are stand-alone solutions.

The AG has blamed women’s groups for the Sex Offenders Registry not being public. We recommended the registry not be public because its use is for an integrated police and court response, because the public would run perpetrators from one community to a next, and because the majority of sex crimes remain unreported and committed by male family and friends.

We already know so many sexual abusers. We tolerate and protect them for the sake of family name, respectability and survival. We don’t need a registry to tell us who they are, some of us always know. Again, it is one strategy for protection, not a solution.

The AG is also aware that vigilantism is a likely outcome. Sex offenders might get community licks, and maybe even dumped for dead in the places women are. That is a dangerous road he now seems prepared to go.

There are many other necessary paths. Vision 2030 promised a National Transportation Policy. It should treat women and girls’ risk, as we saw with Ashanti Riley, as a national emergency. There must be co-ordinated transport-system solutions that urgently respond to women and girls’ needs. We will make and must back these demands with public pressure over future days and deaths.

We are deep in battle, and no shortcut will win this war.

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.