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Fighting child sexual abuse in the Caribbean

By Tamar Hahn

KINGSTON, Jamaica, 18 May 2012 – A nine-year old boy was systematically raped by his pastor while his mother was at work; an 18-month old baby boy died of internal damage after being raped by his uncle; a little girl was infected with gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes and HIV by an uncle who was in and out of prison.

UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on efforts to address widespread child sexual abuse in the Caribbean region.  Watch in RealPlayer


These are some of the cases Sandra Knight, a general practitioner at the paediatric hospital in Kingston, has treated over the years. The abuse tormented her, compelling her to speak out to the press. Dr. Knight’s accounts have created an uproar in the Eastern Caribbean, and an avalanche of front-page stories about child sexual abuse has followed.

“I felt that my peers were becoming complacent about this issue,” Dr. Knight said. “But I felt I had a tsunami in front of me, which was affecting me because I also have a 6-year-old daughter. I saw these children dying, getting sick, being traumatized for life.”

A silent emergency

Child sexual abuse is shrouded in secrecy and abetted by shame. While most abuse is hidden and up-to-date statistics are scarce, it is known that nearly 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 around the world have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence worldwide.

In the Caribbean region, sexual violence against children is greatly underreported, and this abuse is often culturally sanctioned. A study in Jamaica indicated that men often believe they have a right to engage in sex with girls under their care, while children in Guyana reported believing that sexual violence can be blamed on a victim’s clothing. Sexual violence against boys is especially underreported, and in some countries, is not even recognized as a crime.

“Sexual abuse happens everywhere – at home, school and in other institutions, and has a serious physical, psychological and social impact, not only on girls and boys, but also on the fabric of society. It is one of the main factors that contribute to HIV infections, and that is why it is not surprising that this region has one of the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS worldwide,” said Nadine Perrault, UNICEF Regional Child Protection Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Our experiences in preventing and responding to sexual abuse have taught us that laws by themselves have been ineffective in protecting children, mainly because of the silence surrounding the issue and the risks that victims face in speaking out – risks such as  stigma, shame, harm and further violence. And then, often, children do not know where to turn.” 

Marta Santos Pais (centre), Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, attends the Sub-Regional Meeting for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children in the Caribbean, in Kingston, Jamaica.

Breaking the silence

To address the taboo surrounding child sexual abuse, the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago developed the Teddy Bear Campaign. Using the image of a teddy bear with a band-aid over its heart and the tagline ‘Break the Silence’, this initiative has mobilized a wide range of government and non-governmental partners to protect children from sexual abuse.

The campaign was discussed during the Sub-Regional Meeting for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children in the Caribbean, which took place in Kingston this week. UNICEF is currently working to expand the reach of this campaign to other countries in the Caribbean.

“Something that has touched me deeply in the discussions that took place during this conference is the really high incidence of sexual abuse in the Caribbean,” said Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Violence against Children. “I think everyone in the region seems incredibly committed to moving forward and very encouraged by the opportunity to replicate the Teddy Bear Campaign. I am confident that the materials will be replicated and tailored to each country, and we will have greater awareness, greater commitment and fewer cases to be regretted.”

Ending a vicious cycle

In March 2012, 15-year-old Taisha* was at her sister’s house when her 19-year-old brother raped her.

Participants attend the Sub-Regional Meeting for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children in the Caribbean, held in Kingston, Jamaica.

“My mom didn’t believe me, and I didn’t know what else to do so I decided to go to the police by myself,” Taisha said.

Unlike Taisha, most children are brought in by their mothers, many of whom have been victims of abuse themselves. “It is a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Knight. “Mothers who have been abused as children, and who did not get help, see this again in their children and don’t do anything about it or resent them for it, looking at it in a distorted way. Some of them felt so much shame that they don’t want their children to go through that and cover it up.”

Taisha is now in a safe home where she is attending school. “If I were to talk to girls in the same situation all around the world, I would tell them to keep their head up high and remember that they are here for a good reason, and they should not let what they’ve been through stop them in their tracks,” she said. “Going to the authorities is the best thing to do because keeping it to yourself will not help.”

* Name changed to protect child’s identity



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