Addressing sexual abuse

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Annan Boodram - The Caribbean Voice (www.caribvoice.org), a US and Guyana registered volunteer-driven, not for profit NGO focused on suicide and all forms of abuse prevention in Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and St Vincent & the Grenadines (in partnership with sister NGO ‘Say Enough is Enough Support Group) and the Caribbean Diaspora in North America.

By Annan Boodram, The Caribbean Voice

An estimated 7.9 percent of men and 19.7 percent of women globally experience sexual abuse prior to the age of 18. And across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women, around 736 million, are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner.

Six percent of women globally report being sexually assaulted by someone other than their husband or partner. Non-reporting is actually the norm when it comes to sexual assault. According to US-based Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (USRA&IN), only one in three sexual assaults is ever reported to the police.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (USBJS) indicates that if the perpetrator is or once was the survivor’s intimate partner, the victim will report the crime 25 percent of the time. When the offender is a friend or an acquaintance, 18 to 40 percent of the assaults are reported. If the offender is a stranger, victims report assaults roughly half of the time. With respect to these contexts empirical and anecdotal evidence point to higher numbers for the Caribbean.

According to the (USBJS), sexual assault survivors don’t come forward​ because, although unsure of the perpetrator’s intent, they fear retaliation. Perhaps, they don’t want the offender to get in trouble, their families or anyone to know or don’t have enough proof.

They may feel the police won’t believe them or wouldn’t do anything to help them or that the assault was a personal matter, not important enough to report. In addition, victims may feel responsible for what happened to them, or embarrassed about their lack of knowledge or judgment. They might feel guilty that they had too much to drink or were engaging in a risky, inappropriate behaviour. And young victims living at home might worry that their parents will be angry and unsupportive. As well, in the Caribbean stigmas and shame, especially in situations where perpetrators are family members or close family friends, play a role in non-reporting. Also, the response of police, in far too many instances, is a disincentive to reporting.

However, keeping sexual assault a secret, as is often the case in the Caribbean, hampers survivors’ healing and empowers predators who might well continue with that behaviour. By sharing the trauma with supportive professionals, friends or family members, victims can begin to reclaim their lives and bodies, eventually moving past the pain and ensuring that sexual predators are brought to justice, so others are protected from them. Thus, the need for critical support circles and trained police (sensitization, empathy, familiarity with relevant laws) to foster the process of seeking justice.

In 2017, India’s Supreme Court ruled, that girls under 18, would be able to charge their husbands with rape, as long as they complained within one year of being forced to have sexual relations. This is instructive for the Caribbean, where marital rape has been on the rise during the pandemic, and where the age of consent needs to be raised to 18 years, to match the legal age for adulthood.

Also, where they exist, as in Guyana, for example, Sexual Offences Court must ensure that sentences handed down hover around the maximum rather than the minimum. Such courts must also be decentralized so that victims can have easy access regardless of where they live. And, the ‘Model Guidelines for Sexual Offence Cases in the Caribbean Region’, already launched in Jamaica, should be the guiding framework within which rape should be a non-bailable offence to ensure that victims are not intimidated into changing their stories, which is ever so often the case. Earlier this year, the very proactive Commissioner of Police of Trinidad and Tobago, Gary Griffith, made a heartfelt appeal for such a law to be realized.

The UNiTE Campaign to end violence against women by 2030, calls for action that focuses on the provision of services accessible to all survivors of rape and sexual violence. Among these are health-care services including post-rape care; emergency contraception and abortion; psychological support and counselling; legal advice and protection orders; shelter, telephone hotlines, social assistance and the provision of information at the local and national level. Where possible piggybacking and private/public sector collaboration should be explored to eventualize these recommendations.

All Sexual Offences Acts or similar legislation must provide for police officers to be charged if they fail to institute charges against suspects within a specified time or if they delay in seeking advice from the Directors of Public Prosecutions ((as in Guyana) ) and for the law to be consistently applied. Such acts also need updating in many cases to include marital rape, language changes, and the provisions mentioned by the UNiTE Campaign as well mechanisms (training, scope for reporting of such behaviour and consequences) to address victims’ complaints about police officers ridiculing or demonizing them or sending them home instead of taking their complaints. Where they do not exist, victims support units within the police forces (as exists in Jamaica) need to be established to deal with both rape and domestic violence.

As the London Metropolitan Police have done with tremendous results, encrypted online space must be created to receive reports of offences of “misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault” via uploaded testimonies. And, where they don’t currently exist, registries of sexual offenders should be established while all such registries must be made public, otherwise, they serve no purpose. In this respect, the work of the Caribbean Committee Against Sex Crimes (CCASC), an initiative of the NGO, Zandoli USA and Trinidad and Tobago born activist attorney, Jonathan Bhagan must be commended for leading the regional Caribbean effort in partnership with Offender Watch, a US-based sex offender registry management solution.

The USRA&IN suggests using these specific phrases when talking with someone who discloses she or he was sexually assaulted. “I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” Victims may feel ashamed and worried they’ll be discounted. The best thing to do is listen and believe them. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind them that they are not to blame. “You are not alone. I care about you and am here to listen and help in any way I can.”

Provide a safe space for the telling of their stories. Assess if there are others in their life who can also be supportive. “I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened to you.”

Acknowledge that the experience has been traumatic and has negatively impacted their lives. Statements such as: “This must be really tough for you” and “I’m so glad you’re sharing it with me” encourage further communication and let them know you care.

If the victim is a child, parents and caregivers must always believe what the child says. Immediately establish a plan with other adults so that unsupervised contact with the abuser is eliminated. Help the child understand that the abuser did something wrong, and that this person needs help to stop hurting others. Pay close attention to the child’s cues about what he or she may need to feel safe. You can also help the child feel safe by demonstrating your willingness to protect his or her privacy. And get help immediately.

As well, the language used to talk about sexual abuse must ensure that the focus is on perpetrators and not victims. Instead of how many women were raped we need to talk about how many rapes were committed. And instead of sexual violence against women, we need to talk about perpetrators of sexual violence. The idea is to address the abuse and its perpetrators while helping victims to heal and take control of their lives in a safe and empowered manner.

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