BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, November 27, 2009 – A landmark study on child sexual abuse in the Eastern Caribbean has discovered that the problem is escalating in the sub-region and identified emerging forms of abuse, including the use of boys in an organised network to service cruise ship passengers.
The first of its kind study in the region, commissioned by UNICEF and carried out across the Eastern Caribbean during the period October 2008 to June 2009, explored the situation in Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat and St Kitts and Nevis, considered representative of the region.
The 303-page report, “Perceptions of, Attitudes to and Opinions on Child Sexual Abuse in the Eastern Caribbean”, documented that the more than 1400 respondents presented “an alarming picture of a social problem that is escalating, has increasingly severe consequences for Caribbean societies, has multiple layers and is perpetuated not only by adults who carry out harmful sexual practices with children but also by non-abusing adults through complicity, silence, denial and failure to take appropriate action”.
One of the shocking revelations in the document was that while it was difficult to say how many people have been affected by child abuse, the figure could be as high as 45 percent.
“If one was to assume an under-reporting rate of 20 percent (international studies would suggest a higher under-reporting rate than this) then based on the Community Survey, the numbers of people who have experienced behaviour that could be described as child sexual abuse can be estimated at between 20 percent – 45 percent,” it said.
“This would suggest that child sexual abuse may be more prevalent in the region than in some other countries in which studies have been carried out.”
Common and emerging sexual abuse trends
The study identified the main forms of sexual abuse as intra-familial abuse, which happens in the privacy of the home and includes incest and step-father abuse; non-family abuse that takes place outside of the family setting; and transactional sexual abuse, where sex is exchanged for money, goods or favours, but involves the sexual abuse of a minor.
Transactional sexual abuse, reported as being committed by men at all levels of society, including politicians and senior professionals, was of particular concern.
“Such is the extent of this problem, that it was considered a firmly entrenched and established pattern of behaviour that did not need to be hidden since it was unlikely to attract penalty and, in some circumstances, would not even attract disapproval,” the report noted.
But the study also found evidence of new trends in sexual abuse as well as patterns of abuse that, although not net, emerge as a consequence of specific events such as natural disasters. Among those identified were cell phone pornography, a growing problem among children who use the cameras on their cell phones to take sexual images of themselves and their friends and then distribute the images; and internet abuse, which was identified following “disturbing reports of children being approached by predators through social networking sites”.
The study also found clear evidence of a growing market for child sex tourism.
“There were several specific examples given, such as the existence of an organised paedophile network set up to service cruise ships, boys were a specific target of this activity.”
Opportunistic abuse linked to natural disasters was also identified: “Natural disasters often result in families being relocated to temporary shelters where children are sharing living space with adults who take advantage of them; families are disrupted and focused on survival, this may lead to children being left unsupervised; children may have to fend for themselves and their siblings and are at increased risk of being sexually exploited in return for money”.
“In one country, an example was given of electrical technicians demanding sex from young girls in order to reconnect the electricity supply to their houses following a hurricane,” it added.
According to the study, sexual aggression by girls is also becoming a problem. It said there was evidence from several countries of girls engaging in sexually aggressive behaviour in which groups of them gang up on individual boys and sexually abuse them.
Transactional sex between children was reported as a problem across all countries with young girls agreeing to sex with teenage boys for money and material goods.
The report noted that although there were some differences in relation to specific countries, and according to different variables, such as age, gender, and socio-economic status, there were fewer than expected.
The role men and women play in sexual abuse
The researcher team, led by Professor Adele Jones of the University of Huddersfield and Ena Trotman Jemmott, a consultant working on the behalf of Action For Children, confirmed findings reflected in other studies that the majority of child abuse was committed by adult men, with most victims being girls.
However, it also indicated that the abuse of boys, mostly by men also, was a significant and growing problem.
The study showed that while some women were also sexually abusing children, their main contribution to the problem was failing to protect minors even when made aware that abuse was occurring.
Tom Olsen, UNICEF Representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, described the study as the first important step in the process of addressing the growing problem of child sexual abuse in the sub region.
“We’ve always believed that we must have an evidence-based approach to support partners in the delivery of programmes to ensure a protective environment for children in the sub region. This study fills some of the research gaps which previously prevented stakeholders from designing holistic programmes to begin tackling this problem,” he added.
More action suggested to tackle problem
Among the recommendations made in the report was for the reframing of child sexual abuse at the policy level as a public health issue, bearing in mind that while abuse is a children’s rights issue, its most tangible and costly effects for Caribbean societies are health implications in that it contributes to teenage pregnancy, abortions and related complications, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted infections and HIV transmission.
“Treating child sexual abuse as a public health issue would push the problem higher up the political agenda and would enable governments to access funds from different sources to tackle the problem,”
–the report said.
The researchers also argued that there is need for governments to adopt the child/family friendly approach to budgeting, social planning and economic development that has been promoted by UNICEF and Action for Children; and for the introduction of child-sensitive justice systems for child sexual abuse crimes.
The report said while some recommendations require planning and will take time, others should be acted upon speedily.
“Not all of the recommendations require resources and many of them are about behaviour and attitude change and providing supportive interventions for children and families. It is vitally important that people do not sit back and wait for government to lead the way. There is much work for governments to do but there are changes that can be implemented today or tomorrow by every section of society,” it said.
In order to progress these recommendations and to propel the movement for abuse-free childhoods the researchers have recommended the development of a Regional Strategic Plan for Building Abuse-free Childhoods and the establishment of a Regional Child Protection Hub.
These recommendations and the results of the study are currently being discussed with the governments of the six countries where the research was carried out.