Breaking the Silence

The fight against child sexual abuse

By Margaret Walcott

More often than not societies resist change. The elimination of social taboos is particularly slow. The Trinidad and Tobago society is no different. In our country Child Sexual Abuse, the violation of children’s rights and the personal integrity of girls and boys, is deeply entrenched, it is a taboo subject and one of the most hidden crimes in our society.

Breaking the Silence: A Multi–Sectoral Approach to Preventing and Addressing Child Sexual Abuse in Trinidad and Tobago of The Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine offers an emphatic response to this debilitating social ill. In 2008, The Institute embarked on a three-year action research project to gain new knowledge, and to enable women, men, girls and boys to better understand child sexual abuse and to deal with its implications for the spread of HIV. For the Break the Silence project The Institute of Gender and Social Development partnered with the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition against Domestic Violence (CADVTT), UnICEF, Trinidad and Tobago, and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. The partnership with the Coalition against Domestic Violence (CADVTT), a NGO established in 1988 by two women, Diana Mahabir and the late Radhica  Saith,  activists in the field of domestic violence, provided  a legitimate entree into communities in Trinidad and Tobago. Child sexual abuse in Trinidad and Tobago has lurked in the background for years, slow in coming to the forefront. Although in the last decade or so there has been public outrage at the murders of young children – Akiel Chambers, an 11-year-old boy who was found in a pool at a birthday party in May 1998; Amy Annamunthodo a four-year-old found raped and buggered  in 2006;  six-year-old Sean Luke Lum Fai was another victim and more recently the case of Daniel Guerra aged eight.  The media frenzy has been short lived, some in the traumatized communities  remain fearful, reluctant to report incidents of child sexual abuse and address the perpetrators.
The visual symbol of the programme is a blue teddy bear, beloved of all children with a plaster over its heart.  It simultaneously conjures up the horror of child sexual abuse while offering security, love, care and comfort and subliminally suggesting hope and healing.  The logo is not a commercial or trademark tool,  but rather a call to awareness, a consciousness raising symbol.

A Call To Action went out to communities to paint walls, organize walks, install community signs, share on the Facebook page, and network. Many communities answered the “call” and the groundswell, so critical to the campaign, is growing.

Skills-building workshops were developed always at the request of the community. They embraced the service providers, the teachers, parents, and offered child centered activities and artistic and theatre based activities. Many of the community activities have drawn on art forms and traditional celebrations.

From the Toco community came a seven-episode radio programme From Mathura to Matelot that was developed as part of a community skills-building workshop.  Adults and children participated in writing the script, acting in the soap opera as well as recording, editing and producing the video.

In Charlotteville, Tobago, Kite Flying was the activity. December is kite flying season in in the island, that is when kites really soar. Rhonda Mckenzie, the Community Liaison Officer for Charlotteville, for the Break the Silence project, worked with the children who participated in the arts workshops, building the kites and painting a banner that they displayed at the Family Health Fair in their community.

The Committee on the Status of Women (CSW),Trinidad & Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association, (TTUTA) collaborated with the Sports, Cultural and Social Activities Committee to use the Break the Silence campaign as the theme for the TTUTA and M&M 10K and 1 Lap on January 21st, 2011.

In Barrackpore,  Zorah Resalsingh, a retired nurse, who had long been working with ‘children at risk’ collaborating with Police, Teachers and Social Workers, joined the campaign and the Barrackpore Community organized an  impressive,  large march in July 2011. “Auntie Zorah” says her goal is to have a Children’s Home that is so badly needed in the southland.

Deputy Campus Principal of UWI St Augustine Dr. Rhoda Reddock who is also Project Director, Professor of Gender Social Change and Development holds firm that the responsibilities of The University “is to generate public debate and raise the level of public understanding”.   And this project has produced numerous products valuable at both academic and community levels.  Similarly, there has been considerable interest at both the regional and international level.

Chairman of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Diana Mahabir feels that “there is need to extend and expand the project, and  it is most important for  government policy to reflect the findings of the study and implement the recommendations.”

The recommendations submitted at the end of the three-year project are crucial to effectively address the issue of child sexual abuse.

Briefly, they relate to the following areas:

Reporting – a single data collection instrument for reporting and interviewing.

Expansion – Long-term counselling support for victims and perpetrators.

Protocols – Confidentiality Agreements from service providers, who offer uniform, high quality, children friendly, seamless service for victims.

Treatment – child-friendly physical facilities and safe accommodation for children at risk of Child Sexual Abuse and incest.

The silence has been broken but the journey to change behaviours is long and arduous. Old habits die hard.

“Child sexual abuse in Trinidad and Tobago has lurked in the background for years, slow in coming to the forefront. Although in the last decade or so there has been public outrage at the murders of young children”
“there is need to extend and expand the project, and  it is most important for  government policy to reflect the findings of the study and implement the recommendations.”

(Reprinted from UWI-STAN – April-June, 2012)


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