Minister’s remarks on NOC girls alleging sexual abuse are disturbing, an independent probe needed

Dear Editor,

We are extremely disturbed by both the tone and content of the statements the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Dr Frank Anthony is reported as having made in response to the recent allegations by several girls who are students at the New Opportunity Corps (NOC), of being sexually assaulted and raped by both male students and adult NOC staff members. It is very troubling that he has taken the position of disparaging these young women and challenging them and their families to provide evidence of their abuse.

Yes, instances of rape and sexual assault should absolutely be reported to the authorities for thorough investigation. However, we are sure that he is aware that there are many factors that influence whether or not rape and abuse are reported- factors such as the victims’ previous experiences, their relationship with adult authority figures, and their emotional health . The girls at the NOC who were abused have already experienced significant trauma. As such, safeguarding their physical and mental wellbeing should be the foremost priority.

His responsibility as the holder of the portfolio of Minister of Youth and as the person with ultimate oversight of the NOC is to the youth of Guyana. When young people in Guyana experience distress and become wards of the State, it is incumbent upon him and his staff members to show them support, and to put systems in place to ensure that they are safe and not further victimized, and that they obtain justice, quality care and treatment. His statements on this matter do not reflect such understanding, or concern. Nor do they reflect knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act 2010, which recognizes that survivors of sexual offences display a wide range of responses, and that the absence of behaviour that might be expected of a victim/survivor of a sexual offence should not be taken as evidence that the offence did not take place. Instead, his comments appear to belittle, ridicule, and silence young people who may have suffered rape and sexual assault, and will only serve to further discourage any other victims from speaking out.

The fact is that there have long been allegations of abuse at the NOC; this is not the first time that such reports have been made. Incidents over the years hint at deep and systemic problems with the management of the NOC and the institution’s inability to effect meaningful and positive change in the lives of the troubled youth it is supposed to be caring for. We have also been waiting for almost a year for the results of the findings of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that was set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the 2012 escape of dozens of youths both male and female.

We, the undersigned, call upon you, Mr. Minister, to withdraw your extremely insensitive remarks on the recent reports of abuse and to show empathy with these young women. We also call on you to:

Immediately release the findings of the COI set up to investigate the 2012 incidents at NOC and establish an independent Task Force to investigate   the most recent allegations of sexual abuse of students

Ensure that students detained and/or charged be granted independent legal representation ASAP in keeping with their rights under the Sexual Offences Act 2010 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Guyana has signed and ratified. The Guyana Legal Aid Clinic provides free legal aid to children in need of legal representation.

Ensure that appropriate measures are put in place immediately to abolish the use of any form of corporal punishment at the NOC as outlined in the Juvenile Offenders Amendment Act and Training School Amendment Act 2010, and provide training to NOC staff who cannot manage without recourse to the whip so they can be reoriented towards appropriate and humane ways of enforcing discipline in keeping with Guyana’s Laws and the right of children to be free from abuse and other forms of inhumane punishment as outlined in the CRC

Demonstrate leadership and accountability in holding NOC staff members to the highest possible standards of discipline and professionalism, and provide ongoing psycho/social support to staff to ensure they retain the emotional health they need to meet such standards.

We further call on the National Assembly to repeal the offence of “wandering” as children charged with this ‘offence’ are not offenders but victims of child abuse and neglect. Reports indicate that many students at NOC are there for “wandering” and are therefore being penalized for being victims and survivors of child abuse, which is an outrage.

The promises made by the 9th Parliament in 2009 to have the Juvenile Justice Bill passed   must become a reality in the 10th Parliament, and the NOC must be placed under an independent management committee comprising individuals with the necessary expertise, experience, interest and knowledge of human rights law and practice to run a successful juvenile rehabilitation centre.

Yours faithfully,

Danuta Radzik

Sherlina Nageer

Karen de Souza

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