We have a far way to go to change the culture which trivializes sexual violence against children

Dear Editor,

Much media and civil society attention is focused at present on the  developing story of a male teacher at Bishops’ High School (BHS) who is reported to have systematically targeted girl students, often just as they are reaching the age of consent, to groom them into some form of sexual relationship with him. We accept what several children are said to have reported not only because we believe strongly that adults have a duty to listen to children who complain of sexual abuse, but also because a report made to us some months ago of a then unnamed teacher at Bishops who had engaged in similar behaviour turned out to be about the same teacher, a fact that only came out after his photograph was published. The pattern of behaviour is striking.

It is imperative for us to deal with this as an issue in itself: the reports are of alleged prolonged and systematic predation by this teacher. But we also need to link this story with two other stories in recent memory: one, that of the boy who was allegedly raped by a city constable in the city constabulary premises; and two, that of a girl allegedly raped by a relative with an alleged history of raping the girl children in his family, something that entered the public domain when efforts were made to stop his party (the People’s National Congress) from putting him forward as a candidate for the city council.

What connects these three stories in the first place is this:

  1. All the children have been either under the age of consent or targeted just as they moved to the age of consent.
  2. All were allegedly violated by a person in a position of trust – as it happens, a teacher, a policeman (in a country where working class parents still take children who they feel they can’t control to “make them behave”), a family member.
  3. In each case, people in authority acted without regard to their duty of protection for our children and without regard for the law: the headmistress of BHS who seemed to place the responsibility for the reported assaults on the “looseness” of some girl students; the city council, members of which have descended into blaming each other for their collective failure; then Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence, who dismissed the matter involving her party candidate as a family affair.

The case of BHS is an example of the typical slut-shaming of female victims of sexual abuse, while in the other two cases, the children’s rights could be denied for class reasons: they were not from families important enough to command attention.  What all three cases have in common is that they reek of a lack of respect for the rights of children as children.

They also provide more stark proof that while we have reached a far way in creating laws against sexual violence, we have far to go to change the culture which trivializes sexual violence against children – and this is true not only as some will pretend at the popular level, but at the level of authorities and institutions that children should be able to rely on.

The latest of the stories has also come to light in the context of global attention to sexual violence against women, children and men arising out of the “me too” campaign, and it might be useful to remind ourselves how this came about. First, a person or a few people told the story of sexual violence they suffered, often many years ago, sometimes when they were children. The first victims who came forward were women, then came some men. The floodgates opened, bringing not only new reports of sexual violence by the same few men in positions of power, but of sexual violence by more and more men in positions of power in more and more institutions.  More and more it has become clear how widespread the abuse is, how much it was pushed underground, how many people who could have done something to end the abuse did nothing. How much the men were allowed to keep bestriding their various platforms, pretending decency. How much many of them remained in good standing in society, even as they were known to be sexual predators.

In the present case in Guyana, as the lead activist in the matter,  Ruel Johnson should encourage the students and former students who have been abused (if he has not already done so),  to make reports to the police so that the law can be used to address the alleged unlawful behaviour of the teacher.

As for the Ministry of Education and the Teaching Service Commission, we know that successive administrations have been guilty of covering for accused child molesters in the schools by transferring them from one place to another – presumably because they were “good teachers” we could not afford to lose.  Given the poor history of the MoE in protecting children against sexual assaults and the report that Ruel Johnson had drawn this situation to the attention of the ministry months ago, it is clear that relevant protocols (which should also speak to consequences of breaches) have not been put in force . How many more children can we expect to suffer at the hands of predators in the school system before this is done?

The Ministry of Social Protection must also explain why, seven years after the enactment of the sexual offences law and two years after the coalition assumed office, it has still not activated a functional National Task Force as called for in the Sexual Offences Act Part ix, Prevention which has among other responsibilities, public education and the creation of a national plan for the prevention of sexual offences.

There is a broader point to be made. We would never deny the centrality of race in what happens in Guyana. But the single minded obsession with race, or with race as it connects to party and politics as an explanation for all our ills, the consequent insistence on claiming that all we have to solve or what we have to solve first is which combination of races and parties should govern us ‒ all this results in a shameful inattention to social crises, many of which cut across race and party. One of the biggest of these social crises is what is happening to the children and youth whom we insist on calling “our future” even as we brutalize them and allow them to be brutalized in the present.

Yours faithfully,
Karen de Souza

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