Combating sexual violence needs more inclusive, comprehensive mechanisms

Dear Editor,

On November 25, which is Inter-national Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and marks the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Guyana is faced with shocking reports of the sexual abuse of high school students allegedly by Coen Jackson, an economics teacher who spent the last 10 years teaching at Bishop’s High School. That the headmistress of one of the top schools in Guyana failed to immediately and appropriately act upon reports that children under her care allegedly had been sexually abused should instil deep concern in all of us, and that she rather sought to blame and shame those children is an outrage.

Schools should be places where children are safe from and educated about sexual abuse and how to protect themselves from sexual exploiters, rapists, paedophiles and predators. That sexually abusive behaviour could have been unreported/ignored for so many years is alarming because it underscores the high tolerance and normalization of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation of children and exposes the absence of a robust, modern and functional school-based protection and response system with protocols and guidelines for addressing sexual abuse both in the public and private school systems. A review of the efficacy and delivery of the Ministry of Education Health & Family Life Education Programme, which is the tool for education on social issues including sexual abuse, must be carried out urgently, as it is clearly ineffective.

We need to recognize and understand how easy it is for children (all those under 18) to fall prey to sexual abusers and predators and how difficult it can be to confront and expose those who are in positions of power and control. It is no secret that adult sexual abusers, especially those who target children gain the trust of children by showering them with attention, gifts, money and affection, a process called grooming, before sexually abusing them. Sexual abusers of children also prey on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of children and often threaten them with accusations of complicity in their own sexual abuse and exploitation. If adult survivors of sexual abuse find it so difficult to report sexual offences, how much more so must it be for children, who are usually less believed. Like domestic violence, sexual abuse cuts across ethnicity, age, sex, sexual orientation, social and economic status and geography.

We know that there have been and continue to be many other cases of child sexual abuse in schools and other educational institutions throughout Guyana. This must stop now. More voices need to speak out and demand better protection of Guyana’s children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We must not accept the failure from those in positions of power and authority to address these issues.

Also disturbing is that the defence put forward by Coen Jackson exposed a lack of knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act, namely the offence of abuse of a position of trust, which seeks to protect children from those who would use their access and position to sexually abuse children, and the offence of meeting a child after sexual grooming. His self-confidence in defending his behaviour towards students was so evidently inappropriate that it must give any right-thinking Guyanese pause for thought about our failure to address the pervasive culture that blames the victims, minimizes the effects and nature of sexual abuse, portrays women and girls as seducers and shames them.

The idea that academic successes can be used to absolve or excuse teachers from sexual abuse must be completely and vigorously rejected.

There seems to be confusion and uncertainty about who has jurisdiction and authority in cases of child sexual offences, as evidenced by the Coen Jackson matter and that involving sexual abuse of a child by the City Constabulary.  Reports must be made to the Childcare & Protection Agency and the police and criminal investigation must be pursued.

Sexual harassment, which has come to the forefront internationally, also needs urgent attention in Guyana. Even though the Prevention of Discrimination Act outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace, anecdotal evidence indicates that the Act is rarely used, perhaps because many persons do not know of it or the forms of discrimination it protects against, or because the court system is difficult to navigate, not user-friendly and notorious for long delays. While Help & Shelter supports revision of the Prevention of Discrimination Act, we recommend and encourage that all private and public sector institutions, including schools, ministries, health services, parliament, the police and army and all government agencies, introduce written policies against sexual harassment in the workplace that include education about sexual harassment, and reporting procedures and penalties.

If Guyana is to be successful in combating sexual violence we need more inclusive and comprehensive mechanisms, policies and strategies that take into account the expertise and experience that exists in our society.

Help & Shelter stands ready to offer its counselling services to any survivors of sexual violence and harassment.

Yours faithfully,
Danuta Radzik
Josephine Whitehead
Niveta Shivjatan
Denise Dias
Gaitrie Shivsankar
Colin Marks
Desiree Ramdeen
Shondelle Branche
For Help & Shelter

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