The sexual abuse of children thrives on secrecy. It usually happens, not with strangers and not through Internet contact, but with adults who are in positions of trust: in the home, in the school, or in the church. The adults who commit such acts are therefore also placed to ensure that the child stays silent, either through threats or cajoling.
The sexual abuse of children also thrives on conservatism. When sex is treated as a matter for shame, then children who are sexually abused are less likely to tell anyone what happened and more likely to be emotionally scarred. While our society is often portrayed as highly sexualised, this is to conflate licentiousness with liberalism. Flagrant displays of sexuality, such as happens over the Carnival season, do not necessarily reflect rational and open attitudes in sexual matters.
In societies which adopt a pragmatic and ethics-based approach to sex, issues like contraception, sex education and gay rights are not controversial. Such societies also have low rates of child sexual abuse, because children know to speak up and adults are ready to take action even when the abuse does not involve their own child.
But in Trinidad and Tobago, for every charge brought against perpetrators, the odds are high that more abused children have remained silent. Similarly, the conservative attitude towards sexual matters also means that many parents, having discovered their child is being abused, take no action out of “shame”. Some even choose to disbelieve the child, especially when the perpetrator is a bread-winner or a respected member of the community.
For these reasons, Tobago and Trinidad are societies ill-equipped to manage the scourge of child sexual abuse. The relevant authorities have always been under-staffed and under-funded. Safe houses for children and women are inadequate, and children’s homes are allowed to function without licences or even regular checks. The Government has begun to take action on some of these issues, but the bureaucratic mills grind slow over the abused bodies of children.
However, one relatively inexpensive measure which could be implemented within months is a comprehensive sex education programme in schools. The framework already exists with the Health and Family Life Education programme, but the HFLE is limited in scope and, in most cases, taught by teachers untrained in this sensitive area. Even the euphemistic course title reflects compromises the Education Ministry made, largely in deference to groups who prefer a restrictive approach to sex education.
However, comprehensive sex education, properly imparted to children from primary school age, has been shown to delay sexual activity, reduce teenage pregnancy, and empower children.
Anyone who rejects such programmes without cogent reasons, therefore, is effectively an accessory to child abuse.