In the space of 24 hours yesterday, five cases of sexual abuse of children went before local courts, all part of a disturbing pattern that has been emerging over a year of COVID-19 restrictions across T&T.
Pre-pandemic, many households were already unsafe because within their walls, innocent young children were being subjected to rape and sexual exploitation. A 2019 report of the Children’s Authority noted more than 4,000 such cases, with more girls than boys falling prey to predators at rates of 54.4 per cent female to 43.3 per cent male victims.
But the situation appears to be spiralling out of control in the year that schools have been closed, with many children within reach of predators for longer periods of time.
It has long been established that most cases sexual abuse of children occur within their homes, where they are preyed upon by those who have access to them, are trusted and are relatives. The frightening reality for these innocents, in addition to all the other horrors they are facing due to the pandemic, is that they are literally being locked up with their abusers.
Sexual predators who target minors rely on their criminal activity remaining a secret because of children’s confusion and fear. It is a situation further complicated by the fact that the perpetrator might be an authority figure in the home, the individual who might be the main breadwinner, or perhaps even the head of the household.
What makes the situation even more frightening is that the cases where suspects are charged, as frequent as they have become within recent weeks and months, are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more children are suffering in silence and their abusers and rapists are not likely to be brought to justice.
This highlights how much more work needs to be done to make T&T a safer place for children.
Three years ago, the proclamation of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Act No. 8, which outlawed children marriage, was being celebrated as a positive step in eradicating sexual abuse and exploitation of minors.
Before that law was passed, girls as young as 12-years-old could legally be married and it took many years of strong advocacy to make it illegal for girls to become child brides.
But much more work needs to be done. Too many children are suffering mental and physical abuse, with the few systems for intervention and support available in the country out of their reach.
As was done in the case of child marriages, tougher laws must be developed to deal with sexual offences against children.
In addition, there should be a review of the operations of the Gender Affairs Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister, the Children’s Authority and the Child Protection Unit of the T&T Police Service to ensure that these entities are properly resourced to tackle this crisis.
Childhood sexual abuse causes stress long after the experiences have ceased. Research also shows that it can result in symptoms comparable to war-related trauma, so there is a need for best practice and treatment interventions for survivors.