With an estimated 50 per cent of children in Latin America and the Caribbean said to be experiencing at least one form of abuse, an official today warned that this could redound into a worsening problem of crime.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Maisha Emmanuel voiced the concern today as the issue of child abuse came under the microscope during a symposium hosted at the state-run Queen Elizabeth Hospital by the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies and the Centre for Bioethics at the Harvard Medical School.
Speaking on the topic Confronting Child Abuse in Small Societies, Dr Emmanuel pointed to the findings of a comprehensive 2006 United Nations study on violence against children in the Caribbean.
She said data from that study revealed that not only child abuse was rampant in the region, but that children who were victims of domestic abuse were nine times more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour and to become violent than those who were not abuse victims.
The consultant psychiatrist also suggested that there was a link between community violence and child abuse, with the majority of Caribbean countries now said to be well above the global average homicide rate of 6.2 per 100,000, with Barbados averaging 10.91, Jamaica 43.21 and Trinidad and Tobago 30.88 per 100,000.
“It boggles the mind that we here at 166 square miles have murder rates higher than the US and the UK. Why is it we can have such high rates of murder in the region?” she said, while emphasizing the link between child abuse and crime.
“About 50 per cent of all children in Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced some form of abuse. That is very high. It is so high that child abuse in the Caribbean has been described as endemic and rampant and should now be treated as a public health concern. That is where we are heading now,” she said, adding that “in spite of the prevalence it is quite underreported” due to a number of reasons, including fear.
While lamenting that too often victims were blamed, Dr Emmanuel described the situation as “disturbing”. However, amid calls for Barbados and other countries to make it mandatory for child abuse to be reported, she cautioned countries not to put systems in place that they could not maintain due to financial constraints.
Among other the key recommendations made in the 2006 study were a review and upgrade of existing legislation and the implementation of child friendly systems to combat the abuse scourge.
However, while warning that child abuse was “not going anywhere”, Emmanuel warned that the current laws to do with children’s rights and protection were “confusing”.
She explained that not only was there a lack of uniformity in some definitions used, but also in some cases an apparent absence of legislation to combat trafficking and the sale of children.
“So many of our laws [they switch] depending on what is happening. So you have some countries where a child is 16 and others that go up to 18.
“Right here in Barbados you can have sex at 16 but anything else is 18. So clearly we are confused . . . we have to get it right. We need to be clear,” she insisted.
Dr Emmanuel said while legislation would not totally solve the problem, it was step one in the process, which also required enforcement, greater public awareness and better understanding of the issues affecting the population.
“If it is not written in law you cannot prosecute anybody for it. So you may be alarmed or respond in disgust [but] that means nothing if you cannot do something about the situation,” she added.