Several weeks ago I was horrified to read a commentary on the 2017 UNICEF report on the non-consensual sexual activity of women and girls. And though this article was essentially written since March, the lure of the elections and the numerous developments occurring in the Barbados proved to be a mitigating circumstance preventing its publication until now. The UN report ought to be widely disseminated and discussed given its saliency to public policy and law.
The November 2017, UNICEF reported noted that around 15 million adolescent girls between the age of 15-19 have experienced forced sex in their life time; in other words, rape. And we say rape largely because the act centres on the issue of consent. But what is consent? Any rational thinking individual must agree that for consent to be legitimate or legal, it must be given by someone capable of giving their consent. Children cannot give consent as they are judged to lack such a capacity, since they are not of the age of majority.
In the Caribbean that age is set anywhere from 14 to16, which in my view is highly debateable since the law itself does not view such individuals as being of age and therefore maturity to participate in the act of voting. Yet men often claim that sex with “minors” was consensual. What many of them fail to comprehend is that children are not in a position to give their ‘consent’ because such activity by a person below the age of majority is defined as non-consensual. It does not mean that the child’s participation is unwilling, but instead it refers to the improper consent which must therefore be discounted, since a child cannot give consent, and or withdraw such consent. Consequently, to engage in sex with a minor, even when there appears to be willing participation by said minor, is tantamount to participating in a criminal activity and all such individuals are guilty of committing an offence.
These reports do not speak to the issue of other forms of sexual harm which includes the attempted penetrative sex – whether vaginal or anal – oral sex with a child and fondling of child’s sexual parts, whether genitals, breasts, and buttocks. The 2017 report comes on the heel of a 2012 UN report on the issue. UNICEF also reported six other critical noteworthy facts:
• In 38 low and middle income countries, close to 17 million adult women report having experienced forced sex in their childhood. In 28 countries in Europe, around 2.5 million young women report experiences of contact and non-contact forms of sexual violence before age 15.
• Worldwide, around 15 million adolescent girls, aged 15 to 19, have experienced forced sex in their lifetime. Nine million of these girls had been victimized within the past year.
• In 20 countries, nearly nine in ten adolescent girls who have been victims of forced sex say this happened for the first time during adolescence.
• Data from 28 countries indicate that nine in ten adolescent girls who have experienced forced sex report being victimized by someone close/known to them.
• Friends/classmates and partners are among the most commonly reported perpetrators of sexual abuse against adolescent boys in five countries with data.
• Based on data from 30 countries, only one per cent of adolescent girls who have experienced forced sex reached out for professional help.
In developing countries it is not uncommon to hear stories of women who are trafficked in out-of-court settlements in rape cases. By now no one should be expressing surprise at the news of a gang rape in Asia or Africa and even worse that men have paid parents for the alleged rape of an underage child. This appears to be widespread in India and in April 2018, a teenage girl who was ganged rape reported to the police that her parents had accepted 500,000 rupees (the equivalent of US$7, 600 for her silence).
In the aftermath of many public rape cases in countries such as India, there has been a rash of laws designed to reform the system. However, legislation and its enforcement alone cannot curb the tendency towards rape, much less arrest the culture of compromise that accompanies sexual violence against women and sometimes men.
However, in the Caribbean unfortunately, despite the worldwide attention paid to this scourge of child sexual abuse, there remains inadequate concern and resources devoted to its elimination and indeed there remains little doubt in my mind that this remains under-reported. Few persons are ever arrested and/or prosecuted because of the social stigma and other forms of secondary victimization that victims are exposed to, which makes the act of rape itself trivial if I can be excused for saying so.
In St Lucia for example, it is reported that there has been a gradual increase in the number of reported child sexual abuse (CSA) cases over the past 18 years which is not a true reflection of the crisis given the under-reporting that occurs. It is argued that under-reporting is largely due to the fact that most of the sexual abuse happens within the household. Given that many households in the country are matrifocal or visiting relations, quite often both the victim and the mother are afraid to report because the abuser is usually the family’s breadwinner.
We must also not discount the denial experienced by many mothers, which is essentially a psychological defence mechanism designed to protect an individual from what is a distressing reality. Should the law however extend to criminal liability in the case of mothers in denial? In some jurisdictions mothers in denial have been treated for what is deemed a psychological disorder as a form of deferred prosecution and the expectation is that such education and treatment will lead to the ability of such parents to provide a safe and healthy environment for the children.
In 2016, in the published article ‘Basilyous’, it was also argued by Lamese et al that under reporting and the prevalence of such crimes are related to the fact that when it occurs outside the household, many of the victims’ families are willing to accept settlements like cash in exchange for their vow of silence, in other words “roungement” in St Lucia for example. Whether complicity through silencing or through “roungement”, such violence which often occurs in the home under conditions where the woman is dependent upon her partner is a reality for many in the Caribbean. It is a crime as well, for it is condoning the rape or sexual assault of a minor.
However, as prominent Barbadian attorney and parliamentarian Ralph Thorne, QC, has admitted, the law has not caught up with this sinister crime. According to him, “If the child is abused and the mother tells the child not to give evidence, who is going to come and give it? Even if they force the child to go on the witness stand, who is going to make the child say something if the parent has already told them not to say anything?
“It is a very difficult creature to manage. So a lot of these issues remain immoral and deeply destructive to society, but the law has not found a creative way to manage them.”
“Roungement” is also related to the fact that many women have not developed the competences that are required for independent living. It is therefore essential that we emphasis the core rights of women which include education and labour market participation. Both of these rights will enable women to improve their socio-economic location, their confidence and their bargaining position within the society and at the micro level, in the household. This will necessarily lead to a challenge of the domestic power arrangements which often see women participating in the violence against their children.
Whatever recourse is taken, it is anticipated that greater harm will not be done to children, not extended to women and men who are not offenders of such a heinous crime, because we certainly would not wish to further compound the difficulties experienced by persons who are victims of an economic and social system that privileges wealth and which seeks to punish the poor.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)