Jaevion Nelson | Helping the silent sufferers
We cannot continue to be satisfied in merely amending laws and increasing penalties as the most appropriate and efficient way of addressing the rampant sexual abuse and violence perpetrated against our women and children.
The work being done to improve various areas - laws, policies and services that fall under the Government does not go unnoticed, but is insufficient. A cursory review of studies such as the baseline study on child maltreatment in Jamaica, which was commissioned by the Office of the Children's Registry (OCR) in 2014, and the 2012 Caribbean Human Development Report are instructive. The findings reveal some of the common reasons many Jamaicans do not report to the police and suggest that our attention and effort need a bit of refocus to implore the Government to do much more than it currently is doing. The OCR study found that although adults surveyed know child abuse is wrong and that they should take action, they do not feel it makes sense for them to make a report. One reason is that many people believe nothing will come out of making the report, that justice will not be served and that they may even be victimised for doing so.
In addition, some women and children who are raped or otherwise abused feel they would have been better off if they didn't make a report and go as far as seeking justice to the court. Two weeks ago, Sasha*, a young woman who was raped multiple times as a child - from as early as six years old, said that, "To this day, some part of me regret ever making the decision [to make a report]. Some part of me wished I kept silent."
Sasha was first abused when she was six. However, she said she didn't make a report until she was a teenager because "it was bad enough that I was being molested at home and it's easier to report someone outside the family". That's when she mustered the courage to no longer suffer in silence - something she had perfected. Her experience with the police and court scarred her for life. She received only 20 minutes of counselling and had to recount the details of the incident several times, and difficulty getting information about the case from the investigation officer who she couldn't get through to. She was also ostracised by the community when she refused a bribe to change her statement.
I had to retell my story in front of the judge, him and his lawyer and a court full of people I have never met before, [including the lawyer] for my case [who] I have never spoken to. All she knew about me is what she got from statement," she told me. The cross-examination, when it finally happened, was particularly horrifying for her. The lawyer representing the man who raped her "twisted every word I said and shaped me out to be some money-grabbing slut", she highlighted. She reports that the lawyer representing her changed quite frequently as well.
Sasha's experience highlights some of the challenges faced by women and children who make reports when they are raped and attempt to secure justice. The challenges tend to exacerbate if one is not familiar with court systems and is unable to hire an attorney.
A part of her died on the day the verdict was made a couple years ago, she said. "When I heard their decision, I felt useless and worthless. I felt that I would have been better off if he had killed me. I wanted to die. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, and I felt filthy. That day he got away with barely a slap on the wrist and I was the one sentenced, to be forever imprisoned by the memories. They say you find closure by reporting it and seeking justice but all I have is a big gaping wound that festers every time [the month the verdict was made] comes around."
Sasha's experience is not uncommon. We should be overcome with guilt for not doing enough, for not doing more for women and children who are raped and abused.
I applaud the efforts of stakeholders who continue to encourage people to speak out and for victims to not suffer in silence. However, it is time we recognise that greater effort have to be invested in making sure the systems work in a much more sensitive, efficient and effective way.
Sasha recommends that the following be improved:
1. Proper counselling be provided
2. Protect the evidence collected through the rape kit and ensure it is available for court hearings.
3. Ensure that the victim/survivor is comfortable when sharing his/her experience, whether in court or at the police station.
4. Allow the victim to be familiar with whoever is representing them and reduce the number of persons who do so.
* Name changed