Child sexual abuse and underdevelopment
Published: Sunday | June 28, 2009
According to the report carried in the June 1 edition of The Gleaner, officials of the Ministry of Health have statistics that highlight "the risky sexual behaviour of children under 14". Luke Douglas, in an Observer report, said a recent study had revealed that children under 14 have up to six sex partners.
Apparently, this situation was placed on the public agenda at a discussion on issues relevant to HIV/STI programmes in the country. By now, it should be obvious to all those responsible for the status and well-being of Jamaica's children that the research made public by Dr Kevin Harvey is the definitive 'red flag', signalling one of the major roadblocks to sustainable human and economic development. The findings speak to the status of children in general, and the continuing brutality against the girl child in particular.
The following sex-disaggregated facts were highlighted in Douglas' report:
Sexually active boys did not use condoms on the occasion of their most recent sexual encounters.
Twelve per cent of the 3,000 ten-14 year-old children surveyed are sexually active.
Fifty per cent of these sexually active children have two or more sex partners.
Eighteen per cent of these under-14 children in the study said they had at least six partners.
Nine per cent of the boys and 24 per cent of the girls in the study were forced to have sex on the first occasion.
The same situation of forced sex was also reported by teens in the 15-19 age band.
Girls 15-19 are at three times higher risk of the HIV/STI infections than males in the same age group.
It would appear that these alarming facts, gleaned from the Ministry of Health's research, run the risk of providing another nine-day wonder headline. As with many other difficult but important social issues, these revelations on the involvement of significant numbers of children in risky and early sexual activities could end up being among the many issues that are politely ignored.
multiple sex partners
However, at all levels of the society, we must understand that young children having sex in the first place, and by extension, having multiple sex partners, is a threat to the foundation of development in any society.
While child-development experts and observant parents recognise, through scientific research and instinctive understanding, that young children have early recognition of their sexual organs as areas of comfort and pleasure, it is also universally understood and established that children's bodies must not be exposed to any sexual activity that is defined by or related to adult modes of sexuality.
It is not enough for the policymakers in the private, public and faith-based sectors to just "be shocked" by the fact that our children are having sex with a variety of persons. This is not just a simple story of 'bad gals', or even 'bad boys'. This is a horrific story of arrested lives, reduced human potential and gross personal and societal underdevelopment.
It is also not surprising that the majority of children having sex are girls. This gender divide in the loss of innocence continues to haunt and retard Jamaica's transition from an underdeveloped to a developed society. It also prevents the nation from achieving the key Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
The time has come for the entire Jamaican society to confront the high and enduring levels of damage caused to children and women by sexual abuse.
While it might be seductive to think that children are voluntarily having sex, and with multiple partners, we now need to be informed by research that probes the following questions:
Why are girls overrepresented among sexually active children?
Who are the multiple sex partners of these little girls?
What is the age range of these so-called partners of the girl child?
Are the sexual partners of little boys other little boys, little girls, adult women, or adult men?
What socio-economic strata are these children from?
What is the profile of their family form and circumstance - single parent, poor housing, lack of privacy, age and educational attainment of mother, school attendance record, rural/urban divide and exposure to sexual abuse and adult sexual practices in the home and community, etc?
We also need to find out the purpose of children's sexual activities.
For instance, it might be enlightening to probe whether children are bartering sex for spare change, bling-bling gadgets, food, or other material goodies.
In other words, are the sex-driven children preparing themselves to be the good-time boys and girls for the predators, the pimps and the sleazy underworld of Jamaica and the wider geographical region?
These questions need to be answered because the Jamaican society needs to understand that when young children are forced, by whatever circumstance, to have sex before they are physically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively ready for such life experiences, the society is culpable of serious child neglect and inhumane abuse.
The society will also have to face the social and economic stress of ill-health, early pregnancies, maternal mortality, illegal abortions, the spread of HIV and other STIs, and a large band of dysfunctional young women who will be eternally searching for their girlhood
The state of our children in the Jamaican society should wake up the policymakers to the realisation that immediate, effective and gender-sensitive interventions must be put in place by the relevant authorities so that this human and developmental tragedy can be addressed in meaningful ways.
The time has come for us to go beyond the hype and sloganeering and find the right path out of the morass of an over-sexualised population.
Glenda Simms is a consultant on gender issues. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.