Tamara Merchant | Bent babies make broken societies
As I drove past, I observed the very young children being ushered in. The sign caught my eyes. Tugged at my heartstrings. It read ‘Small Treasures’. This immediately distinguished the attendees and announced to all onlookers that our youngest of citizens may be classified as little treasures. I pondered this possibility and it dawned upon me how different our nation would be if our children were indeed seen and treated as treasures.
As Jamaica celebrates Child’s Month, we should, as a nation, reflect on our stewardship of our nation’s children and the social impact of the cycle of child abuse upon the nation’s future. We need no statistics to tell us that an alarming number of our children have been sexual abused. The ugly truth is that child sexual abuse traverses this island nation from the humblest home in the countryside to the most privileged in the city. Nevertheless, our duty remains the same, to protect our nation’s children from sexual abuse and exploitation.
The present state of affairs would cause one to wonder whether Jamaica is void of laws aimed at protecting our children. Needless to say, Parliament has enacted legislation to protect our children, such as the Sexual Offences Act, the Child Care and Protection Act, and the Child Pornography Prevention Act. Additionally, we are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which provides that every child has, “…the right to be protected from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse”.
Unfortunately, the law cannot operate on its own to provide the protection intended for our children. Laws exist and remain in force but citizens must participate in order that they are given effect. Society should not have to be pressured into protecting our children. We must evolve into a community sensitive to the evils to which our children are vulnerable and be prepared to confront those evils within the walls of our courts. We must run the risk of being branded informers for the sake of our children.
TRAIL OF DETESTATION
Let us examine the trail of devastation that is left behind by a sexual predator. When a child is sexually abused the trajectory of this child’s life is changed forever. According to the UNCRC, “Sexual abuse and exploitation has severe and long-term repercussions for children. Not only are their bodies in physical danger, but abuse can leave permanent scars on a child’s mental health.” As we have seen in too many of our cases in Jamaica, there are instances when abuse leaves a child pregnant and the consequences range from botched illegal abortions to premature motherhood. Our babies become bent! Our society becomes broken.
In this dispensation of heightened cyber activity, our children are being exploited online through the proliferation of child pornography. They are often pressured and enticed with sexual language and imagery, and, thereafter, persuaded to take nude photographs of themselves and transmit them to their predators. These images are later used to manipulate them to submit to the will of their abusers. This leads to further exploitation. The damage to these children is irreparable and the shame and trauma, often without therapeutic intervention, lasts a lifetime.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased their vulnerability in the virtual space. Their interaction online is more frequent and often unsupervised. This has created fertile ground for online predators to lurk, pounce upon, and ruin untold numbers of children. Additionally, virtual learning may have deprived them of the opportunity of reporting abuse to their teachers and guidance counsellors. Our response must therefore be greater advocacy and vigilance for parental controls and online supervision.
COMMIT TO PROTECT OUR CHILDREN
As we observe Child’s Month, let us intentionally commit to protecting our children, recognising that they are being sexually abused. Many adults fail to protect them because some, for whatever reason, lack the will, others are naïve to the vulnerability of children, and sadly, some are simply callous and cruel. This is not to say that all adults have failed Jamaica’s children. The point is, more of us need to care. More of us need to do what it takes socially and legally to protect them from their victimisers. We cannot succumb to the conspiracy of silence or ‘Informa Fi Dead’ mentality. We need to create a social environment where the predators know that they are under community surveillance, that our laws have teeth, and our penalties are severe. In other words, “Know seh oonu naaw get wheh!”
Our small treasures can only be protected if, with singularity of purpose, our society rises and protects our children so that they thrive. Put simply, the phenomenon of the village must return, and parents must build trust with the village in raising their children. Collective responsibility is imperative if Jamaica seriously desires protection of our nation’s children. This is a call for parents and society at large to ‘level up’. Sexual abuse is never a child’s fault so stop blaming them. Stop shaming them. Stop looking the other way when you see a child being sexual exploited. Stop protecting the abuser. Children are revictimised by the way we handle their abuse. Therefore, let us usher our little treasures into a future where all aspects of their lives and recognised rights are protected and handled with care. Let us create a new Jamaica by shifting our sensibilities and priorities making our children national treasures.
- Tamara Merchant is a member of the Cybercrimes Unit at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and is an Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions. Send feedback to email@example.com