Children's advocate urges change in sexual abuse misconceptions

Children's advocate urges change in sexual abuse misconceptions

Monday, October 13, 2014

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CHILDREN'S Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison has cited the need for a change in the misconception of sexual abuse that exists in sections of the society.

This, so as to, among other things, enable persons committing this illicit act, particularly against girls, to be arrested and prosecuted.

Speaking at a special forum hosted by the United Nations office in Jamaica at the Knutsford Court Hotel last Friday to mark International Day for the Girl Child, Gordon Harrison lamented that, invariably, persons standing trial on sexual abuse charges are freed because of how the incident is viewed, particularly by some jury members empanelled for the matter.

"I have... prosecuted persons, and heard from members of the jury at the end of the prosecution that they believed the witness (who they thought) was quite convincing. But (that they felt) it really was just sex, (which) really doesn't have a long-term effect on anyone (and) doesn't take a life as murder does. (Further that) it would be a shame if a man were to be held accountable and found guilty of having sex with a child under 16 years. That to me speaks of a very deep cultural issue that we have which is causing a very negative impact on how we treat with this issue," she said.

Gordon Harrison argued that this perception is unacceptable, adding that "we need to get that message out there that it is not, in fact, okay, and it is, in fact, a big deal."

"Psychologists will tell you that it is not just a little sex (and that) it is not true that sex does not cause long- lasting harm. Because if you look, particularly, at the developing brain of a teenager, it can seriously cause alterations to the neural pathways that will continue to influence how that teenager relates and has relationships long into adulthood," she said, while reminding her audience that it is a criminal offence to engage in sexual relationships with persons under 16 years old.

As it relates to incest, Gordon Harrison contended that "we still have a real problem in Jamaica".

"We still have men who are of the view that if they stick around and stand up to their responsibilities of caring for their children (particularly the girls), then they are entitled to be the first one to 'usher' that child into womanhood. And the most important way they see of expressing this 'ushering' is through sexual contact," she said.

As such, Gordon Harrison said discussions emphasising how wrong these acts are and the negative effects they will have on children, are crucial in addressing these problems. She is also reminding young girls of how powerful they are and how sacred their bodies are.

"It is not a negotiating tool, whereby if somebody makes you feel special, you give it up. It is an inappropriate way of thinking about self and it does not attach the level of self-worth that we, as people and as females, have," she said.

In the meantime, Gordon Harrison said sexual reproductive health and responsible behaviour are issues which must be dealt with by everyone.

"We need to embrace it not just as a human rights issue but also as a developmental and social issue that will affect us one way or the other. We need to recognise that we do have a problem and we need to create effective strategies that can address this in a meaningful and sustainable way," she said.

Citing the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 2003 Children in Focus Report, Gordon Harrison said it indicated that girls born to teenage mothers are 83 per cent more likely to follow suit.

"That's a startling reality. But it is a reality that can, perhaps be linked to the social learning theory in which psychologists posit that we in fact live what we do learn," she said.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2013 State of the World Population report indicated that Jamaica has the fourth highest incidence of adolescent pregnancy in the Caribbean.

According to the report, 18 per cent of live births in Jamaica are to teenage mothers, with rural teen mothers accounting for 74 for every 1,000 births and the Kingston Metropolitan Area showing a lower number of 51 per 1,000 births.

Of every 1,000 babies born in Jamaica, 108 are born to teenage mothers, with girls, aged 10 to 19 years accounting for 25 per cent of these.

Globally, about 19 per cent of young women in developing countries become pregnant before age 18. Girls under 15 account for two million of the 7.3 million births that occur to adolescent girls under 18 every year in developing countries globally.

The forum sought to: strengthen awareness of adolescent pregnancy in Jamaica; sensitise policymakers of priority areas of the Integrated Strategic Plan for the reduction of adolescent pregnancy in the Caribbean and advocate for the inclusion of adolescent pregnancy as a priority issue in the post 2015 negotiations.

International Day of the Girl Child was observed on October 11 under the theme: 'Empowering Adolescent Girls, Ending the Cycle of Violence'.

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