QUITO, Ecuador — A senior United Nations representative has raised concerns about the high level of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of sex crimes in Jamaica and other countries in the region, describing sexual violence against children as one of the worst forms of human rights violations.
Marcelo Suarzo, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said studies have proven over and over that only a handful of cases of sexual violence against children in the region lead to conviction.
She said it is not an issue of whether laws are strong enough, but rather the difficulties experienced by countries in applying them.
"From the total of cases that occur, only a little bit of them are reported. And, from the ones that are reported, only two per cent of them [go through] the whole process for application of justice," she told the Jamaica Observer Wednesday during a break from the meeting of the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean special committee of population and development at the Hilton Hotel in Quito.
"So, I am not sure if it's an issue of law, or it's an issue of their application. What I am sure of is that impunity is the worst solution to sexual violence," she declared.
There has been a significant spike in the number of reported cases of sexual violence against children in Jamaica in recent months, but authorities still believe the majority of the cases go unreported.
According to a 2007 school-based survey on risk and resiliency commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development, the first sexual encounter of one in three Jamaican girls, ages 10 to 15, was forced. Meantime, data from the latest Reproductive and Health Survey showed that 12 per cent of young girls reported having had sexual intercourse before age 15.
On Wednesday, Suazo reiterated that forced sexual encounters mostly happen within the homes and are normally committed by family members or trusted close associates.
"What we see is that for the younger girls, the abuse is committed within the homes," she told the Observer.
She lamented that despite the dire consequences of sexual violence against children, such as thwarting the victims' development, the issue has not been "appropriately" addressed by authorities in the region.
"The institutional response is still not as it should be," she said.
"The issue needs an integrated response. We need to strengthen our policies, make the appropriate investments and work closely to identify cases to ensure and integrated response from all the systems that are in charge of the application of justice," she added. "These include the first recipients of the cases, which are normally the police; the school system, which is a primary place where cases can be identified; and the judicial system in a way in which the application of the law is appropriate."
Last month, at a meeting with Observer reporters and editors, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative to Jamaica Robert Fuderich said that the situation will only improve when adults begin to accept that children have rights, too.
"There is still too much of a feeling that it is normal and that the children belong to us and they don't have the rights of adults and people can abuse them and they are in a vulnerable position," he said then.
"We are very concerned about the rise in number but at the same time we know there is better reporting... we do realise that under economic hardship, there tends to be more... sexual abuse," he observed.
He pointed to the common practice of older men soliciting young girls. "We just visited a community in Westmoreland, a very poor rural community, and we were surprised at how many of the young people assumed that it was okay to drift down into Negril and collect money for sexual favours. That has to end and there needs to be zero-tolerance [to that practice]," he said.
According to Fuderich, the increase in the number of reports, coupled with the establishment of the Office of the Children's Registry and the Child Development Agency, the appointment of a children's advocate and the enactment of the Child Care and Protection Act have led to more action to protect children.
"Now more people are doing it because they are realising that silence is violence," Fuderich declared, noting that changes to the Evidence Act, which will lead to the admission of video evidence in court, will lessen the bad practice.