One in four girls, aged 15-19, face sexual violence


One in four girls, aged 15-19, face sexual violence

UN official sees greater risks as COVID-19 rages

Senior staff reporter

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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ONE in four Jamaican adolescent girls aged 15-19 experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and with school closures and curfew measures due to COVID-19, local children agencies foresee a heightened risk of exposure.

The source of the data – Jamaica Women's Health Survey 2016 – establishes that sexual abuse has always been a pervasive challenge, and Novia Condell-Gibson, adolescent health specialist at United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Jamaica, asserts that sexual violence against girls and women is a long-standing issue that has not got the level of response it requires.

“It is alarming that one in four women experience this. If that is not an emergency I don't know what is,” Condell-Gibson said, pointing out the prediction for a heightened risk of exposure due to COVID-19 measures is a global observation.

Globally, there are reports of increased violence against children and gender-based violence in the wake of stay-at-home measures. According to the Global Status Report on Preventing Violence against Children 2020 – published by UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), the End Violence Partnership, and others – spikes in calls to helplines for child abuse and intimate partner violence have been observed.

Locally, between January to June 2020, the National Children's Registry received over 1,000 reports of sexual abuse that have been referred for investigation. While reports dipped significantly in April (82) and May (119) – at a time when reporting was more difficult among COVID-19 restrictions – they rose again in June to 228.

Further, Condell-Gibson told the Jamaica Observer that there is a serious social-norms problem with sex with children, and in some instances there is limited data to illustrate the pervasiveness of the issue.

“In the 10 to 14 age group, there is little data, but we know the problem exists. There is no recent study data around that age group,” Condell-Gibson said, while making the distinction between reports and research that takes a deeper look at the reports.

She added: “It's not to say that we are unable to adequately respond to their health and protection, certainly in this area of sexual assault and abuse and sexual violence, because we don't have enough data. It is not that it prevents us from acting, as the little that we have points us in a direction to act on their behalf, but we need more data in that age group.”

But, the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are particularly concerned that children now face greater risk of all forms of abuse, including sexual violence, as they spend less supervised or structured time at home, in the community or in the care of other adults throughout the summer and due to COVID-19.

Subsequently, the CPFSA, OCA and UNICEF are urging parents and community members to be more vigilant and protective of children amid the COVID-19 crisis and the advent of summer holidays. This includes closer monitoring of individuals with whom children spend their time, identifying and speaking out about potentially dangerous situations and reporting known or suspected cases of abuse by calling the police or 888-PROTECT (776 8328).

“Sexual abuse leaves scars that last a lifetime and affect our children into adulthood,” said CEO of the CPFSA, Rosalee Gage-Grey. “As parents/guardians we have a duty and responsibility to protect our children. Let us work together to keep them safe and protect them from a lifetime of trauma. We cannot turn a blind eye. Pay attention to how children react around persons, and build a solid relationship so that children will feel comfortable talking to you. Every child deserves protection.”

Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison said the projections come as no surprise and in fact provides a basis for the heightened attention to the protection of children that her office has consistently called for from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said, “We need to retool our collective efforts to ensure that preventive measures are boosted and effective services and support are provided to our children, wherever they reside.”

Mariko Kagoshima, UNICEF Jamaica representative also added: “We know that many children face challenges to access a safe space or the help they need during this difficult period. It is so critical right now for parents, neighbours and anyone else who cares about children to become their strongest line of defence.”

In addition, UNICEF and other UN agencies have vowed to intensify efforts over the coming years to prevent violence against children and women in Jamaica through the Spotlight Initiative, funded by the European Union. The Spotlight Initiative will be implemented from 2020 to 2023 and will focus on addressing family violence as a major public health and development issue.

Meanwhile, Condell-Gibson urged men to be bold and step out as allies in the fight against violence against women and girls.

“It is really important that men, where they see it, where they hear of it, they report it and stand up against what really looks like a cultural acceptance of something that is criminal and really destructive. The fact is so many women are victimised during childhood and spend their entire lives trying to heal from the most heinous breach of trust from family members. More often than not it is someone known or a family member who is the perpetrator. This idea of access to a woman's body is wrong [and] we want to see more men speaking more on this issue, speaking more to the need to address it in the family and being allies to girls and women in the family, the community and nationally,” Condell-Gibson said.

“We need to hear it is not something that will continue. This has been going on for decades in this country unabated and it needs to stop. We're certainly not painting all men as abusers. We know that's not true, however, where they see it, it's very helpful if they step up, speak out about it or report their suspicions on what they feel is happening and really step up as allies for women and girls,” she added.

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