The link between HIV and child sexual abuse in Jamaica

Thursday, November 28, 2019

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This is the third in a four-part feature, written by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) Jamaica team, ahead of World AIDS Day — December 1 — exploring how civil society groups are working with partners in Government and the development community to address stigma and discrimination in keeping with this year's theme 'Communities make the difference'. This year marks 36 years since the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

“I was sexually abused by my uncle at age 12 and contracted HIV.”

Unflinching, a peer educator, whose name is being withheld, tells the story of her childhood.

Today, she supports young women living with HIV with their personal development and treatment adherence. She is also the author of a book which uses her old journal entries to highlight the issue of sexual abuse. She even started the Ashley Fund to help fellow child sexual abuse survivors continue their education. It's an inspiring evolution.

“I was so depressed I did not know who to trust,” she recounted. “How could that happen and everybody turn their eyes?”

Another woman also reflected on her past with a mix of sorrow and disbelief.

“As a young girl everybody turned a blind eye to me and they blamed me. Then I was the AIDS girl in the community walking around. Nobody said, 'This man needs to go to jail'. At one point I gave up, because the stress was too high,” she shared.

Today, that woman is part of a Mentor Mom programme that deploys empowered young ladies, who are themselves dealing with HIV and motherhood, to help others along the journey. They answer questions and offer reassurance, accompany girls to their clinic visits, and reinforce guidance on taking medicines, avoiding breast feeding and keeping clinic appointments. Both young women are employees and past clients of Eve for Life, a Jamaican non-governmental organisation that uses innovative interventions to prevent new infections and improve the quality of life of women and children living with or affected by HIV. Clients benefit from peer support groups, psychological care and a transformative empowerment programme.

Jamaica's high reported HIV rates among key population communities belie a key truth. The island's epidemic is firmly established in its general population. This means that quite apart from groups thought of as “high-risk”, HIV transmission is carried on by heterosexual contact among the rest of the populace. But with international funding and programmatic support largely targeted toward groups with crisis-level epidemics, less glaring crises can slip through the cracks.

That's why Joy Crawford and Patricia Watson founded Eve for Life 11 years ago. In the course of supporting young women and girls affected by HIV, they quickly learned that there was a clear link between HIV infection, adolescent pregnancy and child sexual abuse.

According to United Nations Children Fund's (UNICEF's) 2018 Situation Analysis of Jamaican children, one in five (21 per cent) adolescent girls in Jamaica have survived sexual violence.

As a long-standing provider of technical support and capacity-building around sustainability to Eve for Life, UNICEF is keen on not just supporting girls, but addressing the cultural norms that make them vulnerable.

“There is this idea that still is pervasive that adult men should have some level of access to a girl's body if they are in the girl's life, supporting the family or something like that,” explained Novia Condell, UNICEF Jamaica's adolescent health and empowerment specialist. “Of course, the girl has no power to negotiate any protection in a situation where she has been abused or exploited.”

High on UNICEF's agenda is supporting the community engagement necessary to shift attitudes around child sexual abuse. Eve for Life has spearheaded the 'Nuh guh deh' (Don't go there) campaign, geared toward increasing social stigma around the sexual abuse of minors. They've used a mix of strategies — from community meetings to a music video — to get the message out.

UNAIDS Jamaica has provided technical support and facilitated partnership building for Eve for Life's resource mobilisation. The UNAIDS Caribbean Sub-regional Office is also collaborating with the organisation to create spaces for Eve for Life's powerhouse young advocates to spread the word about the link between child sexual abuse and HIV regionally and internationally.

This work comes with a focus on first meeting the girls' basic needs, including food, clothes and health care. UNICEF facilitated an alliance with the organisation Food For the Poor, so that Eve for Life's clients could benefit from ongoing nutritional support.

But beyond these services, is the work being done to provide teens and young women living with HIV with “a deeper level of emotional support and mentorship”.

“The Ministry of Health has found a strong partner in Eve for Life — one that is able to focus on resilience and life skills-building. They get the girls' lives on track so they can improve their lot and the lot of their children. Eve (for Life) does life skills in a way that nobody else does,” Condell said. “It's a solid model that has proven itself.”


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