THOUGH it is the hope of officials that perpetrators are exposed for sexually abusing and, worst-case scenario, impregnating young girls, they concede that a culture of silence stands in the way of such.
Pointing specifically to situations where “dons” prey upon underaged girls in inner-city communities, officials told the Jamaica Observer that out of fear, many families turn a blind eye to ongoing abuse or, if possible, send their girls away to rural communities.
Judith Wedderburn, gender and development practitioner, said before victims and their families are pressured to “break the silence”, the reasons must be respected.
“Fear, concern, shame… each one of those is worthy of some consideration. My understanding, from some of the situations that I’m aware of, is that this is a part of the reality that some of these families live. And sometimes if you don’t live it, you don’t understand it. It is very difficult to break out of that if you don’t have the option to just move,” she told the Sunday Observer.
“There are community leaders, also called dons, who wield off some power because of poverty and lack of resources. So, certain leaders take advantage of that. A family that’s poor and needs food to eat; the parent may say ‘Thank you for the food, we’re really grateful.’ It starts out as helpful gifts but at some point, there is payback time.”
Wedderburn said in that context there is the gender-stereotypical behaviour of some adult males that dictates that a woman’s body is an object.
“An object is something I can do anything with; I can get it anytime I want it. The mother and eventually her child will be threatened to [the point] where the first line of defence is to remain silent. The culture of silence is deadly, both literally and metaphorically,” she reasoned.
She said these situations happen because of ignorance on the part of both parents.
“Not just the mother, but also the father. Sometimes it is abject poverty. And I know… I have heard older women say: ‘It’s just a little sex.’ They did it and survived so they send the child to do it. It starts out as a little sex, without due consideration of the emotional and physical impact on the child. And in one of those instances, she may just not come back,” she told the Sunday Observer.
Senior Superintendent of Police Gary Francis, who is assigned to the Police Emergency Communication Centre of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), reiterated the age of consent for sexual intercourse, and told the Sunday Observer that the actions of any person in breach of such are inexcusable.
“If the age of consent for sex in Jamaica is 16, anybody who has sex with a person under the age of 16 commits an offence. Whether he’s an area don or an ordinary man...it doesn’t matter who it is. The person who has sexual intercourse with a child commits an offence. That is the law.”
The National Family Planning Board also warned that any person who participates in sexual activities with someone under age 16 may be prosecuted for statutory rape.
Reports of child abuse have almost doubled for the last three months when compared to the same period in 2021, heightening concern among childcare and protection advocates.
According to figures released from the National Children’s Registry (NCR) on Wednesday, April 20, there were 4,211 reports of child abuse between January and March, an increase from 2,276 reports for the corresponding period last year.
Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison told the Sunday Observer that silence remains one of the biggest enablers for the many wrongs that impact children in our society.
“Telling people to break the silence without more, however, is not sufficient because of the real fear that many citizens face in their communities. The social circumstances which serve to empower dons and those who support them have to be addressed in a holistic way so that mothers have definitive alternatives that they feel empowered and safe to explore.”
Joyce Hewett, past president of Woman Incorporated, agreed, adding that there is a lack of trust that also prevents people from blowing the whistle.
“Every politician knows who the don is in every neighbourhood; so if you know who the don is and you know, for example, what he’s doing in terms of the criminal element, why don’t they make greater efforts to get the dons out? Why do we have a situation when the dons continue to exist and prey upon the people? Why not declare a war on the dons and the whole essence of donmanship?” she questioned.
“The police are also well aware of who the dons are in each and every neighbourhood. The key element is a matter of trust.”
As such, Hewett told the Sunday Observer that: “The fear is really as a result of knowing what happened to others. That’s the way in which we indoctrinate fear into persons. We do hear of stories where young women, in particular, go missing and there is speculation that the mother or guardian sends her somewhere else to avoid the don’s advances. They all live in fear and the threat is ever-present. That is the reality of living in certain communities.”
Wedderburn interjected, saying churches also facilitate the culture of silence.
“Not all churches, but some. The male power is even further glorified if the man in question is a pastor. You’re not going to embarrass pastor… you’re going to keep your mouth shut. It’s: ‘Never mind if the girl child has been raped.’ For me, that is the most painful part of the culture of silence. This culture of silence works because it stands on a number of pillars. The church is one, violence is one, poverty is one,” she charged.
And so, Hewett said there is need for a great collaborative effort between the Government and non-governmental organisations.
“The persons who break the silence; where do they go? What refuge do they find? The Government could work hand in hand with some of the NGOs because it requires not just the Government. The NGOs could identify alternatives. The level of criminality really freezes a person and keeps them in fear, nd that is the hardest part to overcome — when you cannot provide them with sufficient alternatives.”
Meanwhile, psychologist Dr Leahcim Semaj told the Sunday Observer that the issue of adult males preying on juvenile girls in many garrison communities is “long-standing”.
“An area leader, the most powerful person in the community, controls everything — including the lives of people. A lot of people who live in these communities feel powerless against it because — whether real or imagined — the State has no legitimacy in these communities. The State does not assert itself in these communities.
“The definition of State is having a monopoly on violence. The Government is the only such entity. If there are other entities within the society who have that power, clearly the State has given up its power. We must understand that rape or carnal abuse is an act of violence which is perpetuated in a sexual manner. So, the powerlessness means that some will give in or some will escape, because those are the two main options that people feel. It’s give in and save my life or escape. One escape is to send the child to country or get the child out of the island.”
In psychology, Semaj added, there’s a thing called learned helplessness. This is when an individual considers all the outcomes and possibilities and then genuinely believes that there is nothing that can be done about the situation.
“You just stay there and accept the penalty and all the punishment. It’s a sad reflection of what Jamaica still is in 2022,” he said.
The lack of trust for politicians and police, he added, is well-founded.
“Recent events have shown us that there are gangs actually within the police force, and there are many examples where persons have given information to the police and it has come right back to the community as to who gave it. So, we are told you can make calls to specific numbers and to specific individuals, but the experience of individuals lets them feel like they really can’t trust the system.”
He told the Sunday Observer that these persons may turn to a rival gang leader as a last resort.
“And that’s why we have this constant thing of reprisal killings in many of these communities. You get a rival gang leader to take up the matter for you and do your bidding for you, and the only currency that is used in these negotiations is violence.”