by Vidyaratha Kissoon
A man at the vigil said he asked a teacher what she would do if she saw a child being sexually harassed (his word). He said the teacher responded that it is not her business. The law is different now, and teachers are mandated to report and many teachers do report. There are probably a few who do not want to get involved in child protection.
On the evening of Friday 24 September, 2015 , ChildLink, an NGO in Guyana, organised a vigil to remember the survivors of sexual abuse and those who are suffering in silence. Earlier in the week, in Berbice, there was a rally to break the silence on child sexual abuse.
Another man at the vigil talked about the community he had visited. There were complaints of children being sold to rich men. The community members who intervened were told ‘mind your own business’ – a deep cultural trend much like what the teacher must have invoked, when dealing with child sexual abuse and other forms of child abuse.
That “mind your own business thing” is one which comes up when people try to tell parents not to beat their children. Sexual abuse of children happens when children are viewed as beings with little or no rights.
Children are also beaten because they are viewed as beings who are not deserving of equal rights.
Many adults say that ‘beating is not abuse’. There are too many discussions about when beating for correction becomes abusive and people get into measurements about how many bruises and brands and so on crosses the line. But we don’t imagine that we would not have to think about crossing the line of discipline to abuse if we do not start on the path in the first place.
How does a teacher talk about abuse of children with a wild cane or other weapon in her or his hand?
Strong leadership is needed to help shift behaviours.
The leadership of the Guyana Teacher’s Union(GTU) has not committed as yet to changing attitudes about beating children. The current President of the GTU seemed to believe that the violence in schools could be curtailed by flogging, the previous President did not think the ‘alternatives’ were good enough. A previous President of the GTU had been arrested and charged for sexual assault of a minor but it is not clear what happened with that case, as with many other cases of sexual offences.
It must be mentally damaging to Guyanese who are responsible for the care of children – teachers, parents and others – when they are told they must protect children who they can beat.
Some of the persons at the vigil shared experiences. Two persons talked about how children are beaten when they try to tell about the abuse , and hence there is further silencing.
It was important that during this Child Protection Week that Guyanese were encouraged to break the silence on child sexual abuse and to ensure justice and healing for those who are survivors.
What is unfortunate is that we believe we can talk about child sexual abuse while denying the culture of abuse of children. This week was also the full moon, and tonight there will be the lunar eclipse. Lunacy is continuing to believe that we can do nothing to stop beating children.
A woman at the vigil said that she did not think she would have been able to tell anyone if she had been abused. She felt that it was brave of the survivors to speak out. But that is exactly what breaking the silence is about, it gives safe space to encourage the telling of stories , including stories of recovery and healing. Some persons at the vigil talked about how difficult it can be to listen to these stories and reports.
The survivors’ stories help to give insights into the culture and for us to have conversations about eliminating child sexual abuse.
But we don’t get to have the same kind of conversation on corporal punishment about beating children. Guyana rejected all the recommendations at the recent Universal Periodic Review of its human rights to outlaw corporal punishment. There will no doubt be claims again about ‘culture’ and white people ting and so on.
Voice is given to ‘those who want to keep beating children’.
There is silence though, about those who have changed their attitudes to beating.
There are organisations who have been doing work to educate parents about child development and to promote non-violent work. This education work is largely underfunded and under promoted.
Many Guyanese parents believe that others should ‘mind their own business’ when it comes to looking after their children.
In 2008, Help & Shelter was involved in the Pickney Project with Everychld Guyana (now ChildLink). The project worked with faith based leaders, parents and others. This case study is taken from “PICKNEY PROJECT- Promoting Child Protection and Reducing Child Abuse in the Sophia Community – Project Report September 2008 to June 2009”
Sandra was a dedicated, very spiritual Pastor and mother of eight children. She used the rod as her only instrument of correcting her children and as a consequence encouraged her members to “not spare the rod and spoil the child”.
The Reverend claimed that during the process her children suffered in silence and because of the relationship she never knew. The Project was adamant that the first group it needs to work with was the faith leaders. Not only that they had the greatest following but that they had an unmatched sphere of influence. As a result, Pastor Sandra was invited. The sessions were skilfully facilitated by Ms. Eraina Yaw. Pastor Sandra confessed change from day one of the three-day workshop. By close of business on the third day Pastor confessed,
“I feel guilty when my eyes were open to things I may have unconsciously done to my children. I have beaten them, neglected them and didn’t have time to listen to them. So I now have to think that even though I am the mother I don’t know it all.
I vow to make up to them. God brought me here for a purpose and I will fulfil it”.
Pastor Sandra was one of the first persons to cascade this training to her church and in the presence of her children.
There are other stories similar to this one which show the possibility of change. Just as we have changed in how we deal with child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence, so we have the potential to change our culture of thinking that it is normal and okay and healthy to beat children.
The persons who attended the vigil pledged to respect children and to be vigilant. The woman who led the pledge also spoke about changing the culture which creates people who want to abuse children or who think it is normal to do so.
President Granger at the end of Child Protection Week has called for a future for Guyana’s children which is “free from violence and abuse.”
In addition to leading the calls for an end to sexual abuse, the Government has a responsibility outlaw the abuse of children in our schools and homes. The lunar eclipse cannot be the reason for dreams that Child Protection Week in 2016 would be about rejecting the idea that beating children is a normal and okay Guyanese thing to do.