On Tuesday, April 12, 2016 I attended the ‘Keep Children safe forum at the Knutsford Court Hotel in Kingston. The activity was organized as a partnership with UNESCO, The Child Development Agency and Eve for Life. It essentially, highlighted the work of the NGO, EVE for Life and their response to the situation of girls who are either pregnant or are young mothers and are also carriers of HIV or who have AIDS more than likely as a result of sexual molestation or rape.
Eve for Life is doing great work with these girls and throughout the forum as the girls spoke of their particular situation, it could be seen that they were recovering from their trauma and it became obvious that the girls were approaching life not as victims but as survivors and victors.
But the event left all of us in attendance shaken, embarrassed, concerned, incensed and angry at the mothers and fathers, the families and the institutional arrangements in this country which have failed these girls, so that even after asking for for help, or indicating to an adult what was happening to them and who was doing it their abuse continued. I heard stories of mothers, grandmothers, entire communities and families who knew that a girl was being abused but they chose to turn a blind eye.
Jamaica has a far way to go in its treatment of its children. The situation of the girl child is especially worrying because our culture has a high tolerance for sexual victimization and sexually inappropriate behaviour. In so many ways the sphere of sex and sexuality in Jamaica is built around ensuring the promulgation and protection of a certain kind of masculinity that women and girls, boys and some men become mere artefacts in. To begin to deal with the issue of the prevalence of sexual abuse in Jamaica demands a serious examination of the display of Jamaican masculinity and the sacrifices that need to be made for its survival.
One common theme throughout the forum was the absence of the fathers of the young women. Each girl who told a story of abuse and survival spoke of their mother and father ending a relationship, as the beginning of the journey to their victimization and hurt. It made me realize once again, how important fathers were to the family and to the lives of their children, not just their sons but to their daughters as well. I was also reminded of the vulnerabilities of female headed households. There is a lot of work to be done with helping families from poor socio-economic situations in respect of conflict resolution and parenting especially where relationships have fallen apart. Empowering women to negotiate with men the role they must play in their children’s life and how the state or some third party agency can assist when the dialogue between parents has broken down.
There is much work to be done in communities, districts and villages across Jamaica. We need to start changing minds and attitudes to challenge some of the gender and sex norms that define us as a people. The idea that ‘anything after twelve is lunch’ or that a girl is ripe and ready for sexual activity at twelve years is insulting and dangerous. The fact that girls are often told ‘dem ready fi go pon cutting table’ as soon as their breasts start to grow is unacceptable. Admiral Bailey’s ‘two year old me love me two year old’ one of our most popular dance-hall oldies which is still recited in the company of young girls, needs to be banned and declared not fit for public consumption. Churches need to preach and teach a doctrine which rejects preying on girls, mothers and fathers must learn the unacceptability of this practice and need to be aware of the role they must play in changing these dangerous practices and challenging these beliefs.
In Jamaica we believe that ‘children must be seen and not heard’ our parenting philosophy is grounded in a belief system which represents the child as powerless and consequently devoid of voice and representation. As a result we minimize the concerns of our children and we treat them less than full human beings, we should encourage them to ask questions and to not do exactly as they are told. We should teach them to challenge adults and to say no when they are asked to do something and they are not comfortable. It is only when our children are allowed to be precocious, to be feisty and non-conforming, to know that adults are not always right and that they do not always have their best interest at heart that we can begin to say we are raising empowered boys and girls.