Breaking the silence of child sexual abuse in the Caribbean: A community-based action research intervention

By Sandra D. Reid, Rhoda Reddock and Tisha Nickenig

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is prevalent in the Caribbean. In a survey of 15,695 students 10 to 18 years old, Halcon and colleagues (2003) found that 34.1% of children in 9 Caribbean countries were sexually active. Of these, 92.3% had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 16 years, 42.8% before the age of 10 years, and by age 16 to 18 years, 32.5% of males and 9.9% of females had more than 5 sexual partners. Most alarming, however, is that 47.6% of females and 31.9% of males described their first intercourse as forced or somewhat coerced and attributed blame to family members or persons known to their family.

CSA is defined as any activity between a child before the age of legal consent and an older, more powerful adult or substantially older child in which the child is used for a sexual or erotic purpose. This was adapted from the commonly used definition by Johnson (2001) to emphasise the power dynamics between victim and perpetrator. The authors have defined incest as any such interaction with a close relative or anyone perceived as a close relative that is committed to secrecy. In the English-speaking Caribbean, it is more popularly used to describe relationships between older relatives and children under the legal age of sexual consent. This definition takes into consideration the importance of “blood” as well as kinship ties in the local extended family structure (Barrow, 1999). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations General Assembly, 1989), to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory, defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. However, under the Sexual Offences Act of Trinidad and Tobago (1986), 16 is the legal age of sexual consent. For this study therefore, a child is regarded as a person under the age of 16 years.

"Most alarming, however, is that 47.6% of females and 31.9% of males described their first intercourse as forced or somewhat coerced and attributed blame to family members or persons known to their family."
Reid, Reddock and Nickenig, 2014

CSA is a traumatic experience, with significant potential for psychopathology, dysfunctional relationships and increased HIV risk. This has been documented in Trinidad and Tobago (Reid, 2006; Reid, Nielsen & Reddock, 2010) and other Caribbean countries (Lowe, Gibson, & Christie, 2008). The social context for rape and other forms of sexual abuse against young women and girls in the Caribbean involves several interconnecting factors, such as gender inequality, social norms based on patriarchal values, domestic violence, the economic dependence of many women on men and a limited appreciation of children’s rights. Though less prevalent, boys are not immune from CSA (Jones & Trotman-Jemmott, 2009).

The Breaking the Silence (BTS) research project was initiated in response to concerns expressed by a wide range of professionals with an interest in child welfare about an increasing prevalence of CSA. These stakeholders included service providers in governmental and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), community organisers, women’s movement activists, and representatives of various government ministries, national family services and the national medical facility for the treatment of sexually transmitted infections. Stakeholders acknowledged the taboo nature of the subject, identified regional differences in prevalence, and noted the emergence of incest as a particularly challenging practice. They also noted inaction, suggesting the tolerance of CSA in certain communities, which demanded that this situation be unearthed and addressed with new lenses. Most important this project focused on the gendered character of the issue.

breaking the silence

Quantitative Findings

Of 1,236 participants in BTS activities, all reported a clearer understanding of CSA and had increased awareness of available community resources. Seventy-four percent of 221 participants (60% female) in a random sample of 10 education and skills-building workshops had an increase in knowledge of CSA, and 82% of 317 teachers reported increased knowledge of accurate definitions of CSA, the presenting signs and ability to identify CSA. Eighty-two percent of teachers also reported an improved ability to build assertiveness in young persons’ sexual decision-making and to talk about sexual issues in a youth-friendly manner. Seventy-four percent of 651 participants (except teachers) and 50% of teachers had greater understanding of gender ideologies and the relevance to CSA. Among 303 youth attending primary and secondary schools, 89% had greater knowledge/understanding of CSA, gender ideologies, and the link between CSA and HIV.

Qualitative Findings

Preliminary analysis of focus group findings and data from structured interviews identified the main theme of sustained gain in knowledge about CSA as a direct result of the BTS community activities. The following comments support this:

  • Community 1: “I can say that I learnt a lot from this project about child abuse. I always knew it was wrong but this project helped me to really understand what qualifies as abuse and that it is not just men who abuse girls but women also abuse boys. It goes both ways.” (49-year-old Afro- Trinidadian female)
  • Community 2: “This project definitely increased my knowledge of child sexual abuse and all types of abuse of children for that matter. I did not have these details before the project. I am happy I participated. The project should continue ‘cuz people will forget.” (39-year-old Indo-Trinidadian female)
  • Community 3: “For me personally, the project helped me to understand a lot of things about child abuse that I did not know before. Not only that, I understand now, what I should do if a child in my village tells me he or she is abused.” (42-year-old Afro-Trinidadian female)

A key output of the BTS media campaign was the creation of an ethnic and gender neutral icon - a blue teddy bear with a plaster over its heart - that brands the campaign with a visual symbol people could associate with CSA (see figure above). As a direct result of the campaign, thousands of community members from four geographically separate communities in Trinidad and Tobago that were not involved in the project hosted four different marches/walks highlighting the BTS child sexual abuse symbol to raise awareness of CSA and to call for the government to improve programs and policies. A BTS network was established that spawned further marches and awareness raising events.

Interest has been expressed by national and regional governments in scaling up the project to other communities and countries. There is also interest in adopting policy and legislative recommendations made by the researchers, and an NGO has given support to continue the production of communication tools to raise greater awareness of CSA in 24 communities throughout Trinidad and Tobago.

Extracted from:
Reid, S. D., Reddock, R., & Nickenig, T. (2014). Breaking the Silence of Child Sexual Abuse in the Caribbean: A Community-Based Action Research Intervention Model. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 23(3), 256-277. doi:10.1080/10538712.2014.888118

About the Authors

Sandra D. Reid, MBBS, DM (Psychiatry), MPH, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago. Her current research activities include child sexual abuse and gender, sexuality, and HIV.
Rhoda Reddock, PhD, is professor of gender, social change and development at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus. Her research interests are varied and include critical race and ethnic studies and gender and sexualities.
Tisha Nickenig, MPH, is currently a consultant for the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of West Indies, St. Augustine Campus.

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