The case for sex education in schools
by Michelle Nurse
November 16, 2003
'Child abuse is very covert. It is usually kept under cover. Some of the victims cannot even talk of the abuse (because of their age) so what we know might just be the tip of the iceberg...because in many cases, particularly incest, it affects the family. It is treated as a family problem and it is covered up, kept quiet and spoken of behind closed doors.'
- Chief Welfare and Probation Officer
THE time is ripe for the introduction of sex education in the school system as part of an overall strategy by authorities to stem the growing incidence of sexual abuse involving the nation's children.
This is the view of Chief Welfare and Probation Officer, at the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, Ms Ann Green.
Sex education includes tutoring on issues such as morality, sex, sexuality, safe sex and personal responsibility as a means of protecting children.
"We have to talk sex with the children," Ms Green stressed in an interview with the Sunday Chronicle, and pointed out that the school system may prove to be the best place of emphasis, bearing in mind the number of hours children spend in school.
"It's a question of education, education, education. We have to educate parents and teachers and educate the children; we have to educate the caregivers..."
Education Ministry officials say aspects of sex education such as the reproductive system and hygiene have been taught in public schools. There have also been guidance and counseling sessions.
Sexual assault, incest and neglect rank high among the complaints the Ministry of Human Services receives.
In addition to an increase in reported cases of child abuse, the age of the victims, particularly those of sexual assaults, is getting "much younger", the social worker with more than 18 years of service said. She alluded to a case of a 22-month-old child being sexually abused and also pointed out that the department has also observed a change of gender in those being molested. Traditionally, girls were the ones complaining of sexual abuse, but boys have now joined them as victims.
Ms Green cautioned though that the increase in reports does not necessarily translate to increase in cases - people may have now become aware of where reports should be made and what constitutes child abuse.
"Child abuse is very covert. It is usually kept under cover. Some of the victims cannot even talk of the abuse (because of their age) so what we know might just be the tip of the iceberg...because in many cases, particularly incest, it affects the family. It is treated as a family problem and it is covered up, kept quiet and spoken of behind closed doors.
Ms. Green said that neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and incest, are among the prevalent complaints the Ministry receives There area also many cases of emotional abuse and exposure to harmful environments.
With respect to sexual abuse of children, Ms. Green said most of those acts are committed by persons whom the children love and trust. Several fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and uncles and other close male relatives, and, in at least one case, a mother, have been accused of sexually abusing children. Almost every day, one section of the media chronicles the abuse of children. Many of the abusers are now before the court. In some cases, the abusers are caught in the act. Some are apprehended after the victims speak out, and yet others are caught after vigilant relatives note that something is amiss with the victim(s). There are, however, far too many cases in which adults suspect abuse but "are in denial" about it, Ms Green pointed out. And then there are the cases where ignorance is glaring.
Among the experiences Ms Green related during the interview was that of a 13-year-old whose father was having sex with her.
"She said she didn't know that she shouldn't be having sex with her Dad. In fact, she went to school, one day, and said to her friend: `Girl, I had a whale of a time last night with my dad!' When the friend inquired whether it was sex she was talking about, the teenager said `yes'. The child was horrified and went home and told her mother: `My friend having sex with her dad and she doesn't know that it is not right'," Ms Green said.
There was also the case of a child who complained of constipation, and whose father devised a perverted method of solving that problem. "She (the child) never knew that that was wrong."
Then there was the case of the "young man whose teacher had him pulling down his pants for him in the afternoons. And the child didn't know that the teacher should not be asking him to do that."
"... So we have to educate the children," she said, adding that educating the children about matters relating to sex can stem the cases of child abuse, as well as sexually transmitted diseases.
The main concern of the Probation and Welfare Department, Ms Green said, is to stop the abuse wherever it exists, and to this end, the organisation employs various techniques to get to the root of the problem including discourse with the abuser, confrontations between abuser and victim, and counselling.
Counselling would oftentimes reveal that the perpetrators were themselves abused as children. "So it's a vicious circle...and counselling helps, because we cannot lock everybody up and throw away the key," Ms Green noted.
"The question to be addressed now is what we, as a society, are going to do about child abuse. Society must protect its young children and its old people, as well. That is what society is expected to do - to protect the vulnerable people, the children and the senior citizens," Ms. Green said. The Probation and Welfare Department depends on citizens to come forward with information on children who are being abused.
"If you remain silent, you are a part of the problem; you're an accessory to whatever is happening. Many people claim they don't know where to go (to launch a complaint) but there's always a police station.
"We're our brother's keeper. When a child is in trouble, if you are a member of society and you witness a child being abused, and if you stay quiet, you are an accessory to a crime. And this is a responsibility that you have to be aware of," the social worker said.
"If you know, or you observe please help us by reporting (cases of abuse)," Ms Green pleaded, adding that mere suspicion, without evidence, can lead to an investigation which can ultimately save a child from abuse.
The Ministry had no readily available figures on child abuse, but statistics released by Help and Shelter show that rape, incest, sexual assault and buggery account for 330 of the 628 cases of child abuse the organisation has tallied between November 30, 1995 and September 30 this year.
According to Help and Shelter Administrator, Ms. Margaret Kertzious, The cases ranged from rape - 196 cases, to sexual assault, apart from rape - 113 cases, and physical abuse cases - 189. There were 14 cases of incest, seven of buggery, 22 cases of psychological abuse, 44 of non-physical abuse and four cases, which were alcohol related.
The ages of the children who were abused ranged from under six to 17. The category with the highest number of cases - 203 - was the 12 to 14 age group. The 15-17 age group followed, recording 191 cases. There were 96 cases in the nine to 11 category, 87 in the six to eight bracket and 47 under six years of age. Thirty-three of the children abused were at the nursery level of education; 181 were of primary school age and 317 were of secondary school age. There were 29 from the community high level, seven from the technical vocational level and two from the tertiary/university level. Other figures included those for non-toddlers - 18.
Gender-wise, there were 534 females and 91 males. There were three cases for which gender was not stated, Help and Shelter said.
According to Ms. Kertzious, Georgetown alone accounted for a whopping 318 of the child abuse cases. Demerara - excluding Georgetown - accounted for 259 cases. There were 15 cases in Linden, a similar number in Essequibo, 13 for Berbice - excluding New Amsterdam - and three for Bartica.
The Welfare and Probation Department of the Ministry has been boosted recently with the employment of 14 new welfare officers, but it still depends on other institutions and the society at large to tackle the problem.
"When the perpetrators are charged and put before the court, the courts have a responsibility to deal with them and make them examples, send out messages ... as a deterrent to other would-be molesters. The prison authorities have a responsibility to ensure that the perpetrators are reformed...
"So, it's a society thing..... we have got to save our children from abuse," she stressed