Child abuse must be seriously confronted
Sexual abuse of girls in particular took centre stage last week as three prominent persons in Dominican society faced the wrath of the press (talk shows, to be precise) and the public especially social media.
As the real-life soap opera began to unravel, salacious episode after episode, we seem to have forgotten the legal principle enshrined in our constitution: that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. In the case of the three men, the Dominican public has determined very early that they are all guilty until innocent. It seems that we have thrown our legal and our moral tenets into the cesspool where every citizen is sullied.
It appears that we have not realised that after all the unwarranted publicity and the dissemination of unverified "truths" it may be impossible for the accused persons to obtain a fair trial in our courts and that argument may be the first weapon in the arsenal of defence lawyers if accused persons are taken before the court to prove their guilt or innocence. In fact that is the major reason why the Sexual Offences Act expressly prohibits the calling of names before and during a trial of that nature because no one publicly accused of such a horrendous act can expect to receive an unbiased trial.
Having said this, we believe that far-reaching reform of the Sexual Offence Act is way overdue. Probably the stories that Dominicans fed on last week will influence Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and his Attorney General to recommend the amended Act to the Dominica Parliament.
And we must not fool ourselves. Last week's alleged incidents are not isolated; there are hundreds of such cases, some real and many imagined, in the garbage heaps of society, in our towns and villages.
Recently Jemma Azille-Lewis of the Social Welfare Department presented some alarming statistics of the state of child sexual abuse in Dominica.
For instance, in 2015 a total of 189 cases of child abuse were recorded in Dominica. Out of that figure 128 were sexual related. Seventy-three cases were children within the ages of 0 to 10.
Azille-Lewis said at a recent press conference recently: "So it shows that our children as young as babies are being abused. Some are neglected, some are abandoned, some are physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused and some children suffer from more than one form of abuse. We should be concerned about that."
Figures for 2010 to 2015 show a total of 1,095 reported cases of child abuse.
"I think this is too much," Azille-Lewis said, especially for a country of that size, we may add.
Note than in 2010 there were 39 reported cases of boys being abused but in 2015 the number jumped to 47.
But as the nation's attention has focussed on child sexual abuse we have to be careful that other forms of child abuse are not being ignored.
A few years ago the Welfare Division of the Ministry of Community Development executed a number of activities for the observance of Child Abuse Awareness Week. As part of their programme the Division created an interesting theme entitled: There is no Excuse for Child Abuse, Save the Nation's Children. In an editorial that we published during that period, we suggested that officials must pay attention to the fact that government supports and promotes one of the worst forms of child abuse i.e. corporal punishment in schools. For that, we submit, there is no excuse.
We believe that the State sends a negative message to the perpetrators of all forms of abuse of children when it approves of corporal punishment in schools. The Education Act of 2007 states that "corporal punishment may be administered" in primary and secondary schools although the Act restricts the administration of corporal punishment to principals, deputy principals and designated teachers. But it seems the restrictions on corporal punishment does not apply to the youngest most vulnerable youths in Dominica, toddlers and infants in early childhood education. The Early Childhood Education Regulation of 2003 makes no mention of restrictions to corporal punishment.
Few persons who inundated the media with calls last week remembered that there is also rampant physical and emotional abuse of our boys and girls in our schools where little girls and boys including toddlers are being canned, slapped, spanked, shaken, pinched and generally abused by authoritative figures.
The emotional damage caused by corporal punishment is difficult to measure but no less damaging to the emotional well-being of the child. The scientific evidence published in the literature on the subject points to symptoms such as chronic depression and low self-esteem as well as psychological mal-adjustment at home and at school. Most importantly corporal punishment teaches a child lessons he never forgets: violence is the means by which conflict has to be resolved. Hence, teachers and parents should not be surprised that they are the main perpetrators of the cycle of violence in our society.
As we seek solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse, we urge our Government to move swiftly to ban corporal punishment in our schools and at the same time train teachers to manage classrooms that are free from violence.