Jamaicans find it difficult to talk openly about many sexual issues. Adults and professionals in the field can usually navigate issues with more assurance and with broader experience than children. That point came out during questions, when a schoolgirl asked about how to build self-confidence. Importantly, the forums have been places where young people, including victims of sexual abuse, have felt able to talk about their experiences and problems faced in dealing with such abuse. Yesterday’s topic was about online exploitation, touching on cyber crimes in general, cyber bullying, online sexual grooming, parental guidance, family interactions on social media, trust, and more.

Recent forums on the topic of #KeepChildrenSafe have been well attended, so a full room yesterday at the Knutsford Court Hotel in Kingston was no surprise. This forum was again carried live on Jamaica News Network (JNN). Again, we heard of many instances of abuse, this time with examples of the new power of online access, especially its speedy spread of information. We were reminded of its many positives, but also sadly of its many negatives. 

Discussing the online world was well suited to a younger audience, and several schools were well-represented. The general view is that children know this world better than adults, many of whom are struggling to keep up with the fast-multiplying  new ways of interacting electronically. Some adults (perhaps fearful of their own ignorance or just overwhelmed by the speed of change) have abandoned all hope of guiding and controlling and advising children about appropriate use. Others try to stay up to speed and be the eyes, ears, and conscience of children, with all the attendant problems that come with that.

In the fourth and final forum, we heard police officers recount actual cases of abuse, which had been initiated through online contact, but also worsened by online means. 

In hearing about abuse cases, we often get evidence of how extensively victims are blamed. One case recounted yesterday was vivid for its victim-blaming, where a girl had been gang-raped, but then kicked out by her parents and expelled from school. For that reason alone, not talking may seem important for self-protection.

Several school girls spoke about friends who’d found themselves in sexual relations as minors and then been abused by offensive pictures of themselves being circulated, or not allowed to address their problems because the perpetrators threatened violence if the victims informed anyone.

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Moderator Terri-Karelle Reid talks to a group of schoolgirls

Some people have wondered about the value of talking about these issues
. My views are clear, as I expressed to UNICEF Jamaica, and were repeated in a post on Twitter. It offers more protection for each and all. But, I also sought the views of some professionals in the area of child protection. The following points are theirs.

We have to talk because the children cannot. They don’t vote, don’t lobby, don’t fund election campaigns, don’t walk the corridors of power, can’t always pick up the phone and make phone calls…nothing. So if we don’t talk who does? And if you notice in Jamaica the people who talk the loudest and the longest get attention. If children’s issues aren’t talked about how do we get change?

“We have to talk because child abuse perpetuates in silence. Abusers actively cultivate silence and depend on it. They coerce, twist, cajole and every other adjective you can think of just to keep people quiet. We have to talk because it is exactly what they do not want us to do. The more the threat is the removal of the cultural is silence the more likely we are to have the perpetrators afraid to do anything because they WILL be found out and acted upon.”

If we keep talking we help children understand that there is somebody somewhere who may care. For those who are suffering in silence alone, if even one child feels brave enough to speak up then all this talking will be worth it.”

“We have to talk because people don’t realize their actions are abuse and some don’t know how to help children. By talking we help people to help themselves and others. We take our knowledge for granted.”

“We have to keep talking until there is change because what is happening now is completely unacceptable. We need change in culture. We need change in the State and its actions and resources etc. we need change everywhere.”

“The wider the conversation, the more we push against the tide that seeks to normalize child abuse.”

“The more frequently people hear the messages, especially of victims’ experiences, the more likely that other victims will recognize that they are not alone. They just may come forward. This will start the healing process for them and can lead to a child abuse being taken off the street.”

The more we speak up, the more assured children become that there are people willing to create nurturing and safe environments for them and help them to realize that their lives do matter.

“The more we speak and engage with others about #KCS, the more others get an avenue to be a part of the solution/come up with workable ideas.”

The organizers have noted some clear results from the forums. More people are still saying things like “I had no idea.” The prevalence of abuse has shocked many, and also highlighted that vulnerability is not confined to few groups and selected areas. 

People are realizing that negligent parents and adults are everywhere, not just in ‘ghettos’. That said, people seem more shocked when they hear of abuse associated with so-called ‘prominent’ schools. But, as the moderator said yesterday, violators don’t care what school children attend. They may even feel better targeting such schools, in the belief that people there feel they have more ‘status’ to protect.

We have seen more children come forward. More are standing up and telling us what has happened to them or friends. 

The number of volunteers has increased. Considering these initiatives aren’t really new, talking has helped mobilize. 

Are those bad outcomes?

Funding specialist agencies and getting them better equipped to help those who are abused and need support is important. Getting professionals to treat all cases with equal seriousness is important; dismissiveness is crippling. But, the agencies would get nowhere if no one was willing to share what they know

Decision-makers, intentionally or accidentally, often make others feel that only they have the answers. Our culture has much deference at its core. More voices and more conversations will help many understand that answers lie in many places, and often not far from home.

So, keep talking, and use your voices well.