GEPAN Georgetown — On Thursday 26 July 2019, UNICEF and the University of Guyana (UG) hosted the Tain Talks on sexual violence in the Guyanese society. It was here that Director of the Child Care and Protection Agency (CCPA) Ann Greene, announced the troubling figure of 980 cases of child sexual abuse recorded for 2018. Of these 980, 801 victims were girls and the remaining 179 were boys. These numbers support the existing prevalence data and information which rank Guyana among the top 3 to 5 countries in the Caribbean with the highest rates of GBV and Violence Against Women and Girls. Child sexual abuse, including incest, is one form of VAWG and these numbers as Greene suggested in her presentation, might only be depicting the tip of the iceberg in Guyana.
Child sexual abuse in itself can be challenging to address and eradicate because fear can cause children to withhold disclosing the identity of the perpetrator to parents or other responsible adults. Another catalyzing factor when it comes to eradicating child sexual abuse is the general absence of reliable and adequate State services, response mechanisms and infrastructure to protect victims and provide physical and mental health support. The cultural taboos and stigma associated with sexual abuse generally shield perpetrators from law enforcement on the basis that the family’s reputation would otherwise be soiled.
The perpetrator is often someone who is a friend, relative or part of the family circle, and therefore someone who the child knows. Other factors such as corporal punishment inflicted by parents or domestic and family violence can also induce fear and prevent the victim from seeking help from other adults. Because it is so difficult to detect, child sexual abuse can last for years. The harmful consequences affect both physical and mental health and can have devastating long-term effects which can hinder the development and quality of social relations, cognitive abilities and performance at work or school.
Below, a Guyanese woman tells her story as the survivor of an unreported case of rape and abuse that lasted for 7 years. She was forced to cope with the mental health trauma well into adulthood.
Her ordeal began when she was 5 and ended when she was 12. Her perpetrator was in his mid-teens to twenties. The place of abuse was in the family home and homes of family members. The parents and perpetrator had secondary level education and the family fell within the middle-income category living in an agriculture-based community with a traditional perception of gender roles. One parent was a teacher while the other worked in the construction industry. Corporal punishment and emotional abuse were part of the parenting methods employed. Other family members were aware of the sexual abuse that transpired but took no action to protect the child. Depression and multiple attempts to commit suicide were some of the aftereffects that the survivor had to cope with.
She has requested that her identity be kept anonymous. This narrative is her story.
“When it started I was living in Venezuela, I was 5 years old. I grew up in a normal middle income family. Both parents were very much present along with a younger sibling. For the outside world and maybe to my parents, everything was normal and “perfect”. At that time both of my parents worked and they would leave me and my brother in the care of an elder cousin who at the time was in his mid-teens. At first it started with the inappropriate touching and as a child I knew this was wrong, it felt wrong. Strange how after 28 years it still feels as if it happened just hours ago; this goes to show that it’s something we carry with us all our lives. And gradually he started to rape me every time he came over to our house. He said if I talked no one would believe me and that he would hurt my brother. One day, he did hurt my brother because I said I was going to tell on him and that got me to shut up for seven gruesome years.
When I was eight we moved back to Guyana, and I was relieved at that point. Then months later I was told he would be joining us in Guyana and my little world fell apart. I remember one December he came by over to our house and slept over, and though I pleaded in tears to my parents that I wanted to sleep with them, they didn’t allow me to and I ended up having to share my bed with him. That night I wanted to DIE! My first thoughts to commit suicide came shortly after, all I wanted was to end this entire nightmare and to do so was to end my life. But I didn’t because I thought of the pain I would cause my family with. When I was 12 my nana (maternal grandfather) passed away and one night during the wake I was sent upstairs to babysit with the younger cousins. It was here that another male cousin tried to abuse me but I managed to escape away. It was the last sexual abuse I suffered in my childhood.
I told two cousins and an aunt about what happened to me and they said if I told anyone else I’d be responsible for tearing the family apart. I opened up to my mother in 2018 but she didn’t react.
Growing up my self-esteem wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I thought I deserve what happened to me because of the way my family treated me. They teased me because I wasn’t pretty as the rest of my cousins nor did I have the “acceptable” skin colour to feel wanted. They hit me and called me all sorts of names, that brought by self-esteem down even lower. I wondered what I was doing wrong. When the abuse ended my education became my priority and I studied hard.
After graduating from secondary school I moved to Georgetown and I was struggling with depression silently. I had relationships along the way where I was treated the way I thought a woman should be, but because of my insecurities they never lasted. I ended up in one relationship where I was physically and psychologically abused until I left. Being intimate with my partner was difficult because of the flashbacks I would get during sex.
In Secondary School, a non-profit was at that time (early 2002) going to different schools to train students to be peer counsellors. I was selected and got training, but I spoke to my mentor that I too needed help and it was then that my healing process started. For the first time, I cried and let all that hurt out.
When I was pursuing tertiary education I finally began dating someone who became my main support system; he allowed me to see there was more to life. He encouraged me to write my feelings down and even do poetry. He encouraged me to find something that I could channel my feelings into and can help me heal.
Honestly, I was ashamed to come out and share my story with others. I thought about how I would be seen in the public eye and the stigma associated with rape victims. As rape victims we are untouchable and the “village gossipers” will always have something to say about us. I never wanted to be labelled a victim, so by choosing to live and tell my story, I choose to be a survivor.
What is needed to help victims of child sexual abuse? A listening ear. Someone who is there for us, someone who will not shrug us off. If a child comes to you and tries to speak or seems distressed or needy towards, do not ignore her but instead pick up those warning signals. There should be a therapist at every school who can help children, someone who they are comfortable with and who is very much confidential. Also, law enforcers should play a more vital role in protecting victims and applying the law. We survivors are imprisoned in a world of depression and hurt while often times perpetrators get away or receive short sentences. And this is not just about girls. We must understand that boys are being abused too and in some instances by women. They too need help.
The process of healing is different for every survivor. It took me years to find mine and today I no longer am burdened by the weight of this nightmare ordeal. Now I strive to help others with similar situations and for them to find courage and self-love within themselves.”