The issue of sexual assault took centre stage recently, as a panel of professionals addressed an audience of about 35 people on all aspects of this community-wide problem.
The forum, organised by the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre, was held to launch Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Estella Scott, executive director of the centre, spoke of the pressing need to bring this issue out into the open.
‘The CICC has taken on the challenge of leading the charge and speaking up about this issue, which has been taboo in our community for far too long,’ Ms Scott said.
She stressed that everyone has to become involved in combating sexual assault.
‘We believe that through public awareness and supporting victims of sexual assaults, while calling for social change, we can strengthen our community’s stance against such violence,’ Ms Scott said.
She is targeting younger people as well for her message. The crisis centre will be holding presentations at various schools throughout the month, with 16 sessions planned at George Hicks High School alone.
There are many types of sexual assault and Ms Scott hopes to draw attention to all of them.
‘During this month, we will be highlighting various forms of sexual assault: child sexual abuse, incest, defilement, date rape, statutory rape, sexual assault and marital rape,’ she said.
Ms Scott is focusing on getting all related information out to the public.
‘It is vital that we all understand that this issue is a community issue. To combat the ills of sexual assault it will take all of us,’ she said.
Cynthia Blekaitis, a counselor at the Women’s Resource Centre, discussed the difficulty for victims to acknowledge they are in a sexually abusive relationship.
‘Abuse leads to loss of self-esteem. It is difficult for these women to stand up for their rights. They rationalize both their and their partners’ behaviours.
In addition, the situation is complicated by the woman’s love of her partner.
‘She doesn’t want to accept the alternative, which is rape and humiliation. She has to come to the realization that her home is no longer safe,’ Ms Blekaitis said.
In the case of sexual assault, Ms Scott said that at first the women who come to the crisis centre can’t admit they were raped.
‘Eventually, they will come to see that this sort of violence is not acceptable in their homes,’ Ms Scott said.
She is organizing events like the forum so that the public will become more ware of the problem and make it easier for victims to acknowledge they have been sexually assaulted and report it to the police.
Members of the police family support unit, led by Sgt. Angelique Ebanks, also attended the forum.
Sgt. Ebanks spoke of how the victims can help the police.
She explained they need assistance from a medical point of view.
‘We need medical evidence unless there is a witness. Otherwise, it is really, really hard (to make an arrest),’ Sgt. Ebanks said.
She encouraged victims to come forward, explaining it could happen to anyone.
‘Don’t be ashamed, you didn’t ask for it. Report it to the police. Assist us,’ she said.
Dr. Howard Deosaran is an obstetrician/gynecologist who examines rape victims in order to provide the much-needed physical evidence for the police.
The doctor can perform a colposcopy on rape victims, whereby he uses a special microscope to gather evidence not readily seen by the human eye. With this procedure, the detection rate rises to more than 80 per cent compared to 10 per cent to 30 per cent through a visual examination.
Participants at the forum, however, suggested that a female doctor would be more appropriate for examining victims of rape.
Dr. Deosaran dismissed those fears, saying that if the doctor explained the procedures involved and was objective, it wouldn’t be a factor if the physician were male or female.
Others in the audience disagreed, citing the need for sensitivity when dealing with a woman who had just been assaulted by a man.
Ms. Scott hopes through channels like the forum, the public will become more aware of how it can help.
‘The way to prevent sexual violence is to know more and to be aware of how to seek help and how to protect yourself and your loved ones,’ she said.
Especially in the case of children, the more information available, the better.
Mary Anne Cannon, a counselor with the Wellness Centre, addressed the psychological problems facing child victims of sexual assault, whether by a stranger or a family member.
A molested child who doesn’t report the attack may suffer long-term consequences, Ms Cannon explained.
As adults, these victims can face depression, suicide, substance abuse coupled with criminal activity, or even become abusers themselves, she said.
If the assault is reported, the child will be offered counseling, Ms Cannon explained. Through therapy, the child will learn coping strategies and how to manage the trauma.
Ms Cannon spoke of the need to alert adults to ‘red flags’ which could indicate sexual abuse is taking place.
People need to know the warning signs, she explained, such as a child playing out sexual acts with other children, or changing normal behaviours, such as avoiding contact with once well-liked adults.
Ms Cannon stressed the need for people to report the crime.
‘It is important to report, to stop the cycle of abuse,’ she said.
In addition to the social ramifications of the issue, the legal aspects were discussed, with Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale explaining the relevant laws.
When the panel took questions from the audience, the major area of concern was the issue of child sexual abuse.
Dr. Frank McField, Minister for Community Services, Youth, Sports and Gender Affairs, was an invited guest at the forum.
The minister took part in an animated discussion with the rest of the audience and the panel, of the legal and social issues surrounding sexual assault. He believes the crime should be gender-neutral.
For example, under the law now, a woman cannot be charged with defilement if she has sex with a boy under 16. She can only be arrested under the lesser charge of indecent assault.
He said the offence should be treated the same whether committed by a man or a woman.
The forum is one of a series of events this month through which these issues will be kept in the public domain.