Experts warn of cultural tolerance of abuse

The Pan American Health Organization says its reports revealing high levels of sexual and physical violence against children in Caribbean territories, including in the Cayman Islands, demonstrate that work needs to be done across the region to protect and support victims.

Doctors from PAHO are concerned that the issue of sexual abuse is “clouded in embarrassment” in the Caribbean and suggest there may also be a cultural tolerance of physical abuse, masquerading as discipline.

The Cayman report, based on a series of surveys with 955 young people, aged 15-19, revealed that one in five girls had been sexually abused, while one in six children had been physically assaulted by an adult.

PAHO says the results in the Cayman Islands, despite its relative affluence, were consistent with what was reported in five other territories.

Dr. Noreen Jack, PAHO representative for Jamaica, Cayman and Bermuda, said, “Physical and sexual abuse are related to other social and individual factors. They happen regardless of the affluence and development of the country.”

She said the issue was a global public health crisis and claimed the PAHO reports provided some of the first real data to back up anecdotal evidence that there were “significant levels” of child abuse in the Caribbean region.

While they say the issue is global, the doctors suggest there are some specific issues impacting the Caribbean.

“We can mention things like accepting these things happen without public condemnation of physical and sexual violence,” said Dr. Sonja Caffe, the organization’s regional advisor on sexually transmitted infections.

“We need to show zero tolerance for violence; we have to empower victims of abuse instead of clouding it in embarrassment.”

PAHO also points to a lack of assistance to women to report abuse and a lack of support to victims, as well as insufficient processes to identify at-risk young people.

It says its reports, ostensibly examining risk factors for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, were also designed to inform the public and policy makers of the scale of the problems of abuse in the Caribbean.

Dr. Jack said, “It is not just about publication, the report is also designed to inform further work in the area. What are the next steps? What interventions are required in terms of services? That is what these studies are for, to inform processes and further programs.”

PAHO officials say they emailed the finished report, based on survey data collected in 2012, to the Cayman Islands government last summer. The final hard copy was received by government in January 2015. The Ministry of Health released it to the media and the public last week after the Cayman Compass obtained a copy.

Alongside the report, the ministry issued a list of policies it said had been implemented to help deal with the issues highlighted.

These included the formation of a Mental Health Commission, a National Sports Strategy and a Red Cross child abuse prevention program in government high schools called “It’s Not Your Fault.”

Education Minister Tara Rivers said staff in preschools were also receiving training on how to talk to young children about abuse, as well as their responsibilities to report suspicions of abuse.