In a significant attempt to protect the rights of children, the United Nations crafted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a document that focuses its attention on the youth population, with the recognition that this group often goes unheard in our societies. Among the key provisions made within this convention is the call on ratifying states to protect the sexual rights of children. Incorporating a multidimensional approach, the CRC calls for the issue of children's sexual exploitation to be addressed on different levels: legislative, administrative, social and educational. While this integrative approach is important, it is however essential that governments also take account of the role played by "culture", and its ability to hinder even the most well-intentioned policies. Amidst socio-cultural beliefs that have often rendered issues such as sexual abuse as "private" and "unmentionable", legislation and policies are often undermined at the most basic of levels.
Jamaica, as one of the signatories of the CRC, has put in place measures to ensure the protection of children from sexual abuse. The Child Care Protection Act (1994) represents one of the main efforts to define and protect children's rights, outlining sexual offences as one of the core violations of children's lives while prescribing some of the penalties for offenders. Despite this, such acts still exist within a legislative environment in which "carnal abuse" is still considered to be a misdemeanour, thereby creating a distinction between it and the more serious offence of rape. Therefore as the law now stands, age becomes a discriminatory factor in the lives of children by curtailing the punishment that is given to their abusers.
Additionally socio-cultural ideas regarding sexual offences have typically placed such issues within the realm of the "private." Offences of a sexual nature are usually taken as individual and private matters, and have typically received a different treatment than would "public" issues such as grand larceny and manslaughter. Thereby the onus is often placed on the victim to pursue a conviction, as well as to prove that they have indeed been victimised; a trend that becomes particularly troublesome and difficult when the victim is legally a child.
Locally, a recent case highlights the challenges raised. A sports producer at a popular radio station was found guilty of two counts of carnal abuse following allegations that he had repeatedly molested a young girl, with the sexual abuse having started at the age of 13. It was further alleged that the man continuously threatened the girl with death in order to secure her silence. The judge, in giving her sentence, reportedly based her decision on two factors: (i) the fact that the victim and her mother asked that he not be imprisoned and (ii) character testimonies given by people within the accused man's community as well as from his boss. Taken these factors into consideration, the offender was given a suspended sentence, thereby escaping prison.
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How does this happen in the presence of policies with the stated aim of protecting children from sexual abuse? The fact remains that legislation and policies must be enacted by people. In cases such as the one above, when the sentencing of offenders is done at the discretion of legal officials, there remains room for subjective judgements that serve the offender rather than the survivor or society. This highlights the need for stringent sensitisation training, monitoring and evaluation of people in key decision-making roles.
Moves are underway to change existing legislation relating to sexual offences; with both the Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill and the Incest (Amendment) Bill having been retabled—opening the doorway for much needed change. According to the May 2007 newsletter of Women's Media Watch (a local organisation targeting the elimination of gender-violence), one of the most encouraging aspects of the renewed legal reform process has been the public's involvement—with a number of organisations, as well as survivors and perpetrators of rape having made submissions.
One of the key amendments that has been proposed is the elimination of the category of carnal abuse, and its replacement by the term "rape", thereby increasing the severity of the offence, and making it eligible for harsher sentencing.
While these and other attempts at legal reform will go a long way towards the protection of children's sexual rights, they must accompany changes such as the mandatory sensitisation training and monitoring of key decision makers. To make changes in one area, while ignoring the effect of values goes only halfway towards protecting the rights of children.