Director of Public Prosecutions Shalimar Ali-Hack AS a young child growing up, Colleen Humphrey was sent to live with her aunt so that she would grow up in a family that was more financially stable. Moving in with family was supposed to be her chance at a “better life”.
“My aunt often travelled and at night and I slept with her husband,” Colleen said, recalling her life when she was about four years old. “At night, I remember him being that person I thought was like a father to me and an uncle; somebody I thought loved me.”
Every night, he was the one who laid her down to sleep. Her uncle, however, was not the beacon of love she thought he was.
“I was sexually abused every night,” Colleen recalled. “I didn’t know that I was being sexually abused, because I remember being on his chest and him shaking me to sleep every night.”
This continued for quite some time, and she only realised what was happening when another aunt had a “vision” that Colleen was being abused in this manner and told Colleen’s mother. By this time, she was about eight years old.
Colleen shared that she believes that her aunt had realised eventually what was happening or she at least had some suspicion. Each night, that woman unlocked the door to the room Colleen and her uncle were resting in. “She would always walk around and open it, so today, I would say she tried to protect me,” the woman, who is now in her 40s, said.
Colleen Humphrey “It is to be noted that child sexual abuse is a hidden crime and many victims, literally, do not have a voice and the ability to tell and identify their abuser,” Director of the Child Care and Protection Agency (CPA) Anne Green said recently.
The Sexual Offences Act of 2010 stated that a sexual offence is any sexual violation on an individual that includes rape, and any other form of sexual assault, such as touching or causing the complainant to touch a third party in a sexual way. When penetration has occurred, the sexual offence is deemed as “rape”; when there is no penetration, the offence is deemed “sexual activity”.
Greene related that while there were 980 reported cases of child sexual abuse in 2018 alone, those reports may very well be “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“It is believed that 90 per cent of sexual violence against children is not reported to authorities,” she said further while adding that of the amount that are reported, many ‘fall through the cracks’ because of the lack of collaboration among stakeholders and, sometimes, the slow pace of the judicial system.
In the past, every case of child sexual abuse reported to the CPA was subsequently reported to the police, where investigations into the matter should commence.
Greene, however, noted that this avenue for investigation was not always child-friendly.
“The main contributing factor to the case not making its way through to the judicial is faulty interrogation processes starting with the child not being believed,” she said.
In an effort to mitigate this, in 2014, Child Advocacy ‘One Stop’ Centres were launched. At these centres, law enforcement and other key governmental stakeholders and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) would work together to conduct interviews and make key decisions about investigation, treatment, management and prosecution of child-abuse cases.
APPROPRIATE INTERROGATION “The concept of the centres is to have the child victims come only once to a special room and provide the necessary evidence for an investigation team… who have the opportunity to conduct an appropriate interrogation of the child and perform psychological and forensic assessments on the spot, and follow up with the child and family,” she explained.
Sexual Offences Courts have been established in Demerara and Berbice as well, with another slated for Essequibo. According to Chancellor of the Judiciary (ag.) Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards, this specialised court is equipped with the necessary measures to protect the affected person from the accused persons, or from other persons in court; it comprises a special-measures room, and even waiting room facilities for the victim to be comfortable when giving evidence.
Both the centres and the courts aim to ensure that the child victims are dealt with in ways that are as friendly as possible, and so that ‘re-victimisation’ does not occur.
According to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shalimar Ali-Hack, at a recent public forum, in 2017, the sexual offence cases, on average, comprised about 55 per cent of the cases listed; in 2018, it was an average of 60 per cent of the cases listed; and in 2019, an average of 55 per cent of the cases to be heard.
These cases, according to her, ranged from persons as young as two years old to the elderly, at 65 years of age. And from the evidence garnered from these cases, Ali-Hack said it can be concluded that there are a number of economic and socio-cultural reasons underpinning the occurrences. In Colleen’s case, that was quite evident.
Cognisant of these statistics garnered from within Guyana’s small population and factors contributing to the occurrence of the offences, the DPP posited that there is clearly a need to address this situation.
“The emerging profile is that the girl child is being sexually assaulted by both trusted and non-trusted persons in her life, both inside and outside of the home, including institutions of learning,” the DPP highlighted. This is a very serious situation and it is very disturbing; it happens to all children regardless of race, culture, or economic background from which they are.”
Nicole Cole, who sits on the Rights of the Child Commission (ROCC), pointed out that medical practitioners are one group of stakeholders who need to understand their role against this scourge of violence and begin taking greater responsibility.
“I have fought doctors, tooth and nail, to get them to do what is right [but] there is a reluctance by the doctors,” Cole highlighted at a public forum organised recently by the University of Guyana.
She gave the example of when the ROCC visited the New Amsterdam Hospital recently, not a single doctor indicated that they would be willing to go to court to represent a child who would have suffered abuse.
Cole also related that she has found that there are doctors who are reluctant to even conduct ‘rape kit’ examinations. These kits are sexual assault forensic evidence kit, which is used in physical evidence recovery. Medical doctors are trained how to use these.
“Why is there a reluctance by doctors? We need the medical evidence,” Cole said, almost in tears.
Regional Health Officer, Dr. Quincy Jones, acknowledged that medical doctors are often the “frontline workers” who see persons and children affected by sexual abuse.
However, Dr. Jones said, “One of the things that doctors are afraid of is the loss of their licence.” He explained that there is the belief that if doctors go to the court of law, they run the risk of losing their licence to practise medicine because of the information they provide vis-a-vis medical examination for alleged sexual offences.
Cognisant that this is an issue which prevents doctors from ‘stepping up’, Dr. Jones related that the Public Health Ministry is working to educate doctors on the various laws on their responsibilities to their patients and the mechanisms that are available to protect when they go into the court of law. Once doctors understand that there are systems there to support them, the regional health officer contended that they would be more willing to come forward.
“The Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Social Protection, in 2016, devised a standard medical form for the collection of evidence. This was something even though it was developed, it was not really implemented and now we are in the stage of implementing this,” he said.
Cole reminded of a case where a teen was found not guilty of sodomising and murdering his two-year-old niece years ago at Haslington, East Coast Demerara. The then 15-year-old had been arrested by the police after it was established that the dead toddler had been in his sole care for about an hour before her death.
The post-mortem examination found that the child died as a result of haemorrhage and shock from multiple abdominal injuries and was subjected to anal penetration. This abdominal trauma was a result of the anal penetration, which caused massive internal injuries to the spleen, liver and anus. However, the absence of the medical evidence, she said, allowed the perpetrator to ‘walk free’.
CYCLE OF TRAUMA “These must be social change to prevent the re-victimisation and non-prosecution because of faulty interrogation practices. Child sexual assault can last a lifetime and spans generations; this sexual assault of our children must stop at all costs,” the CPA said further.
After years of experiencing sexual violence, Colleen left her aunt’s home when she was 13 years old and returned to live with her mother and father. When she was 14 years old, however, she was raped by a friend’s uncle after she attended a school party.
Her experiences with sexual violence, she related, have caused her years of unresolved trauma. Today, she is an alcoholic. She related that she knows this is a bad habit, but said consuming the substance is her way of “rebelling” against the injustices she faced in her life.
Petra Richmond, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Critical Responses, a private organisation that seeks to provide assistance to persons affected by abuse, noted that better practices must be adopted at all stages of investigating sexual violence and providing redress.
She opined that there is generally a lack of psychological support for victims and this contributes to this cycle of trauma. “Proper and deliberate” measures need to be put in place to mitigate this.
“The first question that we ask (at Critical Responses) is who are the people around you that you can lean on and trustâ¦ and we try to involve those persons in the process (of healing),” Petra said. She further opined that for victims to heal, they must have a support system of persons who are willing to help them.
“Victims should not be released until those structures are in place and fully operationalised,” she stressed.
As a victim of this type of violence as well, she noted that the road to recovery is not an easy one. In her case, penetration did not occur and this caused persons to become disinterested in providing help to her. It is for this reason, she said, that there also needs to be a shift in the way persons in society respond to and address sexual violence.