The Centre for Applied Childhood Studies (CACS) has played a major role in tackling the problem of child sexual abuse in the Caribbean. The work has been described by UNICEF as a landmark in the field and has led to government acknowledgement of the problem, growing public awareness, new policies, innovative child protection programmes and improvements in the capabilities of professionals and agencies. The research is also helping to shape responses to child sexual abuse in other parts of the world.
Devastating effects of child sexual abuse
Although a global problem, in poor and middle-income nations, such as the Caribbean, child sexual abuse is under-researched. Policy in these countries often follows Western trends where child protection systems tend to be narrow in remit, focussing more on surveillance than on prevention; are costly to administer; and can lack cultural relevance for other societies. As well as leading to a wide range of psychopathologies, child sexual abuse contributes to the region’s status as having the second highest global prevalence rates of HIV and teenage pregnancy and high levels of family and community violence.
Taking wider factors into account
The CACS has taken an original approach to investigating the issue by examining how child sexual abuse is linked to social constructions of childhood and to context-specific gendered and sexualised behaviours. Researchers carried out studies in six Caribbean countries: Anguilla, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat and St Kitts & Nevis.
A wide range of abuse and a lack of protection and prevention
It was found that child sexual abuse, an extensiveproblem in all six countries, is underpinned by acomplex set of cultural, structural and economicfactors which are both historical and contemporary.New trends in abuse were discovered which hadnot been previously documented, includingchild sex tourism, cell-phone pornography andopportunistic abuse linked to natural disasters. Inaddition to the abuse of girls, the abuse of boys wasreported as a growing concern.
Despite the gravityof these problems, legislation, policy and services were found to be underdeveloped and ineffective, constrained by fragile economies and public debt.
Patriarchal beliefs – a vicious circle
The researchers found that deeply-rooted patriarchal beliefs contributed to the levels of abuse, with unequal gender relations shaping sexual behaviour, social attitudes and vulnerabilities. Reinforced through conceptualisations of childhood, these factors are both causes and consequences of abuse, leading to sexual victimisation and the early sexualisation of children becoming widespread, with sex-for-trade viewed as normal in some communities.
Changing law, policy and practice
Out of this work have emerged recommendations for a new approach to child protection which recognises and challenges the many layers of abuse in order to encourage attitude change, material improvements to the lives of abuse victims and actions which address inequalities.
All six governments involved produced National Action Plans on Child Sexual Abuse with the CACS research as the foundation. The plans include actions relating to parenting skills and education as well as further research, to challenge the existing cultural acceptance of child sexual abuse in these regions. The plans also include changes to existing child protection laws and government policies regarding the complex surrounding issues.
Organisations and institutions around the world have also used this work as the basis for change, including the introduction of new support programmes for those having experienced sexual abuse, and educational programmes for perpetrators of violence to encourage a shift in attitudes and understanding.