Opinion — 07 November 2014 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I believe any person in their right sense is disturbed by these news of little children being sexually abused in Belize. Anyone sexually assaulted, be it male or female, and even adult is rather very disturbing news, and the fact that a person is of the age of maturity does not make it any less distressful. However, we all recognize that for a child, it means a terrifying way to lose their innocence, especially at the hands of a person they trust. It seems that stepfathers are the number one culprits in these matters and thus it means that mothers need to be more vigilant and discerning when getting into these relationships simply because sexual abuse is not usually by a stranger, if ever, but by a person the child develops trust in.

Now in my adult life I am amazed at how many females I know that have come forward to admit that as a child they were sexually molested. Their perpetrators range from their father, stepfather, uncle to their neigbor … But still the number one category is the stepfather. The other alarming fact for me to deal with is that they suffered this abuse at very tender ages of four or six, unlike my belief that these men would be attracted to them when they start to develop at ages twelve or thirteen.

Clearly any adult who has sexual relations with a child below the age of 13 is considered a pedophile and that is a special categorization for a set of sick minds … Even now where special groups are seeking to defend this disgusting act as a “lifestyle choice” or a “right,” any right thinking human being must know that sexual intercourse with a child under absolutely no circumstances can be considered right, acceptable, defensible or moral.

I personally am of the view that sexual abuse is one of the must inhumane and degrading acts any person could commit against any person … much less an innocent defenseless, vulnerable child … thus it has to be only a sick mind that can find pleasure in such an act.

Prevalence of sexual abuse

From the reports in the news one would estimate that child sexual abuse is prevalent, and while it is, many do not realize that usually only two or three persons in every ten report to the police the occurrence of such a crime and then only half of those reporting it even follow it up to the point of prosecution before the courts. (Those estimations are mine based on my own contact and experience with dealing with this kind of crime.) Thus it means that there are many of our victimized children out there but the truth is the statistics are difficult to gather since many families keep the abuse quiet as the mother is either ashamed, remaining in a relationship with the perpetrator, or is never told by the child due to threats issued by the perpetrator.

The child, male or female, being so innocent and confused as to what is happening and being easily influenced or manipulated, many instances never speak of the abuse and live a tormented and sad life and never say what happened until their adult life. I met a lady who never said anything until she herself was a mother and her own daughter suffered the exact same abuse by the stepfather … she relived the whole episode and explained she could not bring herself to say what happened to her as a child for several reasons, the threat being one, but the other being that she felt that if she said it or admitted and accepted it happened then it became real to her and she just wanted to suppress it and forget it ever happened. This may be difficult to appreciate for some people, but the very abuse has a way of mentally enslaving or damaging the victim. And let’s face it, for a child, whose mind is not fully developed to suffer such a trauma, it must have an effect none of us outside the situation can fully appreciate.

A further violation

In society we are sometimes so insensitive and cruel towards the victims. Believe it or not, I have heard attorneys, females at that, making vile comments about very young females who have been carnally known. These comments range from “she mi want it” to “deh lee gyal dem hot”… yep they, who of all people should know the law … But if it was their child I bet they would sing a different song.

Sexual abuse of any kind is one of the most difficult crimes to report because the victim is embarrassed, feels it’s his/her fault, is laboring under the fear of a threat or is just in complete denial and can’t tell or won’t tell what happened to her. Our conduct towards the victim is a further violation. I know of a very close relative of mine who in her 30’s finally told me why she was acting out her whole life … she was sexually abused at age 12 by her own father and when her mother found out instead of confronting the husband, she beat the child so bad that the matter was never spoken of again … yes, and this keeps happening today.

I know of another incident of a family friend who is now in her 20’s and who more recently finally explained why she is depressed and drinking and just carefree about her life. She explained she was sexually abused at age four by the babysitter’s husband and when she told her mom, she just told her never to say it again and moved her from the babysitter. Imagine for twenty years bottling up that pain.

The laws in place

In Belize we have tried to place the best possible laws on the books to deal with the perpetrators for the few instances the crime is actually reported. So while in the public realm it’s the state’s duty to prosecute the accused, it means that in the private realm we as mothers owe it to our children to shield them and protect them from this kind of harm. By extension every person in society is the child’s keeper and must take this responsibility seriously because our children may be mischievous and full of energy … but they are innocent and vulnerable and we must protect them.

The law, however, also puts a legal obligation on everyone in the public and key professionals to report any cases of suspected child abuse, which many seem not to know exist in the Families and Children (Child Abuse) (Reporting) Regulations passed under Chapter 173S of the Laws of Belize. So you are not being a nosy neighbor when you report your neighbor … rather you are doing your legal duty.

Under this law at Regulation 4 it puts a heavy onus of those in the medical field to report any form of child abuse to the police and Regulation 5 states: “It shall be the duty of any family member, teacher, social worker, school counsellor, employee of a certified children’s institution (especially the Manager thereof), school administrator, principal and deputy principal of any educational institution, dean of a college, probation officer, police officer or any other employee or officer of the Government whose daily duties entails dealing regularly with children, to promptly report orally or in writing all incidents of suspected child abuse which come to his knowledge and/or attention to the Belize Police Department or to the Department for investigation.

Child giving evidence

One of the biggest challenges with these types of child abuse cases is that when the crime occurs, the child is very young and while he/she can explain and show what happened, he/she is just too young to give evidence in court, and worse yet cannot give evidence under oath. So it is best when it takes some years after to prosecute these offences simply because it gives the child time to reach an age where they can better give evidence and are old enough to do so under oath. In law there is a marked difference in the value and weight given to evidence given under oath and that not given under oath.

Of course, this long wait means that when trial is held the child must relive the entire episode all over again and face the perpetrator, whom he/she must have not seen for years. Going to court in and of itself could be nerve wracking, and going to face a person who harmed you could be worse. Thus the law has sought to ease the courtroom trauma by Regulation 13:01 which states: A child giving evidence in a child abuse case shall give evidence from behind a screen or other means of concealment in order to ensure the child’s privacy and protection.

This is a good provision, but it is not being complied with and the recent case involving repeat sex offender, 45-year-old Brian Charlesworth, is such an example. The child who is now nine going unto ten was not made to testify behind such screen and courtroom police confided that by his mere stare at the child it was visible how shaken the child was to be in the presence of Charlesworth. This should never have happened again.

Mandatory life imprisonment

The other injustice that has happened in this case is that 20 years is a very light sentence and the provisions in Section 48 should have applied because this is his second conviction for carnal knowledge, which is sex with a child under the age of fourteen. Section 48 states: If, after the commencement of this Act, a person is found guilty of the offence of rape, or of the offence of carnal knowledge of a female child under the age of fourteen years, or of the said offences combined together, on more than two occasions, he shall, notwithstanding anything contained in this Code or any law to the contrary, be sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment.

I say he must now get the mandatory sentence and as such the office of the DPP must appeal this sentence. The law mandates life imprisonment for repeat offenders because sex offenders are never one-time offenders because it is believed they cannot stop their sexual desire for said kind of sexual encounter, in this case with children they thus become a danger to society.

God bless our children!

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