Working in child protection, one of the things that concerns me most are the messages that we give our children about safety and particularly, who is safe to be around. In Jamaica we have the “stranger danger” phenomenon where young children are taught that it is strangers that you need to be wary of.
Yet, we need to open up a conversation to make our young children realise that not every aunt or uncle, or other family member, means you well. I am very clear with my own children for instance in teaching them that it is not everybody who should be called uncle or aunt. Although this is a cultural norm it can make our boys and girls unduly trusting, which is dangerous; and even when someone is their blood aunt or uncle, children should still be taught to recognise and report threats to their safety.
At Eve for Life, where we work to protect girls who have been sexually abused, their experience is often anything but stranger danger. By not giving our children the correct information we risk making them even more vulnerable from an early age.
‘Stranger danger’ warning misleading to children
We went into schools and did a survey of students in grades 7, 8 and 9. When asked ‘Who do you think is more likely to abuse a child and be perpetrators of sexual violence?’ most said strangers.
However, when we got to the older children, 13 to 14-year-olds and older, they thought of someone that you knew – family members. We found that very interesting and it shows the lower level of awareness among younger children to the threats they face. This makes them even more vulnerable when compared to the older children who are more knowledgeable, although unfortunately that is also a consequence of them having experienced abuse.
If there is abuse in the family, or if there is a relative who is an abuser, then children need to be aware. Meanwhile we as adults need to be aware that if are failing to make our children sufficiently aware to know who to trust and not to trust, then we have to be very careful when considering who we allow to be around our children.
We must make our children more away
It does not matter if they are related to us by blood, or if they are partners in our business, or if they are members of our church. We are saying that once an adult male or female crosses boundaries or demonstrates any behaviours towards our children that threatens abuse, then we should all want our children to understand that this is wrong.
What we are seeing is that a lot of people who harm children are people that they already know and have come to trust – and that is something that we need to address. Frankly, it is a red flag that as a society we are not having this conversation.
What is UNICEF doing?
UNICEF is proud to support Eve for Life as part of our work to end violence against children. The 2002 and 2008 Reproductive Health Surveys both found that 20 per cent of young women below 19 report that their first sexual encounter was forced. UNICEF will focus increasingly on advocating for increased measures for the prevention of sexual violence against girls. To strengthen the national response we are currently holding a series of consultations, including with victims, to produce a clear situation analysis, identify gaps and make recommendations for actions that need to be taken.