Child Sexual Abuse As A Public Health Issue

By Roslyn A Douglas, MA
Founder of Central Health-Grenada

On Friday 9 May 2014, a panel discussion on the topic “Talking About It: Child Sexual Abuse As A Public Health Issue,” was held at the Brooks–Smith–Lowe Institute. The purpose of the discussion was to merge the correlation between child sexual abuse and its impact on public health as it relates to the rise in chronic non-communicable diseases, psychoneuroimmunological irregularities and psychological impact. 

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The panel, seen in order of appearance in the photo, consisted of St. George’s University’s (SGU) Inaugural Dame Hilda Bynoe Writer–in–Residence, Lisa Allen–Agostini; Fatima Friday, MEd, a St. George’s University Public Health Lecturer with a special interest in psychoneuroimmunology; Dr. Kecia Lowe, Board Certified Internist and Pediatrician who was recently inducted into the American College of Medicine as a Fellow; and Malaika Brooks–Smith–Lowe, Founder and Co-Director of Groundation Grenada who served as moderator for the panel discussion and also organized the event.

SGU’s Writer in Residence Allen–Agostini a journalist from Trinidad and Tobago read an excerpt from her work in progress book, which details the journey of a young girl who became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. The pages Allen–Agostini read from graphically detailed the hostile home which the child lived in with her mother. The rapist was visiting.

The excerpt described a gut wrenching account of a physical and verbal abuse attack endured by the child from her rough and heavy handed mother. The reason for the beating appeared inconsequential. It then moved to the first gruesome sexual attack, which occurred after the child’s mother left the house shortly after the excessive beating. A beating that was cut short after pleads of mercy from the visiting uncle. This particular uncle was the child’s mother’s brother.

Allen–Agostini’s continued to walk the listeners through the manipulative process of the perpetrator.Through her storytelling she showed how the little girl’s uncle used a counter strategy of gentleness and comforting voice tones to sooth the distraught child. After gaining more and more trust with his apparent friendliness and gentle touches, he slowing and calculatingly began threatening her into submission. After the horrific sexual attack the writer revealed the child’s dichotomy. The child never told her mother of the attack because she was deathly afraid of the physical consequences, to the point it did not occur to her to say anything, while at the same time was intimidated and petrified of her uncle. The snippet of Allen-Agostini’s work also revealed that the child’s mother noticed the bruises after returning from shopping, but casted a blind eye. She instead gave her daughter a doll, a gift from the uncle who earlier forcefully covered her mouth to muffle her screams.

After the reading, the program then shifted into a vibrant discussion about how society tends to ignore the ramifications and repercussions of sexual abuse on an individual and its impact on public health in terms of rises in illnesses. Panelist – Dr. Lowe, listed out some of the unhealthy coping behaviors individuals who suffered this trauma tend to participate in, “Cigarette smoking, obesity, inactivity, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, [and] sexual promiscuity.” Dr. Lowe went on to say, “These people have a higher risk of diabetes, liver disease, cancers, and stroke and general poor health in adulthood. And that alone can tell you it is definitely a public health issue because these people manifest these chronic non-communicable diseases at higher rates. And this adversely affects all societies.”

Allen-Agostini who stated that many of her past journalistic articles focused on children and gender issues, introduced the audience to a campaign called, “Break the Silence”. This initiative is a multi-pronged approach to protect children against sexual abuse. One of its aims is to reach victims and their families with a message to speak out and denounce sexual violence against children. The initiative seeks to engage and encourage influential groups and members of society such as policy makers, health workers, and police authorities to create and/or improve support and care for victims. According to the World Health Organization, “Globally, at least 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 years had experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence involving physical contact. In several Caribbean countries the first sexual experience of young girls is often, forced; studies have shown that this was the case for 42.8% of girls below age 12.”

From a psychoneuroimmunological perspective, a field of study that examines the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body, panelist Fatima Friday stated that trauma occurring at a young age can have adverse effects on the developmental process of the human brain causing overdevelopment of the area of the brain that analyzes stress and fear. This can lead to post-traumatic stress. However, Ms. Friday views child sexual abuse more broadly, “It’s not just a public health issue, it’s an issue of humanity.” She went on to say, “ You can look at your mother’s life, your father’s life to see different connectivity points and ask — how has the way I have been trained by my parents, by my siblings affect the way I treat myself and treat others. Because that is public health. How we engage with each other, how we interact is public health as well.”

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