A sociologist presents the exploitation of poverty in the sexual exploitation of adolescent girls*. This story was shared as part of the launch of Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas.
The most startling findings of our research, “The Stress Test: The Impact of the Pandemic on Domestic and Community Violence”, is the large scale of so-called consensual sex between girls aged 12 to 15, sometimes younger, with much older men in their thirties and up into their sixties. In these situations, girls are generally paid very little. But you find men portraying it as if they are helping the family, giving money to a girl in exchange for sex because he feels sorry for her. Utter rubbish.
Poverty is a big factor. Girls might engage in transactional sex because they are hungry or their family has needs. The girl becomes an income-generating asset for the family and is viewed as a commodity. Many families turn a blind eye to this sexual exploitation, some even encourage it, while the wider community generally sees nothing wrong with the situation.
Child sexual abuse is widespread, and in very poor communities it is generally accepted that a girl who is 12 or 13 and physically developed is ready for sex. There is no understanding of the emotional side of whether she is ready, and a huge lack of knowledge about the emotional and psychological damage that early sexualization can cause. There is also no concept that a minor is not legally capable of giving consent. Even though we have a law against sex with minors, the police turn a blind eye in most cases.
There is a lot of victim-blaming and a ridiculous focus on virginity – once you have lost it, you are viewed as damaged goods. Even when very young girls are sexually abused, just four or five years old, families will often try to hide things because of the stigma that is placed on the child.
If a rape case involves an adolescent girl, it is generally not treated as seriously by the police and courts as it would be if the victim was a woman or very young. Legally it is called “sexual assault”, not “rape”, which is very weak in my view. Judges generally give lesser sentences to offenders in cases when the victim is in her teens, and on occasion this has led to a big public outcry.
We need to educate the public and the police – especially the older, more senior ones – about the harmful impact of sexual abuse and early sexual behavior on girls as it’s not widely understood how it can cause low self-esteem, depression, and suicide ideation. Young police are trained with good values but then they enter into a police force that does not reflect those values. Everyone recognizes the police needs reform.
When rape is mentioned, people clam up and this is a big obstacle. There is a problem with individuals being turned upon if they report on others, and fear of retaliation from perpetrators and their families. It takes a lot of bravery on the part of the person who speaks out.
* Jennifer Jones is a sociologist in Jamaica and one of the authors of a recent study, The Stress Test: The Impact of the Pandemic on Domestic and Community Violence, which examined the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on lower-income communities in Jamaica. The study was conducted by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), with the support of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA).