“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
This quotation, often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, is well worth considering as the Virgin Islands observes its 20th Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.
During the coming weeks, the community should ask itself if it has done enough during the past two decades to protect its children.
Unfortunately, we fear that the answer is no.
Child abuse is still much too common here despite an increasing awareness of the issue. Indeed, this month’s observance comes a few weeks after a father was sentenced to 27 years in prison for repeatedly having unprotected sex with his 15-year-old daughter. This act was despicable, and we wish we could say with certainty it was an isolated case.
But we can’t. A glance at the weekly arrest blotter or the court docket shows that children in this territory are frequently sexually abused by relatives, family friends, and even strangers who routinely cruise past the territory’s schools in search of conquests.
And sexual abuse is only part of the picture. Cases of physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect are also too prevalent here.
Often, such abuse flourishes because adults turn a blind eye, choosing to believe that it is a private family problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, child abuse is everyone’s problem, and it must be treated as such.
To fight back, education is essential. Parents, teachers and all other adults must learn how to properly treat children, and they must understand when discipline crosses the line into abuse.
In this regard, this month’s observance is a step in the right direction.
The justice system — which was long too lenient on offenders — is also catching up, with police, prosecutors and judges recognising the seriousness of abuse offences and often handing out stiff sentences like the one last month.
But more work clearly needs to be done in a territory where it is still common to hear residents justifying or downplaying serious abuse.
Besides more education year-round, the territory’s child protection services need to be better funded and improved to ensure that victims aren’t neglected by the very agencies that are supposed to be assisting them.
Additionally, the government should consider programmes to provide better support for parents, such as affordable childcare, improved early childhood education, and parenting classes.
We hope all of these solutions and more will be considered this month.
Ultimately, preventing child abuse will require a change of thinking at all levels of this community. Even one case is too many.