|Child rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in Jamaica [Photo: Thomas Devenishek]
When a jury acquitted a Jamaican-born American pastor of carnal abuse charges in June, outraged islanders were forced to recognise that cultural norms seem to be promoting the sexual abuse of young girls.
Just over two years ago, in June 2009, Paul Lewis was arrested and charged with having sex with a 15-year-old girl - carnal abuse - and the indecent assault of her 14-year-old friend in his Negril hotel room.
Lewis' acquittal, despite the presence of DNA evidence, stunned many, including child advocate Betty Ann Blaine founder of Hear the Children's Cry, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the wellbeing of the nation's children.
According to Blaine, who is now campaigning for international help to address the problem, child rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in Jamaica, "with little or no public outcry".
Radio talk shows flooded with calls even as many Jamaicans speculated that the victims, and perhaps the jurors as well, had been "paid off" or bribed. It is a theory shared by the police, as Lewis is still to face charges for "perverting the course of justice". Given the high profile of the case, Blaine also questioned the competence of the public prosecutor.
"Over the last two years I have known of at least three cases of children under 12 years old in which the accused have walked free even when there was DNA evidence. One child was only six years old," Blaine said in an article criticising the verdict.
In many inner city areas, women are forced to "hand over" their adolescent daughters to local criminal leaders who use violence to control their communities. It is also not uncommon for families here to accept payment or be coerced into covering up sexual abuse of minors to prevent scandals or to avoid "shaming the family" members and friends.
Charles Black, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, spoke of several incidents in his small district in the eastern parish of St Thomas, where the carnal abuse of children as young as ten years old has gone unreported for decades because residents are unwilling to "send relatives to jail".
"There is an uproar when it happens, then everybody comes to quash it because it is mainly family here," he explained. He cited the recent examples of two teenaged girls - 13 and 15 years old – who were impregnated by older men in the small community.
According to official data, in 2004, teenaged girls accounted for 70 per cent of reported sexual assaults. In 2006, 78 per cent of sexual assault/rape cases admitted to hospital were children and adolescents. Girls under the age of 16 accounted for 32 per cent of all sexual assaults.
Amnesty International's 2006 report, "Sexual violence against women and girls in Jamaica: 'Just a little sex'", attributed the high rate of under-reporting to "entrenched discrimination" and the "trivialisation" of sexual violence by family and acquaintances as "just a little sex".
In fact, local police believe that carnal abuse - in which adults engage in sexual relationships with minors - is frequently covered up after monetary payments are made. And despite recent legislative reforms, officials say the problem is growing.
At a press conference in May to name the island's most wanted sexual offenders, the Jamaican constabulary reported an increase in the number of child rape cases.
The deputy superintendent of the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), Gloria Davis Simpson, told journalists that, since the start of 2011, sexual attacks on 11- to 15-year-olds had increased. There was also a spike in the number of attacks on very young boys, she said.
"Incest has become a worrying trend. Also, in the case of carnal abuse, teenage boys are now targeting children ten and younger," Davis Simpson said.
Davis Simpson said that offenders have also begun targeting young women and girls via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
The government has taken some steps to address the problem. A new Child Care Protection Act was passed, along with an alert system to help find missing children. The post of children's advocate was created, and a child abuse hotline launched.
The Ananda Alert, named for 11-year-old Ananda Dean who was kidnapped, raped and murdered while on the way home from school, allows police to circumvent the 48-hour waiting period required to report of missing children.
In addition, the police branch dedicated to the investigation of sexual crimes was overhauled and given special responsibility for children.
Activists say part of the problem is the lack of a sexual offenders registry, despite its inclusion in the 2009 revision of the Sexual Offences Bill.
Data from the Ministry of Health show sexual assault as the second most common cause of injury for women, accounting for five per cent of all injuries in hospitals. Some studies indicate that as many as a quarter of Jamaican girls are forced into sex at least once.
A March 2009 Guttmacher Institute report on teenage pregnancy and sexuality found that roughly half of pregnant teens between the ages of 15 to 17 years had been coerced into sex or raped. One-third of the interviewees said that their first sexual experience had been "persuaded or forced".
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington this year announced that CISOCA - the arm of the constabulary responsible for prosecuting sexual offences - and other state agencies would turn their attention to "strengthening the regulations" to provide tougher punishment for sexual offences.
But advocates remain concerned about apparent "leniency" in the judicial system towards sexual offenders.
Children's Advocate Mary Clarke says she believes that convictions for child rape will increase if the laws facilitate the submission of taped evidence of the children involved in such cases.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service news agency.