Catholic and other Christian and non-Christian religious groups launched an effort last Thursday to combat violence, especially sexual violence, against children in Peru.
They join interfaith groups in 12 other Latin American and Caribbean countries as part of the Global Network of Religions for Children, working to reduce violence through education in values, prayer and efforts to reduce poverty.
“Every day there is news in the media” about cases of physical and sexual abuse of children, “and there are still unheard stories that have not been addressed,” said Maryknoll Sister Esperanza Principio, a native of the Philippines who now works in Villa El Salvador, a sprawling, low-income district on the south side of Peru’s capital city.
Sister Principio participated in the global network in Panama, where she worked from 2005 to 2012. When she moved to Villa El Salvador last year, she realised that many women, including mothers and grandmothers, were still traumatised by sexual abuse they had suffered as children, often at the hands of relatives.
“They carry it with them all their lives,” she told reporters.
The Diocese of Lurin, where she works, has a pastoral ministry devoted to the defence of children and adolescents.
In workshops with families and in schools, and even in religious education classes, children and adolescents sometimes approach Church workers to talk about abuse they have suffered. The ministers refer cases to government authorities, said Mercedes Tiburcio, who co-ordinates that ministry at Cristo Salvador Parish in Villa El Salvador.
Studies show that physical punishment is widespread in Peru. A 2015 survey by the government Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations found that 73 per cent of children aged between nine and 11 and 80 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds had been victims of violence, and one-third of those in the older group had suffered sexual violence.
The study in Peru found that nearly one-third of adults believe it is good to use physical punishment, mainly because their own parents and grandparents did the same.
About two out of five adults believe that children who are not punished physically become lazy and disobedient. The same percentage sees no problem with corporal punishment as long as it does not result in visible injuries to the child.
Children apparently absorb those attitudes, as two out of five in that survey said they deserve physical punishment if they misbehave or fail to do their homework.
Sexual abuse is the most dangerous form of physical violence, and mobile phones and social media make it easier for predators to groom children for sexual abuse or trafficking, Ricardo Valdes, executive director of the nonprofit organisation Capital Humano y Social Alternativo, said at the launch of the Peru chapter of the global network.
The interfaith programme in Peru was launched just two days after a grand jury in Pennsylvania issued a blistering report on sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses.
The same day that report was issued in the United States, police in Chile searched the offices of the Chilean bishops’ conference, seeking documents related to sexual abuse charges that led all the country’s bishops to submit their resignations to Pope Francis.
“The issue of sexuality has been taboo in churches,” said Mercedes Roman, a former Maryknoll lay missioner who serves as adviser to the Global Network of Religion for Children in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Teaching children about sexuality “is the first step towards protection,” she said.
Studies show that breaking the cycle of physical and sexual violence that repeats from one generation to the next can reduce adolescent pregnancy rates and decrease health problems in adults. “It’s a challenge for us as faith communities,” Sister Principio said.
Photo: A child stands next to a sign reading “With the Children, No!” during a protest in early February against child abuse and violence in Lima, Peru.