By Evie Andreou
THE RECENT case of the alleged sexual exploitation of two underage girls by a Larnaca businessman and his friend has provoked widespread shock and anger, but it has also reinvigorated efforts to push through tougher legislation to protect minors from sexual abuse.
For child protection campaigners, this means the immediate ratification of the Lanzarote Convention, the Council of Europe’s convention which requires the criminalisation of all kinds of sexual offences against children.
Cyprus signed the convention in 2007, joining 46 other member states, but it has yet to ratify it, prompting an EU directive last December urging Cyprus to do so.
For George Theofanous, goodwill ambassador for the Hope For Children UNCRC Policy Centre (HFC) and for the Council of Europe’s One in Five campaign to stop sexual violence against children, legislative change in Cyprus is as urgent and crucial as a change in mentality.
“While Cyprus signed the convention in 2007, many of the crimes described in the convention cannot be constituted by the prosecution, under the existing national legislation,” said the campaigner and well-known composer. “It is the most comprehensive legal instrument for this subject matter, encompassing three pillars of action: prevention, protection and punishment. It is of paramount importance that the convention is ratified and incorporated in the national legal system.”
The relevant bill has been drafted and is expected to be presented to the House of Representatives as soon as it reconvenes after the Euro elections on May 25.
“The bill is a very important step which includes everything regarding child sexual abuse. It includes prevention, protection and persecution, a very comprehensive text,” said Stella Kyriakidou, MP and Council of Europe rapporteur on children, though she admitted that the bill should already have been passed as law.
“If it is ratified I hope that it will be properly implemented and the necessary infrastructure for its practical application is put in place,” said Theophanous, who argues that legislative change alone is not enough.
He explained that practicalities include a comprehensive and specialised service structure through which children will feel secure enough to talk about their experiences and receive the proper help.
“These services need to be offered in such a manner that avoids the repeated interviewing and storytelling of the scenario by the child so as to preclude their re-victimisation,” he said, adding that support must also be available to the alleged perpetrators as in many cases victims of sexual abuse can grow up to repeat the pattern.
He said the Cypriot mentality is starting to change since 2011 when the One in Five campaign – named after the ratio of children who fall victim to abuse – was launched in Cyprus by Hope for Children in close co-operation with the Council of Europe.
“In a small and, at times, conservative society like Cyprus, you do realise that discussing this issue has never been an easy task, but happily, we can now see the first indications of a changing mentality, both among the general public and the governmental institutions in charge,” said Theofanous.
He said that Hope for Children had spearheaded a series of educational activities and awareness raising events addressing all target groups involved: children, parents/carers, teachers and the general public.
The renewed and urgent push for legislative change could not have come at a better time for Scottish campaigner Matthew McVarish. Today, McVarish, the European ambassador of the non governmental organisation Stop the Silence, arrives in Cyprus as part of his Road to Change campaign to walk to all the EU capitals to raise awareness on child sexual abuse.
He will walk from Larnaca airport to Nicosia to meet with Hope for Children representatives before leaving on May 24.
McVarish, a child sexual abuse survivor himself, started his tour from London on May 2013 and has already travelled to 20 EU capitals. The route, a total of 16,000 kilometres, is due to end in Edinburgh on February 7, 2015.