By Evie Andreou
THE multi-talented Matthew McVarish is in Cyprus this week urging victims of child sexual abuse to step forward and speak up.
Here to promote the ‘Stop the Silence’ campaign, the Scottish actor, playwright, musician and activist, a sexual abuse victim himself, arrived on Sunday and took him nine hours to walk 50km from Larnaca airport to Nicosia.
This was part of his ‘Road to Change’ worldwide initiative to raise awareness.
“I walked here from London as much as is physically possible, one continuous walk,” said McVarish, whose aim is to walk 16,000 km and visit 32 European capital cities. Cyprus is the twentieth stop in his 20-month journey which will be completed in February in Glasgow.
At a public meeting hosted by the British Council in Nicosia, McVarish, who is the European Ambassador of the Stop the Silence non-governmental organisation, said that he walks “to raise awareness about something nobody likes to talk about.”
He shared his personal experience to show that breaking the silence relieves the victims and helps other potential victims of the same perpetrator. In his childhood, McVarish said he and his three brothers were sexually abused by their uncle who was a teacher.
Six years ago they decided to speak up, not for revenge or compensation but for reasons of child protection, since their uncle was working with teenage boys. Within nine months the uncle was behind bars.
“Silence allows more and more victims to be created every day,” said McVarish who also urged victims in Cyprus to take advantage of the absence of a limitation on when they can report to the police and to come forward and say what happened to them.
McVarish said Cyprus was unique because along with the UK, victims are not restricted by a statute of limitations as opposed to the last 19 countries he visited where he addressed parliaments asking them to remove such limitations.
Antonis Stylianou, a lawyer and spokesperson of Hope for Children, said that in Cyprus there are very serious cases of sexual abuse and exploitation and that Hope for Children is a strong advocate for the ratification of the Lanzarote Convention, which Cyprus signed but not yet ratified.
Asked about the importance of the Convention he said that the legislation relevant to the protection of children and in particular the punishment of sexual offenders against children in Cyprus is outdated and that Lanzarote gives a powerful legal weapon to the government, to the prosecution authorities and to law enforcement to tackle and adequately address the issue of child sexual abuse.
“It is an all encompassing legal document and it creates a multi-disciplinary approach in addressing the issue of sexual violence from training school children, to training police personnel that handles cases of child sexual abuse, even judges. It also provides for the psychological support to sexual abuse victims,” said Stylianou who added that it is not just a matter of passing a law and that a lot of mechanisms need to be put in place making this a long process.
Sandra Hamruni, head of the British Council, who spoke on behalf of the British High Commission said that her organisation has a zero-tolerance risk rating for child protection and it adheres to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As of 2012 the British Council is a member of the “Keeping Children Safe” network and all staff complete a mandatory child protection basic awareness training.
McVarish who also had meetings with government officials, including the Ministry of Education and the Children Rights Commissioner, will leave on Saturday on his next stop to Malta.