The subject of sexual abuse, let alone child sexual abuse, has always been a difficult one to discuss in the society. It is far more prevalent than most people would like to accept. It is an epidemic, which most would like to think happens in some other neighbourhood, to some other family, to some other child. While it may seem easier to find it innocuous, child sexual abuse happens everywhere. It knows no barriers – not race, community, nor religion. It’s happened in your neighbourhood. It’s happened to someone you know. I’ve seen it first-hand, and it’s not a pleasing sight, believe you me.
Every six minutes a child is sexually abused. Two hundred and forty children. Everyday. Nearly five children die each day as a result of abuse or neglect. About 1 in every 10 children is sexually victimized before their 18th birthday. Approximately 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 25 boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. Sixteen out of one thousand children between the ages of 12 to 17 are victims of rape or sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to, acts such as: fondling, rape, oral-genital contact, penetration, exhibition of genitals and/or exposure to pornography to a child below 18 years of age. As much as most cases are related to the aforementioned, sexual abuse to children may also happen virtually through the internet. Roughly 1 in 7 youth internet users receive unwanted sexual solicitations. Mostly this takes place in online chat rooms, regardless of how innocent the chat rooms are.
In most cases, children are victimized by people that they either know closely, or had once been a part of their lives. An estimated 60% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known by the victims e.g family members, babysitters, neighbours etc. Around 30% of the abusers are family members and nearly 10% are total strangers to the child. However, not all offenders are adults; an estimated 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18.
About 80,000 cases of child sexual abuse are reported annually, but the most unnerving fact is the number of cases that go unreported. Disclosure about the abuse is often delayed; children mostly avoid revealing the abuse for fear of a negative reaction from parents or any adult, or being harmed by the abuser. Offenders tend to threaten their victims into silence, or even buy their silence. However children also hide their abuse for various reasons regarding themselves. Most often than not, they fear the consequence of their disclosure. They may worry about getting in trouble ( with the person they tell, or the abuser) or getting the abuser in trouble. The child might also be fearing the adult’s reaction; that they may get angry, shocked or frightened.
They may also be feeling guilty or feel they are to blame for the abuse. Such victims usually feel they did something to deserve the abuse. As a result, the details of what is happening to them makes them feel too embarrassed to talk about it, that they end up keeping quiet. Such victims should be assured that they did nothing to solicit the abuse. They should be comforted and supported most especially during their disclosure.
Additionally, the victim may think the abuse is normal as they love their abuser. This might the case where someone they love, trust and know – a friend or family member – abuses them. The offender may make them believe that it’s normal and thus they , the victim, feel no need to disclose the incident. Parents should make it known to their children that any act regarding their, or any other person’s genitals, is unacceptable. They should also provide a conducive and loving environment where their kids can report any sort of sexual abuse.
It takes a lot of courage for the victim to go up to the adult and divulge the abuse. So it is understandable that they keep mum about the offense for fear that the adult does not believe them. At times, the offender is an influential member of the family, or a good neighbour , hence the making it seem hard for the adult to believe the child. Or the perpetrator may just claim the child is making up stories. Therefore, the child would rather stay silent than risk getting humiliated, ignored or dismissed. Therefore, adults should always listen to a child and believe them when being told about a sexual abuse. No child can just, out of the blue, weave tales about such an act.
In cases of younger children, or those with a disability, they do not disclose their abuse because they are unable to describe what is happening to them, let alone understand. At any age, children are vulnerable to abuse, but more so if they cannot cannot recognise it. Hence such children should always be under constant supervision, all the more during baths and when changing cloths.
There are various reasons as to why a child may fail to report their abuse but the aforementioned are considered the main ones.
Children who have or are undergoing sexual abuse tend to depict certain traits different from those not being abused. Victims of sexual abuse often have a hard time focusing, be it at home or in school. This is because their mind replays the abuse over and over and at times, it is the abusers threats that are running around in their mind.
They may also have trouble sleeping due to nightmares or fear of the abuser getting to them. This is because most abusers tend to hit at night, when the child is asleep.
Victims of sexual abuse tend to fall out with their group of friends. They may become withdrawn for fear of humiliation from their peers. Some, in a way of coping with the abuse, may begin associating themselves with the wrong crowd. They may indulge in drugs and substance abuse so as to escape from the reality of the abuse.
In the case of incestuous abuse, or by a close friend, the victim often avoids being alone with a certain family member or friend. They would find any excuse so as to keep away from them. They may even refuse to socialise with them for fear of futher sexual abuse. This should be a tell-tale sign to the parents.
The most prominent sign is pregnancy and/or STIs. Finding pregnancy tests in a child’s bedroom or toilet should ring warning bells to the parent, especially if the child is underage. This may an indication of sexual abuse. Furthermore, unusual discharges and vaginal or anal soreness should be a cause for alarm in a parent. This may indicate STIs and even more, sexual abuse.
Other signs include: use of sexual language inappropriate for their age, knowledge of sexual information not expected at their age, aggressiveness, trauma, depression or anxiety, evidence of self-harming and so many others.
However, it should be known that not all children undergoing sexual abuse, would show signs; accordingly, parents or any other guardian should always be on the lookout for their children. They should maintain their ongoing relationship with the child and give them support if the child reports any abuse.
Teenagers need to build strong relationships with their parents and trust them such that when an abuse occurs, they can freely report it. They should never go to lonely places such as alleys alone. Always have company wherever you go. They also should not encourage sexual comments from anyone, no matter how trivial, regarding their body. Immediately tell them that you do appreciate their remarks and report the commenter to your parents.
As for parents, teachers, and guardians, they should always pay attention to younger children for they are the most vulnerable. They should also teach children to identify support groups, with people they trust, from which they can get help in case of sexual abuse. Children should be taught ‘innocent’ and ‘sexual’ touches so that they may recognise sexual abuse. Most importantly, parents should never shy away from the topic of sex and sexual abuse. They should make their children aware of sexual abuse and how to deal with it.
It is high time the secrecy and shaming of child sexual abuse has ended. It is due season that we no longer sweep it under the rug. Let us talk openly about it and help those of us who have undergone this torture.