Sexual abuse of children has no geographical borders, ethnicity, colour or social status. It occurs in the best of homes and organizations, and in urban or rural villages. It robs a child of its dignity, self-respect, spirit and crushes its developmental growth like a rose bud before it blooms.
Child abuse occurs frequently in US and Europe. In the UK, 23,000 incidents were reported by the police during 2009-2010. In the US, it varies widely. The US Department of Health and Human Services reported 83,600 substantiated reports of sexually abused children in 2005.
In India, where 19 per cent of the world’s children live, constituting 42 per cent of India’s total population, A Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that, of its sample of 12,447 children, 2,324 young adults and 2,449 of stakeholders across 13 states, 53.22 per cent of children faced sexual abuse. Among them 52.94 per cent were boys and 47.06 per cent girls. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest percentage of sexual abuse among both boys and girls and the highest incidence of sexual assaults.
In Africa, a ten-country-school based study in southern Africa in 2007 found 19.6 per cent of female students and 21.1 per cent of male students aged 11-16 years had experienced forced or coerced sex. The irony of the situation here is that the prevalence of child abuse is compounded by virgin cleansing myth that sexual intercourse with a virgin will cure a man of HIV or AIDS. This myth prevalent in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria as well is responsible for the high rate of sexual abuse against young children in those countries.
South Africa has the highest incidence of child and baby rape in the world. More than 67,000 cases of rape and sexual assaults against children were reported in 2000 in South Africa compared to 37,500 in 1998.
Sri Lanka is no exception though the numbers are not that high or invasive. In 2007, there were 3,548 serious offences compared to 4,480 cases in 2011.
This rise is contributed to the fact that the media is now focusing more on child abuse than ever before; the 30-year old civil war, which ended four years ago, made children in the affected regions vulnerable to child abuse in the absence of one or both parents or the dislocation of families; married women going overseas, especially to the Arab countries, for work as domestic helpers, leaving children without adequate safety and protection; parents and relatives are now reporting suspected cases of child abuse to the police; public awareness of the incidence of child abuse and the seriousness of the problem due to wider publicity through the media, showing that it is almost another common crime in the society, removing the veil of secrecy which used to shroud the problem.
The government has taken action to reduce the incidence of child abuse by establishing 36 protection bureaus for women and children in police stations across the country; Special Courts in suburban Colombo and Jaffna to fast-track abuse cases; to overhaul the criminal procedures introduced about three decades ago, and the out-dated law relating to witness evidence.
It is also equally essential to introduce legislation to protect the rights of the victims such as taking them to courts in unmarked vans instead of prison vans manned by the uniformed prison staff; establishing child-friendly court procedures and Children’s Courts in areas where the incidence of child abuse is very high; employing fully trained social workers to work with the children and provide them with emotional support at court hearings; and speeding up cases by cutting the long stays of children in welfare institutions and women’s shelters.
The government, parents and welfare agencies involved in the care and protection of children need to concentrate on efforts to protect the children. We should not put this responsibility on children to look after them. A child’s safety is in the hands of adults who should exercise adequate care for his or her safety.
The parents and other significant members of the family need to understand that child sexual abuse rarely comes from strangers but from the older family members, relatives and close friends. The predators may be older children and baby-sitters. It is, therefore, necessary that if the child is not within the sight of parents, one of them should drop in at intervals without notice to ensure that the child is safe. If the child is away on a picnic or goes to a shopping centre or a park or a play ground with an adult, the parents should ensure that he or she is observable.
Incest is more common today in households in the absence of the mother or the father over long periods. It is essential that precautionary measures should be taken to keep such acts in check before the mother or the father leaves home.
Children often keep abuse a secret mainly due to manipulations by the predator such as threats or even showering the child with gifts, chocolates and other sweets, to win them over. Parents should maintain a good line of friendly communication with the child and that will reduce his or her vulnerability to abuse and create a situation where he or she will not hesitate to confide to them instances of abuse. It is necessary to understand why children are afraid to tell. Knowing how to listen is also essential for parents without responding emotionally or negatively. They need to stay calm and gently encourage the child to keep talking.
If parents suspect that the child has been sexually abused, it is their duty to report such cases to the police or the agencies dealing with child protection as it will not only save your child but other children as well, as predators have multiple victims.
It is also equally essential for parents to monitor for signs of sexual abuse such as withdrawal, depression, anxiety, fear, anger or outbursts, behaviour that is too good, and expressed or shown fear against a person and the child’s unwillingness to be with that person.
Physical signs of child abuse are also present though they are not so marked as emotional or behavioural signs. Chronic headaches, stomach pains, urinary tract infections, genital or anal redness, rashes or swellings would come under this category.
Parents should make an effort to get involved with child protection agencies, public or private, and in their programs and support them voluntarily by providing them with parents’ time and resources wherever possible.
By Dr. Mathu H. Liyanage - The Island