The terms “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault” are used interchangeably. In simple terms they both are same except the term assault is more used in the legal perspective. Sexual abuse can be experienced by children, women and men. Anecdotally, sexual abuse has been in practice for many years but only in the last decade or two it has gained visibility and discussion in the public domain. The adult survivors of child sexual abuse are the ones who had the courage to come out and talk about their experience of sexual abuse and the impact of it. Media along with the adult survivors of child sexual abuse made the society to seriously look into the issue of child sexual abuse. Hats off to these adult survivors of child sexual abuse!
Children who experience sexual abuse may show physical signs or changes in behaviour. In many Western countries, if anyone (especially healthcare professionals) suspect sexual abuse or have been told about it by a child, it is required by law that they must report it. But, that is not the case in India and many developing countries. Many case of child sexual abuse goes un-reported and suppressed due to fear. I heard a situation shared with me by my colleague where a lady went to the police station to report her husband is sexually abusing their own daughter. The police took note of it and advised that they are willing to arrest the complainant’s husband but what will they do for income (the victim is the sole bread winner of the family). Fearing the consequences of arrest, the lady left the police station without making a complaint. If there has to be good social support networks or if the family was not dependant on single income, then the man could have been put behind the bars. In recent times, more and more awareness is created on child sexual abuse and social support networks are also being created. Whatever support mechanism and legal help is available, it is the courage and comfort of the child to speak out and responsibility of the parents to create an environment for the child to talk to them about the abuse are the two most important factors in effectively addressing child sexual abuse issue. Educating children to freely talk about any incidents which made them feel uncomfortable, irrespective of who is the predator, is of paramount importance.
Five key points that all parents should know –
1) Children were usually abused by someone they knew.
2) The abuse often started when children were very young.
3) The abuse was generally not an isolated one-off incident and happened over many months or years.
4) The abuse was often accompanied by threats and verbal or emotional abuse, and sometimes physical violence.
5) Fear stops sexually abused children from speaking out and seeking help
Many misunderstandings surround the sexual abuse of girls and boys and they have been busted by research. Some of the busted myths are child sexual abuse is harmless’, ‘children fantasise and lie about sexual abuse’,’boys who have been abused, grow up to become abusers’, ‘boys will become homosexual because of the abuse’, ‘it’s only dirty old men or homosexual men who abuse’.
Warning signs of child sexual abuse could be either physical or behavioural –
Physical: bleeding/discharge from vagina or anus
Behavioural: unexplained stress, depression, social withdrawal, self-harming, school absenteeism (if the predator is in the school), etc. It is hard to list every single state of mind and behaviour of children dealing with sexual abuse. It varies from person to person. But the general rule of thumb is if you (as parents or teachers or doctors), find any unusual/unexplained sign in your child/student/patient please be reminded of the possibility of sexual abuse and take appropriate actions to rule out/rule in.
What to do?
Ask the child to talk through what they are undergoing. You MUST stay calm and have patience to get the full picture. Make sure not to show any extreme reactions as this could stop the child from discussing further. Allow them to feed in details in small portions. Throughout, all you have to demonstrate is that you are there for him/her to support and get the necessary help. Acknowledge what they are saying and comfort them as much as possible. If the predator is a third person, share what the child told you with your partner and take actions collectively. If the predator is one of the parents/grandparents, then the situation is even more difficult and you must seek help from professionals. It is important not to neglect the whole issue after listening to the child.