#Article (Archive)

Child Sexual Abuse

Nov 28, 2008, 4:07 AM | Article By: Njundu Drammeh


Mark Twain has advised us to concentrate on the future, because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. A cursory look at the newspapers in recent times show captions such as '5 rape cases land before Mbake,, 'Defilement Case Heard,' '8year old raped,' 'Paedophile, Accomplice Charged,' 'Attempted Rapist Charged,' 'Oustass Dragged to Court for Attempted Rape,' and 'Man in Court for Rape.' Reading these chilling stories or looking into the crystal ball, it does not take a researcher or investigative journalist to predict that sexual abuse and exploitation of children is a growing problem in our country. The abusers of the children are people they are related with, know and trust, or are adults in positions of authority, power and trust over the children. They are rarely strangers to the children or their families. Mark Twain is right. We must focus on the future if we are to improve it. Unfortunately, to put it paradoxica1ly, the future is not what it used to be. The fence is eating up the very crops it has been erected to protect.

No child is safe anywhere. Sexual abuse is a crime which is usually committed in secret and may continue for many months or years and the abuse occurs in places normally considered safe for children: homes, schools, places for leisure activities and within every neighbourhood, class, tribe and religious background. Perpetrators use threats, cheating, bribery, manipulation, coercion or force to commit these crimes as well as make the children 'silent'. We need to take immediate steps to halt this most cruel and tragic occurence and a serious infringement of the child's rights to protection, health and education.

The dynamics around child sexual abuse make it go unnoticed and grossly under-reported. It is surrounded by a culture of silence and stigma, especially when it occurs within the sanctuary of the home. The child, whether a victim or not, is perceived as an insignificant minor with fewer rights that the adult perpetrator. If the perpetrator is a family member, then there is a strong element of denial and guilt. In such a scenario, the whole family acts like the proverbial ostrich and deny the incidence. Preserving or protecting the 'good' name and honour of the family becomes the number one priority of adults. It is evident that when the family or clan places higher premium on its collective interest vis-à-vis the child victim, it is the powerful that is protected by the group rather than the weak. When the perpetrator is a powerful member of the community, there are major challenges for effective prevention, reporting, care and management. The child victim is often sacrificed to protect the honour of the group (family, clan, community, religious group, school, etc) and the character of the abuser. Where the child victim asks us to share the burden of pain and to take action on his or her behalf, the perpetrator appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The perpetrator wins and we all take a 'neutral stand'. By protecting the abuser, no change is required.

Often times when a child is sexually, society and the people closer to the child tend to blame the child victim for' bringing the abuse onto herself or himself. 'Why didn't you shout? Why didn't you tell me? Why did you take the gift from him? Why did you follow him?' are some of the blaming questions we put to the child victim. Whether the child shouts or not, tells an adult or not, takes the gift or not, the blame should squarely lie on the head of the abuser, not the child. It is important to know that child sex abusers and

Paedophiles "prime their victims over time through a process known as grooming which has a dual purpose of securing the cooperation of the victim and reducing the risk of discovery or disclosure." The abuser not only capitalises on the vulnerability of the child but also builds a relationship with the child which creates dependency on and trust in the adult who appears to be giving and kind. This ensures both the child's silence and the family's inaction or disbelief should the child divulge information pertaining to the abuse. Fearing blame and hostility, the child is afraid to speak openly with their parents and persons in positions of authority about inappropriate conduct or sexual abuse. .

Our social and traditional considerations notwithstanding, we should know that sexual abuse is a traumatic experience that violates the integrity of a child's psychological and physical person. What accompanies the trauma is a feeling of helplessness, and of intense fear and horror. Children who are sexually abused are not only vulnerable to re-abuse but also feel trapped and can neither flee (where would they go?) nor fight back against the much older person. J.L Herman in his book 'TRAUMA AND RECOVERY' puts the effects of sexual abuse on a child in these chilling words: "Repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with the formidable task of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself, she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses." When a child or adolescent is sexually abused, her sense of self and world shifts. He or she sees her/himself as 'bad', 'dirty', 'unwanted' and broken. He or she views or see people important to her as untrustworthy, unreliable, dishonest and incapable of protecting vulnerable ones. The abuse-related internalizations now form part of that child's internal working model, the base from which behaviour develops and the filter through which future events are experienced.

Parents need to intensify the dialogue and interaction between them and their children Protection of the individual child is boosted by an immediate social environment, which is caring, supportive and offers good role model. A child's "connectedness" to a caring adult is a significant protective factor. Children whose parents or carers do not show love or cannot protect them have lost their first line of defense. We must empower children and adolescents with information, knowledge and life skills to be able to protect themselves from sexual abuse, exploitation and violence. The laws against sexual abuse of children must be rigorously enforced. We need to report cases of sexual abuse against children as soon as we know them and trust that the reporting procedures, mechanisms and referral systems will facilitate such a process. Only when we report will we successfully break the culture and conspiracy of silence around child sexual abuse. Linkages between and among agencies and professionals working to assist sexually abused children as well as support services need to be strengthened. Respect for the rights of the child to adequate protection within and outside the family must be the basis for our common action against child sexual abuse. But above all, we must remember the words of General Wellington to his soldiers at the battle of Waterloo: 'Forward all over the line'. Families, the media, communities, NGOs, CBOs, UN Agencies, Government agencies and the private sector must all come together, cooperate, support and co-ordinate their efforts 'all over the line' to prevent the sexual abuse of children and build a protective environment for them.

When child sexual abuse is understood less as the behaviour of deviant offenders and in stead as an extreme extension of the dynamics of gender and sexuality, child-adult relationships, family systems and community tolerance for violence, then prevention may be possible. When we accept that child sexual abuse is "around" and perpetrated in particular by Gambians; when we begin to "speak out and speak up" against child sexual abuse; when we begin to see child sexual abuse less as an aberration and more as an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust; when we begin to have the courage of our conviction to condemn and denounce perpetrators and identify more with the victim; when we begin to report cases of sexual abuse against children and support the police in ensuring successful prosecution of offenders, then we will be creating for our children a protective, safe and warm environment. The children only need the support of few committed men and women to change the course of things. His Excellency, the President of the Republic has given a stern warning to rapists and paedophiles. The message is clear: adults must 'shape up' (no sexual abuse of children) or they will be 'shipped out' to prison. Our children are our present and our future. If we do not protect our children now, when will we protect them? If we do not protect our children here, where will we protect them? If it is not the families, communities and adults who should protect children, then who else would? If we cannot join the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation, why shouldn't we?