CHENNAI: We read about it every day in the papers; we are disgusted by it; but what should we do about it? Unlike other crimes, it is estimated that only five per cent of child sex abuse cases are disclosed — and even the tip of the iceberg is disturbing. “The power dynamics of child sex abuse continue to act as a barrier to disclosure. The perpetrator always has more power and the child has to go against this power to disclose it. Children often believe that there will be shame, guilt or ‘something bad will happen’. In fact, most sexual abuse cases are disclosed only years after they occur,” says Dr Peter Choate, assistant professor, Child Studies and Social Work, Mount Royal University, Canada. He was in the city recently to present two workshops on child sexual abuse, organised by Tulir – centre for prevention and healing of child sexual abuse.
One of the workshops that Choate presented was on responding to institution-based abuse, something that is prevalent in Chennai’s institutions as well. According to a study titled ‘Doesn’t Every Child Count?’ by Tulir and Save the Children, in the city’s schools, 42% of those surveyed had faced sexual abuse in one form or the other. And it isn’t only girls — 48% of the boys surveyed had also faced abuse.
Choate says that for disclosure of child sexual abuse to become simpler, it’s important to discuss it. “We have to help children feel like it’s a conversation they can have. If we want children to talk about it more, we as adults have to be able to talk about it more,” he says. Another important aspect, he says, is ‘leakage’. “When you look at child abuse cases, typically there were people who noticed it and worried about it.” After a case comes to light, he says, when one backtracks, the early indicators are there, but no one acts on these. In the Spotlight case for instance, there were a number of people who were aware of the abuse in the Church much before The Boston Globe picked up the case for investigative reporting.
With the internet, smartphones and social media entering children’s lives earlier than before, it is also important for parents to watch the e-space. According to a recent report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), about 3,000 child sex offences in England and Wales last year involved the internet in some way. “There’s no reason why a child should have unsupervised access to the internet for a bunch of reasons, including inappropriate usage of social media,” stresses Choate.
But the good news is that every time we help children recover from abuse, we help them become a healthy adult with healthy relationships, says Choate.