Commentary: When children say they’ve been sexually abused, believe them
One might feel overwhelmed and confused when a child tells you he or she has been sexually abused but we need to create safe spaces for them, says one observer from AWARE.
SINGAPORE: When Tina* was sexually abused by her father, she was in primary school and had thought it was “normal” for fathers and daughters to be physically intimate.
“I remember feeling lost and scared. My mother is very proud of the family and I didn’t want to hurt her.”
I didn’t want to be the cause of breaking the family. I was also scared she would not believe me or blame me. I was scared my father would deny everything, then what could I do? I felt so stuck as a child.
The abuse went on for five years, and her feelings of guilt and complicity kept her quiet for a decade. The first time she spoke about her sexual abuse was at the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) last year.
Tina’s story is not unique. In the last two months, at least 13 reports on child sexual crimes appeared in local media.
While media coverage can shed light on the prevalence of sexual abuse among young people, we in turn need to break the taboo and start talking about child sexual abuse. Only when we talk about it can we understand the reality and gravity of such crimes, its impact on children, and how adults can sensitively support survivors.
After all, most cases, like Tina’s, don’t get formally reported; much fewer reach the courts and receive media attention. Countless survivors of child sexual abuse only recognise their experiences for what they are as adolescents or adults.
This raises an important question: Is our society doing enough to help our children comprehend - and receive support for - their experiences of sexual abuse?
PERPETRATORS USUALLY A FAMILY MEMBER, KNOWN TO VICTIMS
In 2017, SACC, the only specialised centre in Singapore serving sexual assault survivors, saw 515 cases of sexual violence. 20 per cent of those were survivors who experienced sexual abuse as a child.
The reality of child sexual abuse ought to be acknowledged beyond its common misconceptions. Many think of perpetrators as strange leering men in playgrounds or outside schools.
But in almost 90 per cent of the cases SACC received on sexual abuse suffered during childhood or adolescence, the perpetrator was a family member, or known to the survivor.
When children do speak out, many are disbelieved or have their experiences downplayed. Sentiments like “it was probably an accident”, or “it’s normal, he’s very touchy-feely” are often used to dismiss children.
Too many adults also default to the assumption that children and teenagers often lie about what happened to them, rather than recognise that abuse can happen anytime, and at the hands of anyone.
NEEDING TREMENDOUS COURAGE
It takes tremendous courage for any child to speak out against a perpetrator who not only wields significant power over them, but is also someone known, and often loved, by them and other people.
Another one of the child sexual abuse survivors that SACC saw last year, Lisa*, who was molested by a tuition teacher in her teenage years shared:
He was a really respected tuition teacher, known for getting students good exam results. People knew him as being kind and helpful. Who would believe the words of a teenager over a respected teacher?
This commonly-held suspicion about young people’s stories make it all the more easy for perpetrators to continue their abuse.
In some cases, the perpetrator may use the threat of harm or force to keep the survivor silent, others intentionally exploit a child’s emotional vulnerability and innocence to build trust.
In one recently reported case earlier this month, a perpetrator had given his 12-year-old victim gifts in exchange for sexual acts, and threatened to release nude photos of her if she broke things off with him.
Many survivors say the perpetrator “would praise me a lot”, “buy a lot of things for me”, and “spend a lot of time with me”.
This emotional power play may make a child feel confused about what is going on, particularly if the abuse occurs under the guise of friendship, concern or affection.
HELPLESS AND OVERWHELMED
Amid all this, it is normal for adults to feel overwhelmed or helpless when sexual abuse is brought to their attention. But all adults - including parents, older relatives and teachers - can responsibly and supportively offer opportunities for, and emotional support to children to talk to them in confidence about their experiences of abuse.
There are many ways to listen, show empathy, and seek help together with the survivor, for example, by allowing the child to finish speaking, and assuring them that they are listened to, not judged or blamed.
Children deserve to have their stories of sexual abuse taken seriously from the start. The damage when adults choose to instead question, judge or dismiss sexual abuse can be lasting.
Speaking to children from a young age about their bodies, respect for personal boundaries (both their own and others’), and letting them know that they can speak to you when these boundaries are encroached upon can go far in helping children identify signs of abuse early.
Child sexual abuse is traumatic for the survivor, and can be made worse if they are expected to be in close contact with the perpetrator.
Family members or loved ones of the survivors can tap on resources like family service centres, counselling centres or helplines to learn more about the options they have to protect the survivor and prevent further abuse.
Family members of survivors can also seek support to cope with their own emotions. One mother who sought support from SACC said:
Counselling gave me the space to share my emotions and come to terms with what had happened in my family.
Creating safe spaces for children to speak about sexual abuse requires effort and time, but it is urgent work that needs to be done to break the taboo of sexual violence.
Only when we believe children, can we create a world where their boundaries, agency and lives are truly respected, and ensure the road to recovery for young survivors is paved with support and compassion.
*Not their real names
Laika Jumabhoy is senior case manager at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre. The Sexual Assault Care Centre can be reached at 6779-0282 from Mondays to Fridays, 10am to midnight.