Be a friend to your child. Balance discipline with abundant love and affection. If a child sees you to be unapproachable, he or she will keep things from you, secrets that can literally destroy your child. – Manny
Humanity harbours a deep, festering secret which is concealed in the dark underbelly of even our most prim and proper society. Every now and then, we encounter a news item about some adult who had penetrative sexual intercourse with a child, sometimes an infant, commonly a blood relative. Put together, the number of such reports fall short and are a gross under-representation of true magnitude of child molestation that occurs on a daily basis, under our noses.
First, we do away with some boring but very necessary definitions. According to the 1999 WHO Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention, “Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person.”
Plenty big grammar, but very sensible.
In Nigeria, it is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The true rate is unknown due to under-reporting and very likely higher on the whole, especially among males due to fears of being labeled homosexual and the social expectations of masculinity, among other reasons. Research shows that in South Africa, it is commoner among male children (60.9%) compared to females (43.7%) and equal for both genders in India.
Parents who come across these alarming statistics will understandably become scared that some stranger will abuse their kids, but years of solid research has proven otherwise. Over 30% of child molesters are their blood relatives (fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), and since they are more likely to be around the child for years, abuse tends to be chronic. About 60% of the molesters are people who are well-known to the child’s family, usually someone the parents trust. Abusers are commonly male and the trait ‘no dey show for face’. People who are outwardly “righteous” can abuse your child. In fact, it has been shown that they can be friendly, warm and charming, all of this a tactic to get unfettered access to children.
Abusers take their victims through a preparatory phase called grooming. Basically, it aims to isolate the child from peers and making him or her feel special. Children who are emotionally needy, are loners, have low self-esteem and lack parental supervision are common targets. The abuser then works in a calculated, warm manner to win the trust of the child or her caregivers, in a way that will not attract attention. Next, they identify and begin to fill the child’s needs. For example, a child who is not given attention by parents gets showered with attention. Eventually, they spend much time together and then the sexualisation of the child begins, sometimes gently, through pictures and creating situations where they and the child are naked.
So is the child molester a paedophile? Paedophiles are persons who prefer sexual contact with children to adults. This implies that a person who is not by definition a paedophile— i.e. who enjoys and prefers to have sexual activities with adults—can abuse children.
If you are a parent, I expect that you have become paranoid at this point, and I don’t blame you. It is especially difficult because molesters go to great lengths to conceal their deeds. People generally assume that child abuse will always leave some physical trace like genital bruises for example. Research has proven otherwise. Many cases of molestation don’t involve any physical harm and will not leave any physically detectable traces. Even though findings such as genital pain, discharge or bruising can help to establish abuse, their absence does not necessarily mean abuse did not happen.
Children mostly keep their abuse a secret or delay disclosure for a host of reasons. Many abusers take steps to ensure non-disclosure. Sometimes, threats such as “I will kill your mommy/daddy/sibling if you tell him/her” are used. The molester could shame the child and make them feel like he/she is responsible for the abuse. The abused child on his part is confused by the experience and may not know what to make of it. For these reasons and more, the abused delay disclosure or may even take it to their graves. About 30% of women who were abused in childhood never tell anyone. In males, the figure is as high as 85%.
Oya take Kleenex. You are welcome. Me don dey cry since.
It is estimated that less than 10% of cases get reported to the police. If you think that abusers are too quickly found guilty, even in the absence of evidence, you need to think again. The reverse has been shown to be the case. In reality, abusers are more likely to be thought innocent, even with good evidence. If fact, in some cases, the child is likely to be doubted, blamed or called a liar. Who knows, maybe children know instinctively what an unfriendly world they were born into. So they hide their wounds with lots of psychological and behavioural “make-up”.
Some suggest that children are prone to exaggeration and could even make up stories of sexual abuse. Now, for a moment, stop looking at this matter through the eyes of an adult. Rewind your years and think about it like a child. What sort of child would deliberately make up stories of sexual abuse? Research has consistently shown that the abused child is rather more likely to minimize or deny, rather than embellish their experiences. In a study, 28 children who showed laboratory evidence of sexually transmitted infections were interviewed by specialists, and only 12 (43%) gave verbal confirmation of their abuse.
If a child later denies that abuse happened, does this indicate they were lying in the first place? Again, research shows otherwise. Family pressure has been found to play a significant role in recantation. This is why children who are younger and more dependent, or are closely knit with their families are more likely to change or withdraw their abuse stories.
What are the possible effects of child molestation? Sexual transmitted infections including HIV, gynaecological disorders such as dysmenorrhea and dyspareunia later in life, depression, anxiety, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, somatization, low self-esteem, increased or inappropriate sexual behaviour, substance abuse, sleeping disorder, learning problems and a lot more. Some children, however, due to factors like individual resilience or other compensatory experiences, bounce back from abuse and go on to lead normal adult lives. Research shows that most children who were abused do not become abusers when they grow up.
What are the signs of abuse?
Before I go ahead, I must give a caveat. Remember, abuse, more often than not, leaves no easily observable traces. Some signs have more weight than others. Sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy obviously establish abuse. Other signs are inconclusive and may or may not indicate molestation, but it is important to watch out for and investigate them further. Unexplained genital injury, changes in gait, genital pain or discharge (watch out for stained underwear), anal complaints (fissure or bleeding) especially when recurrent, should be taken seriously. Non-physical signs such as sudden changes in behaviour including avoidance of a particular adult for no obvious reason, decline in school performance, clingy behaviour or irritability, sleep disturbances, problems at school, poor self-esteem, social problems etc. should be carefully looked into. Merely screaming at your child solves nothing.
The presence of what has been called “sexualized behaviour” can be a useful pointer. For example, a child could start pushing his tongue into his mother’s mouth when she kisses him. Some children fondle their own breasts or genitals or that of others, sometimes publicly. Rhythmic genital thrusting by a child should be investigated further. Take note, the majority of children who are abused do not exhibit these behaviours. Masturbation can be a normal age-appropriate behaviour in children as they discover their bodies. Most times, it is difficult to establish what is appropriate or not, for a child’s age. If the behaviour is done publicly, is recurrent, and is associated with some other behavioural or emotional change in the child, it should be carefully investigated. Shouting at the child and making a scene is not helpful. What is required is careful investigation and calm observation. Who knows, you may unearth something else that is not sexual but equally sinister or deserving attention and remediation. False accusations will distress everyone, especially the child.
Now let’s bring the message home. What can we do about child molestation?
Every adult should accept that they have a responsibility to keep all children safe. Parents and guardians, thank you for all you have done for the children, but you still have work to do. It is not enough to provide food, ensure physical health, buy clothes and pay school fees. Be a friend to your child. Balance discipline with abundant love and affection. If a child sees you to be unapproachable, he or she will keep things from you, secrets that can literally destroy your child. When your child breaks the silence and sometimes innocently gives you verbal hints of their molestation, you must stay calm. Screaming and beating the child to open up will make them recoil in fear. If you make the child feel like they did something wrong, they are likely to minimize their experiences or withdraw them completely. When interviewing your child about potential abuse, if you want to get the full picture, you MUST be calm and friendly. In fact, for very young children, act like it’s not too serious when interviewing them. Placing the child in the storm of accusations makes them more likely to withdraw their statement for peace sake. Children can be smart and intuitive like that. Protect your child from the storm that follows and keep their identities out of the public fora. They are the innocent ones in all the drama.
Parents, please teach your children about their bodies. Let me be very practical. For instance, when bathing your child (This is for mothers and fathers), in a playful but firm tone, make statements like, “Your pee-pee is a very special part of your body. You should take good care of it. Don’t allow anybody to touch your pee-pee oh! If anyone touches your pee-pee, promise to tell mummy, okay? Good boy!”
Yes, boys need to be taught this too.
It is our responsibility to protect our children from sexual predators. Shouting “God will punish them” is simply not enough. Individually, each adult should look out for and protect the children around them. Be observant. We also need to spread this message far and wide. The skeleton of child abuse needs to be thrown out of the closet.
Collectively, we must work to ensure that our enforcement agencies achieve and maintain a high standard of humane, thorough forensic investigation in child molestation cases, with stiff penalties for those found guilty. As a matter of urgency, we need a criminal justice system that is efficient.
Let’s do this for our children.
Written by Manny