MANY children experience some kind of abuse when growing up and unfortunately, many do not report the abuse because they fear being harmed by the person who abuse them.
Children need to be taught how to avoid abuse and what to do when they are abused. We must let go of our unrealistic wish to protect our children from life’s hardships and cruelty and focus instead on strengthening their resilience.
Children develop resilience by being encouraged to recognize their abilities and inner resources.
An open discussion about sexual abuse should be encouraged. Children by nature are particularly vulnerable to all types of abuse because of their temporary helplessness and dependence on adults as well as lack of k nowledge about danger and self-protection. Note that in at least 80 per cent of cases, sex ual perpetrators are k nown to children.
They may be parents or step-parents, relatives, family friends or caregivers. Perpetrators carefully choose obedient, submissive and emotionally needy children with low self-esteem, who k now little about human sex uality and are passive and fearful. Contrary to a common misconception, perpetrators do not look lik e monsters: they are seemingly normal, pleasant and polite people.
They use grooming techniq ues on a targeted child and often on the child’s parents, so as to win their confidence, affection and acceptance. Do not force children to give hugs or k isses or sit on anyone’s lap.
Teach them that they are the only ones who are allowed to touch their sex ual body parts, except when a doctor or caregiver needs to examine them for a specific reason related to health or hygiene.
We should know that some of our freq uent messages to children may actually contribute to their victimization lik e “ adults are always right! A policeman will tak e you away if you don’t behave! Give your uncle a k iss!” Having good communication with children is of k ey importance. It implies openness, determination, straightforwardness and a friendly atmosphere.
Discussions with children about the prevention of sex ual abuse should follow the same logic as other safety messages; focus on safe behaviour and skills rather than on the risks.
Building up healthy selfesteem and encouraging children to respect and have empathy for others are essential and parents are important role models.
Healthy self-esteem can be developed in many ways and includes: Teaching them the importance of respecting others as individuals and to recognize diversity as something that makes everyone special; teach children to speak out about their needs and to reject unjustified and inappropriate proposals; encourage children to respect themselves and to expect respect from others.
To empower children to recognize and react effectively to potentially dangerous situations, the k ey concept is that everyone has the right to safety. Once children recognize this, the more readily they will understand the need to respond.
Children are entitled to a simple but blunt ex planation of the situations that could jeopardize this right.
Children should also be taught to pay attention to their body’s early warning signs of feeling threatened (butterflies in the stomach, increased heartbeat, weak k nees, etc.). A k ey reaction to potential danger should be to seek help from a trusted adult and must realize that they are not “ snitching” and that seek ing help is their right. There are many safety messages that can help children to more easily identify, prevent and stop abuse, for instance; “ Your body is your own.”
Teach children that their body is their own and that no one can touch it without permission. Establishing open and direct communication at a very early age about sexuality and “ private body parts”, using the correct names for genitals and other parts of the body, will help children understand what is and what is not allowed for adults in contact with them.
This will also help them recognize embarrassing or abusive behaviour. Teach children the difference between safe/appropriate and unsafe/inappropriate touching.
Tell children it is not ok ay if someone look s at or touches their private parts or ask s them to look at or touch someone’s private parts and that inappropriate touches are wrong and against the law.
If they are not sure whether someone else’s behaviour towards them is acceptable, make sure they k now to ask a trusted adult for help. Children should also be taught and trained to instantly and firmly say “ No” to inappropriate physical contacts, to get away from unsafe situations and to tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
Teach children also the difference between a bad secret and a good one (a surprise). Secrecy is a main tactic of sexual abusers. They ensure it in many ways, from bribes to serious threats.
Every secret that makes them anxious, uncomfortable, fearful or depressed is not good and should not be k ept but reported to a trustworthy adult. Teach children safety rules: instruct them never to get into a car with anyone they do not know, nor to accept gifts or invitations to someone’s home without their parent’s permission.
If a stranger proposes any of these, they must instantly get away and tell parents or a trusting adult. Children should also be aware of trick s that k idnappers freq uently use, such as telling a child that their parents have had an accident and that they will tak e them to the hospital. Self-defence skills and screaming are proven, useful tools that will discourage many perpetrators or those in fear of being caught. Empowering children to protect themselves and disclose abuse are the priority task s of responsible adults and there are no alternatives to these task s.
Understanding the risk s that children face and k nowing how to respond to them is essential to the protection of children from sexual abuse. Lets team up and create a safe environment for our children!
- Racheal Masibo, Assistant Lecturer at St John’s U niversity of Tanzania (SJU T)-School of Nursing, reachable via 07 1 7 5 1 35 9 8 or
- Email:rackelmasibo@ yahoo. com” rackelmasibo@ yahoo. com