Featured Illustration: Arianna Vairo
“Whilst child abuse may be committed behind closed doors, it should never be swept under the carpet.” -Constance Briscoe
On September 1, 2020, when I was scrolling through my Instagram, I saw a video. In the video, a boy was pleading for justice for his 12-year-old cousin Zain Qureshi, who was shot in the back when he resisted three people who were trying to rape him in Multan, Pakistan. This was heartbreaking for me and I am sure it was for you, too. But let’s just be honest — it was not the first time we watched something like that. Was it?
We are well-informed about all the bizarre stories of child sexual abuse in our country. We have heard about the 8-year-old Muhammad Faizan whose body was found in a deserted area two miles from his house. The autopsy revealed that Faizan was raped before killed. In another case, a six-year-old Zainab Amin went missing and after five days, the girl’s body was recovered from a heap of trash. There are common stories too that we hear from the people around us, as I learned about a relative recently who was sexually abused by her uncle in her childhood until her mother found out and told her uncle to stay away.
Child Sexual Abuse: Understand and Identify
“I know it’s uncomfortable. I can see people making these faces but you guys are responsible for what has happened to me because of your taboo, because of the fact that you don’t speak about sex. I tried telling my mother but she said this happens only with girls. Stay away from your uncle.” -Harish Iyer, TED Talk: A survivor of male child sexual abuse
When a child discloses sexual abuse, the families or caregivers may fail to understand how it can occur without their knowledge. Understanding and identifying child sexual abuse are crucial to put a stop to it. The most widely accepted definition of “child abuse” is the involvement of children in sexual activities which they cannot fully comprehend, as they are immature and unprepared for that. It is important to note that sexual abuse does not necessarily mean physical contact. It also occurs without physical contact, which includes the passing of sexual comments, verbal sexual abuse, exhibitionism, masturbation, pornography, and voyeurism. It happens to children of every class, culture, race, religion, and gender. Children are abused by fathers, stepfathers, uncles, brothers, grandparents, neighbors, family friends, babysitters, teachers, strangers, and sometimes by aunts and mothers too. That being the case, children are being sexually abused to a greater extent than we realize.
According to Sahil’s 2019 report, eight children were sexually abused every day in Pakistan. Of course, the true number of abused children is far higher, owing to the fact that most cases are never reported. Although the government has maintained that all efforts are being made to ensure that no child is abused across the country, there has been little or no improvement. Every other day, we see hashtags pleading for justice and every year, the number grows larger. Why? How does the abuse live on? What causes the tragedy of child sexual abuse? And perhaps the most important of all questions — is this happening because we as a society have been negligent in protecting our children?
Negligence: How Abuse Lives On
Most children won’t tell anyone what has happened, or what is happening to them, due to three reasons. First, abusers use threats to guarantee silence. Among the most common are: If you tell, I’ll kill you; If you tell, I’ll beat you up; If you tell, mommy will get sick; If you tell, people will think you are crazy; If you tell, nobody’s going to believe you; If you tell, mommy will get mad at both of us; If you tell, they will send me to jail and there won’t be anyone to support the family.
The children are afraid of speaking up because they believe that they will hurt themselves or their families by disclosing the abuse. Second, when children talk about their abuse, under ideal circumstances, they should be ensured that the abuse wasn’t their fault. They should be given age-appropriate counseling and should be placed in a support group with other children. If the abuser was a family member, he or she should be the one sent away, not the children. Unfortunately, this is not the response children get from the people around them. More likely, they are threatened, ridiculed, blamed, or called liars. As a result, the sexual abuse of children and the shame that results, thrive in an atmosphere of silence. Third, it still remains a taboo within families and our communities. As a consequence, victims are afraid to come forward for fear of being blamed for the abuse.
Aftermath of Child Sexual Abuse: Trauma
“I have been suicidal many, many times, and have been serious about it, but there is something in me that doesn’t want to die. I have slashed a razor blade down a vein, and the blood just spurted out, but I didn’t die. I took twenty-eight meprobamate, which is a strong tranquilizer. Half of that should have killed me but I didn’t die. I have a very strong will to live.” –Survivor, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
All sexual abuse is damaging and the trauma does not end when the abuse stops. It lingers on. Childhood sexual abuse can cause depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, and sexual problems. Most people mutilate themselves or attempt suicide because it is the only option that they feel is left for them. Breaking the silence is a powerful healing tool if the people around the victims are not negligent. The question is, how not to be negligent?
Protecting Children From Trauma, Neglect, and Abuse
Child sexual abuse is a difficult thing to face. Children disclose abuse in different ways. Some blurt it all out, while others may let out small bits of information at a time to gauge reaction. When a child tells you that they are being abused or were abused, you might encounter strong feelings. You may feel guilty, appalled, or devastated. You may feel threatened or trapped. You may not believe the child. You may feel attacked or blamed. If the abuser is a family member, the image you have of your family will be shaken. You may have to make critical decisions about separation or divorce. But you need to remember that if this issue is not dealt with, the abuse would probably repeat generation after generation. It is a serious problem that affects the whole family, not just the victim. This is not an issue to be taken lightly. It is not an issue you can ignore because children are resilient. They are not! We should stand together and do something about it. We can start by letting go of the taboo and keeping ourselves aware as much as possible. We should start by educating ourselves.
Believe the children, protect, and defend them!