As Guyana observes ‘Sexual Assault Awareness Week’ from April 24th to 30th, it is important that we understand the traumatic impact of sexual abuse particularly on children. The trauma associated with child sexual abuse may cause the child to experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). PSTD is a mental health disorder that occurs in the aftermath of a situation of violence, physical harm or the threat of imminent violence and physical harm. Some symptoms include nightmares, suicidal thoughts and concentration problems that interfere with learning. War veterans who experienced the horrors of war are known to suffer from PSTD symptoms, so one can only imagine the physical and psychological horror a child may experiences when sexually abused.
“In many cases while the sexual abuse is traumatic to cope with, the worst part is the betrayal of a loved one in choosing to support the abuser or when a loved one does not believe when the child reports. This seems more painful for the child”, said Kaiesha Douglas- Perry, Project Coordinator of the Child Advocacy Centre (CAC) at ChildLinK Inc. Guyana has three CACs. The CAC was established as a result of a collaborative effort by the Ministry of Social Protection and ChildLinK to conduct forensic interviews and provide psycho social care for survivors of child sexual abuse.
It is not uncommon for a child who was sexually abused to experience other forms of abuse –prior to, during or after the abuse- which is referred to as poly-victimization. A child who was sexually abused may also experience neglect, emotional and even physical abuse. “Some parents (of a child who was sexually abused) take the stress of the family situation out on the child. Especially if the abuser is a primary provider in the home” stated Douglas-Perry. “The child can unfortunately be seen as a trouble maker and home destroyer. Some parents refuse to believe that the abuse occurred for their own peace and comfort.” There were cases of parents taking fewer precautions to protect the child who was abused and taking greater precautions to protect the other children who were not abused. Child sexual abuse victims may face stigmatization even in their own home from their loved ones.
ChildLinK’s 2016 study: An Analysis of the Nature and Extent of Institutionalization of Children in Guyana revealed further insight into the trauma of child sexual abuse victims. In too many instances, it is the child and not the perpetrator that is removed from the home. These children are usually placed in residential facilities/orphanages. The Analysis revealed “…girls aged 13-15 are in deeper crisis especially because care givers are saying their admission is a consequence of sexual abuse.” The fact that the child’s removal from their home is for their own safety does not negate the pain they feel as a result of separation from their biological family. Many children remain separated from their family in excess of four years. Care givers in the residential homes opined that “…children remaining separated from their biological families for exceptionally long periods of time suggested that the child is being punished for the perpetrators’ crimes.” Their loved ones make very little effort to visit them in residential care or to remove the perpetrators for their home so that the child can return. It is important to remind parents, guardians and extended families that they are the primary care givers of their children.
Douglas-Perry is admonishing parents to change certain parenting approaches in an effort to protect children from sexual abuse. “The saying that “children should be seen and not heard” makes them vulnerable. Parents, guardians and caregivers should make a better effort to listen to children. Perpetrators are predators. They know which children to approach, befriend and abuse. They are assessing your children; those who look shy or are looking to form a bond for love. Parents therefore should engage their children in regular conversations. Encourage your child to speak to you, have conversations with your children during meal times, when you are doing your chores or when you are playing with them.”
“Recent statistics from the Ministry of Social Protection indicated that there is an increase in the sexual abuse of young boys. In 2014 there were 60 reported cases, in 2015 there were 108 reported cases and in 2016 there was 118 reported cases; boys between the ages of 8 to 13 years and girls between the ages of 14 to 18 years are most at risk of sexual abuse. It is therefore imperative that parents, guardians and caregivers put more effort into maintaining a good relationship with their children so that the child can tell if he or she is getting unwanted attention from a family member, relative or friend which is making them feel uncomfortable as this is the first stage in child sexual abuse. Disclosure during this period hardly ever happens because children are afraid to tell since the situation at home does not allow for open communication between parents and children and it is the parents, guardian and caregivers who are mostly doing the talking. Children are constantly being admonished to be quiet. One child that I counselled, when her parents beat her and she cried, her parents would tell her to “shut up”. The child was later abused and did not say anything for sometime because she was conditioned to remain silent about her pain. In Guyana when a child communicates consistently we tend to say that child is talkative but encourage the child’s “talkativeness” so that they can feel that it is okay to share their experiences with you.”