Bringing child sexual abuse out of the closet | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 13, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 13, 2012

Bringing child sexual abuse out of the closet

"Mother, do you know what you sacrificed?
Do you know the pain you allowed to happen by closing your eye?
You said you had eyes in the back of your head,
You saw that our dresses were too short,
You saw when we held hands with a boy,
But those eyes were closed when he took your innocent little girls"

A poem from a survivor.

It is now widely acknowledged that child sexual abuse is a global contagion that affects the richest and poorest nations. Though the malice always existed in history, globalisation and its twin -- the internet revolution -- opened the floodgates and provided the perpetrators the comfort of anonymity and access. Bangladesh is no exception to this evil. Currently, about 20,000 children throughout the country are believed to have been forced into street prostitution. However, this is just the commercial face; what happens in homes, schools and public places is shrouded in darkness. This issue is also grossly under-reported due to the social stigma of exposure.
Child sexual abuse is commonly defined as "the form of child abuse in which an adult or an adolescent uses a child for sexual stimulation, forces a child to engage in sexual activities, including indecent exposures of the genitals and touching them, physical sexual contact with a child, and using the child to produce child pornography and nude photography."
In Bangladesh's context, child sexual abuse is still a taboo and seldom gets openly discussed like child labour, trafficking, and exploitation in general. In the National Child Policy 2011 (which was revised for the first time after 1974), sexual abuse was given some attention under the broad heading of child safety. No specific section was dedicated for the sexually exploited, whereas children with disability, autism, belonging to the ethnic minority group and affected during and post natural calamities were brought under individual articles.
There is also an enduring stereotype that the victims of child abuse are mostly girls. However, both anecdotal and empirical evidences have shown that boys are equally if not more vulnerable than girls. A joint study conducted by Save the Children and Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation in 2010 revealed that disabled children are usually at a higher risk of getting sexually harassed as they are unable to protect themselves and even at greater risk are those who are intellectually challenged since they are unable to make out the difference between good and bad touches and are often unable to articulate their concerns. Data from the same survey suggests that in half of the cases, more than 90% of the abusers were family members and close relatives.
This provokes the question: "Is home the safest place for our children?" A seminal and shocking study in the Indian context, "Bitter Chocolate" by Pinki Virani, challenges this belief. She proves this by citing numerous examples where children have been abused in their own homes by their close relatives and family friends. Horrifying experiences were shared: grandfather abusing his own granddaughter, father exploiting the children while bathing them, male domestic help abusing toddlers etc. This is further supported by another survey conducted in 21 countries among which most were industrialised; 36% women and 29% men revealed that they had been victims of sexual abuse in childhood and most of it took place in their family circle.
A recent research in India reports that 53% of the children are victims of sexual abuse in some form or the other. A fact unknown to many, until recently revealed in the popular television show "Satyamev Jayate" by Mr. Aamir Khan.
It is of utmost importance that we take this issue more seriously and act accordingly as it can have dangerous repercussions and affect the children adversely, whom we claim to be the future of the nation. Sexually abused children are susceptible to problems like depression and anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal behaviour, negative self esteem, alcohol and drug addiction, eating and sleeping disorders, vaginal bleeding, chronic pelvis pain, urinary tract infections, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, HIV/ AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and so on. Sex education, school based awareness raising programmes and targeted campaigns can be used as preventive measures. Rehabilitating affected children through recreational activities like play, art, drama etc., and providing group therapy and individual counseling will help. However, one of the biggest challenges that Bangladesh faces in this regard is the lack of professional skills, underscored by lack of institutions providing applied psychology courses, and dearth of professionals working on child psychology.
In 1990, Bangladesh ratified the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which is based on the four general principles of non-discrimination, best interest of the child, right to life, survival and development and right to participation. All or some of the above principles are violated when and/after any child is sexually exploited. The state, thus, cannot abdicate its primary responsibility to protect and advance child rights. It is time to acknowledge the voice of our future while promulgating laws and upholding them.

The writer is with Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.

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