I attended a conference recently that led me to reflect upon the importance of raising awareness of sexual violence against children and protecting them from abuse. Children need better information, parents need to speak up and society needs to actively protect the vulnerable.
The protection of the youngest is of utmost important because they are the future of our world, with full rights to live without fear of anyone. This is the duty of every responsible adult. Catholics, lay and religious, have a role to play in protecting minors and vulnerable adults. One of the most important roles is to listen and be attentive to them and also to create avenues for them to share their stories.
The conference, organized by the U.S.-based African Faith and Justice Network, brought together more than 80 Catholic sisters from about 25 congregations in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, to deliberate on issues of social justice, advocacy, service, change and nation building. It was an enriching conference as speakers from different fields shared their knowledge with the sisters.
Sisters work directly with minors in their different grassroots ministries, especially schools. They have been called to be the voice of the voiceless and advocate for people unjustly treated. Anyone can do this job, but sisters have given their one and only life to work with the poor and vulnerable of the society. They effect change in the lives of others by giving information, listening to their stories and being there for them.
The most important part of the conference for me was the reflection on gender-based violence, especially sexual abuse. It was shocking to learn how many boys and girls are sexually abused. Statistics vary, but DoSomething.org estimates that as many as one in every three girls and one in every five boys experience different forms of sexual abuse before they turn 18. This statistic is almost worldwide. This is alarming; we need to stand up against violence of this kind.
It is also worrisome to know that the perpetrators are mostly relatives of the victims or household help, not strangers. In one example related at the conference, a child was fondled in front of her parents as she sat on a young man's lap. The parents thought he was playing with their daughter since he was an uncle to the little girl.
We need to be observant and careful to detect when abuse is taking place. Ugly incidences happen in front of us, yet we do not know. Parents should create room for their children to share their experiences. Otherwise children may stay silent, perhaps thinking that what a relative does is okay.
It is outrageous that victims are often threatened not to say anything. This is a form of mental torture. In one case, an abuser threatened a child not to tell her parents or she would lose both parents and the abuser would continue to harm her. When the girl summoned the courage, she told her parents; sadly they didn't believe her because the abuser was her step-brother.
From my interaction with children, they are often afraid to tell their stories to their parents, fearing they would be scolded or ignored. Sometimes parents doubt their children and warn them never to speak of it again, especially when the accused is related to the parents. There are consequences to this denial. The children find solace outside their homes and become prey to new abusers. This is because children have the tendency to love, trust and confide to anyone who listens to their stories and buys them gifts. So parents should be very careful.
Victims and their families live in a culture of denial, guilt, threat and fear. Parents are afraid that their child or children will be stigmatized if their experience is disclosed. This can happen when the parents are not well informed and they feel talking about it will put the child under a spotlight. And some parents have no time for their children, leaving them alone while they are busy chasing money, forgetting that the money will be useless or unimportant if their children are not there to share it.
There is a lot parents ought to do in order to win the trust of their children. Listening and paying attention draws them close, so they feel secure and loved. Once a child knows that her loved ones are always there for her, the child opens up and shares the story that touches her. Pushing them away makes children vulnerable to any violence.
Here is a situation that needs urgent attention: When a child lacks the basic care she deserves in a home, a lot of things can go wrong. Any children who sought care and love and found it outside the home would be at the mercy of the care provider.
On my way to work one day, I saw a young girl of about 12 crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that she was asked to go home and get her school fees. When I asked about her parents, she said that they lived in the city and rarely came home. The girl lived with her grand mum, who has no money to pay her school fees.
I empathized with the girl and gave her money that I had with me because I felt she was vulnerable to any ugly situation. I'm glad I did what I did because an abuser could have used such a situation to take advantage of a child.
In order to help end sexual violence, especially child sexual abuse, parents and guardians also should empower children with age-appropriate information concerning their bodies. A lot of parents shy away from this, but when a child doesn't get an answer from her parents there is a tendency to look for the answer from the outside. This is very dangerous.
Sexual abuse is an epidemic that has eaten deep into families and the society at large. It's high time families spoke up and killed the silence rather than covering up such crime. Parents should be observant and available to their children, and I believe that when parents teach their children well, they will follow their parents' words and actions.
[Teresa Anyabuike is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. She is the coordinator of Catholic Community Self-help Association, a department in Justice Development and Peace Mission, Ilorin diocese, Kwara State. She likes working with children because of their simplicity which challenges her.]
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