ACCORDING to the new Children’s Act 38 of 2005, child abuse is ‘any form of harm or ill-treatment deliberately inflicted on a child and includes (a) assaulting a child or inflicting any other form of deliberate injury to a child; (b) sexually abusing a child or allowing a child to be sexually abused; (c) bullying by another child; (d) a labour practice that exploits a child; or (e) exposing or subjecting a child to behaviour that may harm the child psychologically or emotionally.
While there are many forms of abuse, this article will focus mainly on sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can take many forms – and is defined as the exploitation of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult.
Sexually abused children may act out sexually. This sometimes helps them cope with their angry feelings and premature sexualisation. It can also take many forms, ie repeating stories of abuse to virtual strangers to obtain a reaction, age inappropriate knowledge, provocative dressing, etc.
Acceptance or believing a child about the abuse is one of the most important and central aspects in helping children who have been abused, especially since they often don’t tell others about what has been happening for fear of not being believed.
Empowerment of the child is directly linked to the disempowerment of the abuser. By openly stating that one believes the child has been abused one immediately empowers the child and disempowers the abuser. By doing this, acceptance and protection is given to the child and an important part of the healing process is initiated.
In helping sexually abused children, it is important to tell them that:
1. You believe them.
2. What happened is not their fault and you are not angry with them. Grown-ups are supposed to keep children safe and you are sad and angry that a grown up hurt them in this way.
3. The grown-up involved has a problem or a sickness and really needs help. Helping people and professionals need to be extremely empathic and understand that it is not their role to prove sexual abuse has occurred. This is the role of the SAPS (Child Protection Unit) and the court, should prosecution occur.
The fact that sexual abuse cannot always be proved in a court of law does not mean it did not happen. Sexual abuse is a criminal act which is carried out in private and it is usually difficult to produce concrete evidence that it did occur.
The sexually abused child has been seriously wronged. He/she is left with a strong sense of injustice which can possibly only be alleviated when the perpetrator is prosecuted in a court of law, or acknowledges the abuse and apologises to the child.
A perpetrator’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the abuse and willingness to make amends is a central issue in helping the sexually abused child. This acknowledgement can also possibly be a turning point in the life of the child.
If you suspect that a child is being abused, it is your responsibility to report it to your local police or welfare organisation. You have the right to remain anonymous.
Herbert Ward once said: “Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.” Remember these wise words if you find yourself thinking twice about making that all-important call!
Rose Downer is a registered senior social worker and may be contacted on 082-667-5567 for further information.