Sexual abuse barely makes the news in the country. People avoid talking about the topic of sexual violence because it is uncomfortable: we are not really sure what it refers to, we do not know if and when it happens, who could be the perpetrators and the victims. However, despite difficulties to get reliable data, there is an accepted consensus that at least 5% of children in Cambodia have been sexually abused.
Referring to the strict definition sexual abuse and exploitation can be described as any sexual act in which one partner is not free to refuse. Child sexual abuse is any form of sexual activity with a child, by an adult, or by another child (male or female) where there is no consent or consent is not possible; or by another child who has power over the child.
The sexual abuse of any child impacts their identity and can turn their life upside down. Effects may be physical, psychological, and emotional and often influence a person’s behavior for the rest of their lives in complex ways. Many survivors try to hide the way they feel to not be judged. Some effects can exist for a short period of time whilst others may endure for years. Each person is unique and will have their own recovery process. It is also very important to remember that despite some negative effects, survivors of abuse are also very creative and courageous, they have many strengths and the capacity to heal. Often, they just need safe spaces, the right person, and opportunities to do that.
What are the common effects for a child affected by sexual abuse?
Children are obviously negatively affected when they are victims of sexual abuse. Common effects include loss of trust towards others going in pair with low self-esteem. It hinders children from developing nurturing relationship and increase their feelings of insecurity. They have also some troubles with intimacy and lose a part of their “childhood spirit” as they can potentially be less keen to play and learn than other children.
Children affected by sexual abuse can also see their behaviors altered and experience various negative issues. They are more prone to nightmares, suicidal thoughts, self-harming behaviors, or harmful coping behaviors such as the usage of drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to engage in risky and violent behaviors such as stealing or drug use. They show poorer performance at school with decreased capacity to focus and learn that can be explained by higher health issues: increased complaints of stomachaches and headaches. They are also more subject to suffer from depression and anxiety; weaker socialization due to anger management troubles. Sleeping, eating disorders and isolation feelings are also much more frequent for children or teenagers affected by sexual abuse. Incapacity to express normally their emotions is a hurdle for their social life.
Children affected by sexual abuse when they grow teenagers or adults are often confused about sexuality and safety. They are more likely than others to be confused about sex and gender identity and often engage themselves in high-risk situation increasing their vulnerability to further exploitation or adopting themselves sexual harmful behaviors. They can also experience PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder which can include disturbances, anxiety, and depression, which negatively impact their daily psychosocial functioning and for which many seek professional help.
Taboos and stereotypes around sexual abuse
When putting forward the issue of child sexual abuse, it is a common consideration to see girls as the only victims of a form of violence. However, there is clear evidence that it is not the case and that boys are as much as girls affected by this issue. The local non-governmental organization First Step Cambodia has a unique experience in dealing with boy’s cases. As mentioned by one of their managers, “there are many interrelated and complex factors acting as a brake for boys to report when they are a victim of sexual abuse”. He goes on to report that “in Cambodia, the concept of masculinity covers the idea that men have to be strong and reporting being the victim of sexual abuse is a clear sign of weakness; we should all be aware in Cambodia, that sexual abuse on boys is far more common than we think”.
When asked what are the other wrong common thoughts, he said that “many people tend to think that children can lie about sexual abuse which is a major mistake. They rather feel terrified and afraid to share about it. Many Cambodians also carry the vision that most of the perpetrators are foreigners; this is not correct at all. Abusers can be anyone, including parents, family members, friends, neighbors, and other people known to the boy. The grooming technique used by the perpetrators also bring some confusion: a lot of people think if children and boys, in particular, receives money in exchange it is not sexual abuse while this exploitation of poverty is terrible”. After thinking the technical manager adds that “many adults believe that boy’s abusers are gay; again this is false, most abusers are not gay”.
What can we do about it?
At the individual level, if we ever come across a survivor, we have to believe him and let him talk freely and express his emotions without asking at his own rhythm without asking for details. Right after this, we can support the child by offering practical assistance (transport, accommodation, meals, etc.) or meeting his immediate safety needs. Without forcing the children, we should encourage him to access the adequate support available in his community. It is also crucial to remain calm and keep a high level of confidentiality and not make any decisions without the consent of the child. In this case, you would face a situation where you observe a child in a situation of high risk and immediate danger report it to the police or the authority nearest to you. You can call the emergency line +855 92 311 511 to access specific assistance through the NGO Action pour Les Enfants (APLE).
Besides the necessary individual action, we need as a society to take this issue into our hands. The local NGO First Step Cambodia is under its current programs addressing these issues at all levels of society. They organize prevention workshops to raise awareness on sexual abuse for communities and for all adults working with children; in 2020 they have reached more than one thousand people. They also deliver intense training courses to child protection practitioners to increase the quality of the services delivered to all children affected by sexual abuse or sexually harmful behaviors. At least through in-depth research, they build evidence at the national level and regional level with their partners, they explore the root causes of sexual abuse on children, and work since 2010 for a country free from sexual abuse where children can reach their potential. Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual abuse.
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