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Child sexual abuse — how to watch for tell-tale signs and take action

When I first heard the experiences of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, I was working with the Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi in India in 2015.

In Singapore, the number of child sexual abuse cases investigated have risen from 58 in 2010 to 261 in 2020.
In Singapore, the number of child sexual abuse cases investigated have risen from 58 in 2010 to 261 in 2020.
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When I first heard the experiences of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, I was working with the Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi in India in 2015.

Over time, I have listened to many accounts of such abuse and the names of those mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

One survivor was “Sahiba”. At the age of 15, she was sold by traffickers for Rs 13,000 (S$236) and later bought by the family of a mentally challenged man in Haryana for Rs 70,000 (S$1,270) to be his child bride. She was raped and beaten every night.

“Khushi mila nahi hei." I've never known happiness, she told me in Hindi. Such strong words. At the time, she was all of 19 years old.

I decided then and there that the stories of adult survivors of child sexual abuse needed to be told.

For my first book, titled Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse, which I co-wrote with Associate Professor Daniel Fung, chief executive officer of the Institute of Mental Health, I started documenting the true-life accounts of survivors from as far afield as Germany, South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom and also much closer to home: India, Indonesia, Myanmar and here in Singapore.

Over a meal, a Singaporean survivor, “Alice”, told me that she had been put away at a shelter immediately after a school teacher reported her father to the police for having molested her. In the immediate aftermath, her family shunned her.

Alice did not just have to deal with the trauma of having been abused sexually, she also had to deal with her guilt for having “torn” her family apart.

She remembered calling her mother on a pay phone using a 10-cent coin she managed to scrounge. Upon hearing her voice, her mother slammed the phone down.

What is child sexual abuse? It can be defined as contact or interactions between a child and an older child or adult where the child is being used as an object of gratification for the older child's or adult's sexual needs.

Child sexual abuse may have a profound impact on how the child — as a victim and as an adult survivor — experiences his or her world.

When children’s physical and sexual boundaries are violated by someone they trust, they grow up with confused messages about the connections between sex, love, intimacy and trust.

The impact of child sexual abuse is far-reaching: Survivors' lives are characterised by frequent crises, for example, job disappointments, addictions, failed relationships, divorce and financial setbacks.

The reasons are complex, but for many survivors, ongoing chaos prevents them from experiencing regularity and consistency in their lives. They function in “crisis mode”.

In Singapore, the number of child sexual abuse cases investigated have risen from 58 in 2010 to 261 in 2020. 

I’m often asked: What can we do to stamp out this scourge? Even if we are not parents, we may have a niece or nephew.

First, learn what sexual grooming looks like.

These are acts by paedophiles to gain the trust of your child or ward and even your family.

Is there someone who is always available to babysit your child? Is the babysitter doting on one child over the other siblings in the family?

Is the person always giving gifts and taking the child out one-on-one?

Does the person know the children’s current lingo and the latest video games and trends?

Second, talk about "safe touch" frequently to your child, perhaps once a month, weaving this into bath times and when you need to change their clothes.

Children find it hard to talk about a subject like this.

Teach them that the swimsuit area is one that is off limits except to those who are helping them change or get clean. And even then, they can always choose to say "no" to a person if they feel that something is not right.

The questions you ask your child are also important. Keep it general to encourage an open conversation.

Instead of asking, "Has Uncle so-and-so done anything to you?", keep it general with, "How was your day today?"

Third, it is never too young to teach the correct names of private parts to your child.

There have been instances in Australia such as when a child as young as four wanted to say that she had been raped, but instead kept saying that she had a tummy ache. 

Her puzzled parents took her to the doctor where her abuse was discovered.

What happens when children tell you that they have been abused sexually?

  • Despite your shock, try to remain calm.

  • Assure them that they have done the right thing by disclosing the abuse; do not blame them

  • Emphasise that what had happened was not their fault and that you stand by them

  • Please do not chide them for not having told you earlier or saying things like, "I told you so. You shouldn't have been playing there."

  • Children do not have the power to prevent adults from abusing them

  • Reassure the child that you will take appropriate action

For adult survivors of child sexual abuse, one of the most difficult things that they said they had to accept was when they had first disclosed their abuse to someone they had trusted, yet no action was taken.

They felt guilty growing up, feeling that they were somehow to blame for what had happened and feeling "dirty" with low self-worth.

So, take action. Keep abused children informed of the next steps and involve them in the process. Keep them safe from further abuse.

As they are learning to re-establish appropriate boundaries for themselves, it is important that you, as the parent or guardian, continue to set appropriate limits for them aimed at protecting them. 

One example is to give them agency not to have to hug any adult they are not comfortable with. 

Sadly, not many children are able to disclose their sexual abuse, either lacking the vocabulary for it, or simply due to fear of the repercussions — that their family might not believe them or the fear of splitting up the family, or both.

The perpetrators would have spent time "grooming" the child and would have bribed or threatened the child into silence, or both.

Research has shown that the younger their age when children disclose their abuse, the greater their chances are of healing and bouncing back.

We all can do our part to keep our homes, schools and gyms as safe havens for our children.



Together with the Institute of Mental Health chief executive Daniel Fung, Eirliani Abdul Rahman co-founded Yakin (Youth, Adult survivors & Kin In Need), a non-profit organisation that aims to help child victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in public health at Harvard University.  

Related topics

child abuse sexual abuse family children safety

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