Know Your Rights - Sexual Abuse
Tina* was the youngest daughter in the family. She was a cheerful and active eight year-old girl who always had a cheeky smile ready. Tina's mother, Ros, worked part-time as a seamstress, whilst her father was an engineer. She had two elder brothers, Arif and Azlan. There were three rooms in the house, and Tina shared a room with her second brother, Arif.
Recently, an old uncle came to visit them. Tina had met this uncle before. She liked this uncle because he often gave Tina and her brothers sweets and was kind to them. Because there weren't enough rooms, Tina's parents suggested that the uncle slept in Tina's room on Arif's bed, and Arif could share the bed with Azlan.
That night, Tina went to bed as usual. The next day, Ros noticed that Tina was being unusually quiet. Instead of joining her brothers and her uncle when they went to out, Tina just hid in her room. When she came out of the room, Tina told her mother that she didn't want to sleep with her uncle that night. Ros explained that it was the best arrangement they could come up with and asked Tina not to be difficult. Tina went and hid in her room again.
The next morning, Tina she wouldn't say goodbye to her uncle. Instead, she ran into the kitchen and refused to come out. Ros was impatient with Tina's rude behaviour and scolded her. To Ros' surprise, Tina burst into tears. Usually, Tina would apologise if she did something wrong, she was not a child who cried easily. Tina became more withdrawn and moody. Ros began to suspect that something was wrong.
She sat Tina down and patiently asked her what the matter was. At first, Tina would not say anything and continued crying. After gentle persistence from Ros, Tina haltingly told her that her uncle did some things to her and touched her in certain areas on her body that made her feel extremely uncomfortable. Ros was horrified. She could not believe that such a thing has happened to her child. What can she do now?
The most important thing that Ros must do is to believe Tina. Learning that your child may have been sexually abused can be one of the most devastating experiences of your life, especially if you know who the abuser is. It may be a member of your family, a family friend or someone that you and your child trust, love and respect. You may feel a whole range of conflicting emotions from disbelief, to anger to guilt. These are all valid emotions and it is important that you have good supports to be able to express and deal with your feelings.
The first response to the child disclosing the sexual abuse is important in helping the child heal. The important thing is that you express yourself with love and sincerity. Hearing these sentiments may mean a great deal to your child.
Things you can do when your child tells of sexual abuse:
- Listen to what your child is telling you and believe her. Statements like, "I believe you or it's not your fault" will help the healing.
- Stay calm.
- Be patient, this is a difficult thing for your child to share with you.
- Let your child tell you about the abuse in his own words - do not press her for details or give her the feeling that you are interrogating her.
- Acknowledge what your child is feeling and how difficult it was for her to tell you.
- Let your child know how proud you are of her for having had the courage to tell about the abuse.
- Reassure and comfort your child.
- Let your child know that she can come to you at any time if she wants to discuss anything else with you.
- Let your child know that you will do everything in your power to keep her safe and make sure that this never happens to her again.
- Tell your child that she does not have to worry about you - tell her that it's your job to look after her.
- You can tell your child that you are upset, but make sure you tell her that you are not upset with her, but with the person who did this to her.
- As much as you might want to, it is important that you do not make any promises to your child that you may not be able to keep.
- When you have a free moment alone, write down everything that your child has told you - use your child's words whenever possible, and avoid interpreting what your child has said.
- Prepare your child for what will happen next. Abused children feel helpless and need to know that there are people who can help.
- Take your child to the hospital for a medical check-up for any injuries or illness that may have been contracted from the abuse. Give her support and reassurance throughout this process.
- Report the abuse.
- If you want counselling or emotional support for yourself or your child, contact a women's or children's organisation.
It is also important for you to recognise signs of sexual abuse, and like Ros, approach your child when you feel that something may be wrong. Not all children tell of sexual abuse by words, but by behaviour. Do not ignore any sudden or extreme changes in your child's behaviour, and never be afraid to approach someone for help. It is also vital that you learn to talk to your child about touch and relationships, and help them distinguish "bad touches" from "good touches". Assure them that they can tell you about anything.
Child sexual abuse affects more than just the victim. It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that sexual abuse affects not only the victim, but also everyone else who lives with and cares for her. While it is essential that you be a stable source of support for others, it is equally vital that you have strong supports for yourself. Looking out for everyone can be an exhausting task and may sometimes feel overwhelming. You would not expect your children to deal with this situation by themselves; do not expect this of yourself.
*Name and some details changed to protect client's confidentiality.
Women's Aid Organisation - 20 Years of Service to Women and Children
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail