“I nearly went to my bedroom to pick my pistol to shoot the boy, when my daughter narrated the incident to me.”
During a conference I attended, I was relaxing in the hotel lobby in Accra when an official of one of the State Security Services approached me. I was wearing a T-shirt from Light for Children, and he asked me if I worked for that organization. When I answered yes, he made this statement: “No kid is safe from sexual abuse.” He had read one of our brochures that belonged to his wife, a headmistress of a school where we conducted a workshop on child sexual abuse. He then told me that his daughter had almost been defiled by the son of the proprietor of the school she attended.
Many people think that child sexual abuse is rare, so they are not concerned about it. But responses that we get from kids who call us after our workshops indicate that many children, mostly below the age of 15, have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse by nature is very secretive so most cases are not reported.
What is sexual abuse?
It is when an adult or older child uses force on a child or uses persuasive and manipulative tactics to obtain sexual gratification. The sexual abuse may affect the body or the mind of the child. Child sexual abuse falls into two categories: touching and non-touching. Touching behaviours can include sexual intercourse, kissing, touching of the penis, vagina, buttocks or breasts, and forcing or inciting a child to touch the abuser’s private parts. Non-touching behaviours can include exposing the child to pornography, engaging the child with sex-texting, and voyeurism (trying to see a child who is naked).
About 90 percent of abusers are known to the child, through family, church, school, or the community.
Sexual abuse can harm children both physically and psychologically.
Physical effects may include:
• Lacerations, internal injuries sometimes even causing death
• Infections, including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases
• Pregnancy, and complications arising from teen pregnancy
Psychological effects may include:
• Depression, self-harm
• Anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder
• Less success in school and career
• Aggression and violence
• Sleep disorders
• Higher risk of engaging in dangerous sexual behaviours, such as prostitution
• Difficulty with personal relationships and marriage
Why is sexual abuse so rarely reported?
We asked some children what might prevent them from coming forward and disclosing that they have been sexually abused. Most of their answers could be broadly classified as fear or shame.
• Fear of being sacked (expelled) from the home: The alleged abuser is often a step-father or uncle who acts as a guardian, and uses this threat to keep the child from disclosing the abuse. Such guardians may even be the main breadwinners for the extended family.
• Fear of death from curses, especially by the spirit of Antoa Nyamaa (an Ashanti river deity.) Some claim that abusers threaten that they will use Antoa Nyamaa to cast a spell on them if they inform someone.
• Fear of getting the perpetrator into trouble, especially if it is a relative towards whom the child may feel loyalty or affection.
• Fear of their step-mothers, or the wives of the abusers, not believing and supporting them.
• Some children have a guilty conscience about the abuse, especially if it occurred while the child was disobeying their parents – for example, leaving the house without permission and being abused by a neighbour.
• The abuser may manipulate them into feeling that the abuse is the victim’s fault.
• Some worry about discrimination, and that when they grow up they will not get a good husband.
• A small portion of those alleging abuse worry about how their peers will react, and fear being mocked by them.
• Children may recant their stories if their parents pressure them to do so, often to avoid shame or because of a bribe from the abuser.
Also, many children do not disclose abuse simply because they do not have the language skills and vocabulary to talk about it.
Warning signs that a child may have been sexually abused:
• The child starts to avoid or withdraw from a particular person.
• The child becomes anxious or depressed, has angry outbursts, or has trouble sleeping.
• The child becomes afraid to be alone
• He or she starts to hide their body from view, and is excessively concerned with privacy or personal hygiene.
• The child exhibits knowledge of sexual words beyond what is age-appropriate, and may even behave in a flirtatious way. You may catch them “sexting.”
• Physical symptoms include discomfort when walking, frequent illnesses and infections.
How should you react if your child discloses abuse?
• Show gratitude to the child and assure her of your willingness to help her overcome the effects of abuse.
• Do not blame the child for what happened.
• Keep your emotions at bay, stay calm, and be attentive as the child describes his or her ordeal.
• Immediately after assuring the child of your support, inform DOVVSU and the police. Do not let the child know that you are going to deal with the suspect ruthlessly, as it may cause them to backtrack and withhold important information that may be critical to the prosecution.
• Some organizations like Light for Children may be able to provide social support for the victim.
How can you prevent sexual abuse from happening to your child?
• Sensitize your child to the danger of sexual abuse if he or she is over 5 years of age. Encourage open communication on sexual matters at home, since this is not allowed in the basic schools in Ghana.
• Talk to your child about the difference between appropriate touching (feels okay) and inappropriate touching (not okay).
• Do not encourage your child to spend time alone with an adult “friend.” Some children have been abused by the parents or older siblings of their friends.
• Teach your children to care for their own private parts as soon as they are able, so that they understand that an older person is not supposed to touch their private areas.
• Make sure your child knows the correct names for their private parts both in English and in the local language.
• Let your child know that his or her body is for him or her alone.
• Remember that children know their abusers in about 90 percent of cases, so parents should not focus so much on cautioning their children about strangers.
Talk to your sons
• Although most abused children are girls, it is still possible for boys to be abused. They are often unprepared for this possibility and need to be informed of the dangers.
• Many boys do not understand how serious the consequences are if they sexually abuse a child. Let them know that sexual abuse can damage a child very seriously (sometimes even causing death), that it is a serious crime, and that you would not attempt to shield them from the consequences of their actions if they were to abuse a child.
Talk to your daughters
• Girls are most at risk of sexual abuse, so they especially need to be informed about how to protect themselves.
• Although it's rare, sometimes girls and women sexually abuse children. Make sure your daughters understand the gravity and consequences of such criminal actions.
It is time for us to recognise the seriousness of this problem in Ghana, to hold abusers accountable for their actions, and to give our children the knowledge they need to protect themselves.
By Mike Owusu Gyimah
Light for children