Child sexual abuse is prevalent worldwide. Several studies have been conducted to identify the traits common to those who perpetrate it, but results indicate that the latter come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, gender, religions and literacy levels. While some may have a condition called paedophilia, which is a sexual attraction towards children, not all perpetrators are paedophiles, and not all paedophiles are child abusers.
Although most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are adults, children as young as seven years can be involved in this act. The number of offenders who are in their teens is also increasing.
The majority of perpetrators are someone related to the child, such as a parent, grandparent, sibling or other relative, or someone from outside the family circle but known to the child including schoolteachers, religious teachers, domestic staff or a nearby shopkeeper. The percentage of abuse by strangers varies between 10 per cent to 30pc. Studies have found that a sizeable number of perpetrators were sexually abused in their childhood. This vicious cycle can continue until a bystander speaks up and breaks it.
Bystanders are those who are not directly involved in sexual abuse but are aware that it is happening around them. The perpetrator does it for sexual gratification, while the silent bystander looks away for selfish reasons. In a way, they too are perpetrators because they have the power to stop the act, condemn it and even prevent it from happening. Research reveals that the biological mother is the most common bystander in such cases followed by another female family member and a male family member respectively.
Another reason bystanders remain silent is to save their family’s ‘honour’. In some places, speaking up against an elder, or someone who has a respectable status in society is considered akin to blasphemy. So, instead of safeguarding their children, they allow the abuser to take advantage of them. Moreover, poverty and economic dependence make it difficult for the adult in the child’s life to speak out. Fear of the offender and the threat of retribution from them hinders the bystander.
Becoming a parent entails accepting responsibility for the child’s well-being and protection. So when parents remain silent regarding the sexual abuse of their child by a perpetrator, the first explanation that comes to mind is that they do not want to disrupt stability in their own life. Do they realise what kind of trauma the child is going through? A sexually abused child cannot develop into a normal adult unless the abuse is stopped, the child is given support and his or her mental trauma treated.
Considering that no one can be more empathetic to a child victim than his/her mother or other family member, it is distressing that they ignore or trivialise the child’s trauma. Often, ‘loyalty’ to the perpetrator prevents them from speaking up, or they do not know how the perpetrator will react to the situation. The belief that if they ignore it, the child will forget about the incident is wrong.
The negative role of the silent bystander is not limited to individuals who witness the abuse directly. It can include those who are aware of the abuse but choose not to report it to the authorities. This can include teachers, healthcare professionals, relatives or friends. They often have concerns about intruding into another household’s privacy, exacerbating the child’s situation and ruining their relationship with the perpetrator or feel they do not have enough evidence to take action.
It is critical for all bystanders who are aware that a child is being sexually abused to speak up and save the child by not remaining silent. It is important that perpetrators are reported and punished because even though, upon the bystander’s protest, they may stop abusing the child, they are still a danger to other children.
Even if a bystander is reluctant to report the abuser to the authorities, under no circumstances should he/she ignore the child. It should be ensured that the perpetrator does not have a single opportunity to be alone with the child. The child should only be with someone who can be deeply trusted. A doctor, paediatrician or psychologist can be consulted on how to deal with the situation. All adults have a responsibility to speak up and save the child.
This article is written by Kishwar Enam. The writer is a paediatrician at AKUH.
Courtesy: Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2023