Saturday, March 2, 2024

A look at the blurry picture of Botswana’s child sexual abuser

What is wrong with this picture?

The simple answer is that official numbers do not add up.  In 2013 Botswana registered only 97 defilement cases countrywide (0,2%). At first glance these numbers paint a rosy picture of Botswana as a safe space for children.

Look again, and the numbers present a very depressing image: Still in 2013, a total of 901 children were reported pregnant, almost ten times the reported defilement cases. And that is not all, in the same year 1058 of children stayed away from school.

The sobering reality is that the number of child sex predators prowling Botswana streets is more than ten times the number of sex offenders’ mugshots filed by Botswana Police Service. Local social scientists present an even scarier picture, that most child sex offenders are closer home than you think, and they do not match the identity of a sex criminal. Local scientists are all in agreement that this makes the situation more complicated than just official numbers not adding up.

To most Batswana, a typical child sex abuser is a “dirty old man.” According to social scientists interviewed by Sunday Standard Lifestyle, the “dirty old man” mental picture however is not exactly the spitting image of a typical Botswana child sex abuser. They explained that, sometimes loving and involved mothers and fathers sexually hurt children. Sometimes fun and generous grandparents sexually hurt children. Sometimes caring and dedicated coaches and teachers sexually hurt children. And sometimes pious and “morally upright” preachers and religious elders sexually abuse their underage devotees.

A Gaborone clinical psychologist and founder of Mental Health Alive Initiative , Tshepiso Teseletso says, “when an individual who is loved or admired sexually harms a child, the powerful sense of betrayal is felt not just by the child, but also by everyone else who trusted or respected that person. For both children and adults, acknowledging such a betrayal can threaten their overall sense of safety in the world. That is, suddenly the rules have changed: Confidence about who can be trusted, and in one’s own judgments about friends, family members and other people, are totally called into question. Many children who have been exploited or abused face a tragic choice – between accepting the frightening new reality of betrayal and uncertainty, on the one hand, and what feels like the comparative safety of denying that anything has changed, on the other.

Often, people who take advantage of a power imbalance to sexually harm a child also inspire feelings of powerlessness in adults who could protect that child. This sense of powerlessness may result from emotional and/or financial dependency on the person committing the harmful acts. Or there may have been previous threats or acts of physical or emotional violence from that person, or threats of suicide. Many people are kept from speaking up by legitimate fears of violent retaliation against themselves, the child being abused, or other family members. Domestic violence or fear of a powerful and violent individual are complex and especially dangerous challenges to acting protectively.”

Too often, the victims of these crimes have been abused over a protracted period—sometimes years. Even more disturbing is the discovery that the abuse was noticed, even witnessed by others who chose not to intervene. Many people have looked the other way, denied what has occurred, or simply refused to become involved in stopping child molesters.

Some victims cry to adults, seeking protection and help, only to be met with disbelief, denial, blame, or even punishment. It is the dark underbelly of Botswana and is going on inside some of the finest houses and behind more closed doors than will ever possibly be known.

Tapiwa Pheto from Botswana Gender Based Violence Prevention & Support Centre says, “The reality is, sometimes inspiring religious leaders sexually hurt children, anyone who is thought to have a squeaky clean image can hurt children as well as those without such an image. Sometimes exciting and attentive babysitters, and protective older siblings, cousins or kids down the street, sexually harm children. In fact, only rarely is the person sexually harming a child one of those totally creepy people that everyone already suspects. Most of us find it very challenging to simultaneously hold two conflicting views of how we expect people to behave and so we often fail to see the risk when it is staring us in the face. It is very difficult, even scary, to accept that “good” people have “bad” qualities and behaviors, especially when the “good” person is somebody we care about or respect. So, there is a strong tendency to ignore or bend the facts to fit our reassuring expectations. In reality, no one is purely good or purely bad. And sometimes a “good” person’s bad behaviors include sexually using or abusing children. Still, even if someone can truly get past such stereotypes, the very real costs of speaking up create a huge barrier to acting.”

Child sexual abuse is such a despicable and loathsome crime that the very mention of it makes people become amazingly quiet. Many sexual abuse victims, for example, lose all interest in living, withdraw from reality through the use of drugs or alcohol abuse. They are physically alive, but dead on the inside since much of their hope or faith in the goodness of mankind may have been stripped away completely. One of the biggest blocks to acting on suspicions is the tendency, which all of us have, to divide the world into “good” people, who do good things, and “bad” people, who do evil. We all use stereotypes as shortcuts to decide who and what is safe. It’s very reassuring. People think they can tell who poses a risk. If they generally behave well, do good things for others, or are generous, inspiring, respected by others or fun to be with, then people instinctively believe they are safe. Tragically, such thinking gets in the way of protecting children. Those widely accepted stereotypes, especially the ones about what “good people” do to others, make it difficult to recognize real risks. They are also what make it so difficult for children to tell when a respected person is taking advantage of them sexually.

The truth is, sometimes loving and involved mothers and fathers sexually hurt children. Sometimes fun and generous grandparents sexually hurt children. Sometimes caring and dedicated coaches and teachers sexually hurt children. The general population underestimates the involvement of biological mothers in child sexual abuse. Mothers play a role in sexual abuse – either as perpetrators or as bystanders – that has been underestimated so far. Denial is a psychologically incapacitating state that some mothers experience when faced with the possibility that their children are being sexually abused by their partners. Denial can hinder a mother’s capacity to acknowledge, or even consciously know, that such abuse is occurring, thereby preventing her from intervening to protect her child or children. Even in the face of clear evidence that her partner is abusing her child, a mother who is in denial may simply stand by and allow the abuse to continue-often for a period of years.

The greatest harm to the child is caused not by the physical abuse itself, but rather by the mother’s failure to acknowledge the abuse or to believe her child when the child confronts her with the abuse. Denial is a psychological defense mechanism that a person uses to screen out distressing realities and the painful feelings they cause. In the case of a mother who is in denial about the abuse of her child, denial protects her from the pain of knowing about the abuse, from her ensuing feelings of anger and betrayal toward her abusing partner, and from her feeling of guilt for not having protected her child. At some level she may be aware that abuse is occurring, but to ward off these feelings, and perhaps to avoid facing the potential dissolution of her marriage, she denies its occurrence. A mother’s denial regarding her partner’s abuse may be compounded by her dependence upon her partner.


Read this week's paper