At first glance, Naniki Ramadubu’s research on Botswana’s child sexual abuse turns up a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Nighty-seven (97) children were reported defiled in 2013, whereas 901 children below the age of consent were reported pregnant in the same year in Botswana.Take a second look, and the answer is no brainer. It is actually captured in the heading of Ramadubu’s research paper: “The extent of child sexual abuse in Botswana: hidden in plain sight”
More than three quarters of children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone about it and many take the secret to their grave. Sexual abusers are more likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about; more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. They are family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society. The closer the relationship between the abuser and the victim, the less likely they are to talk about it. Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “In the context of many Batswana families, children are taught to be quiet and not talk too much. Our culture unfortunately creates a situation where children are taught and told not to talk back to adults or authority figures, so you find that if a child is being abused by an adult, he/she is afraid to speak up and is defenceless.
This is especially so, since children believe they are powerless and if they were to out an adult on the abuse they would be scolded and not believed. Children are also immature so they become silent because they blame themselves for being in the situation they are in and feel they brought it on themselves. Threats are also a real thing; abusers tend to threaten children form speaking their truth by threatening to kill them. Kids at an early stage are unknowledgeable of what sexual abuse is, so when it happens, they can’t tell if they are being abused or not or if it is wrong, I think the reason parents don’t find out is because the abusers tell the kids to keep it a secret.”
As a result, children often show rather than tell that something is worrying or upsetting them. However, children may give vague hints that something is happening. Their information may not be clear and they may not have the words to explain what is happening to them. And often times, parents miss the clues. Dr Ntshwarang explained that, “other parents don’t take the time to get to know their kids, their moods especially in a time where a lot of parents do distance parenting where they leave kids with caregivers, it allows most parents to overlook a lot of things that kids go through. In a situation where a child is being abused by someone close to one of the parents, say a boyfriend or stepfather, a mother will give all attention to her spouse and neglect her child so even when the child displays ill manners towards the man the parent deems or writes it off as the child being disrespectful not realizing that it is a red flag.”
The effects of child sexual abuse can last a lifetime. Sexual abuse is among the most serious issues that face children and youth today. The spectre of child sexual abuse is frightening to parents and caring adults. Sexual abuse steals so much from children, robbing them of trust, innocence and security. Dr Orapeleng Phuswane-Katse, a physician with the Ministry of Health in Gaborone says, “A crime of this magnitude forever changes a child’s life view. The belief that the world is a safe place is shattered. Children grappling with the aftermath of sexual abuse are in coping mode. The shock of their experience stuns them into silence. The process of healing and recovery takes tremendous energy. They do not possess the strength to undergo further trauma. It takes everything they have just to carry on.”
Children are usually abused by someone they know and it often starts when they are very young. Sexual abuse is generally not an isolated one-off incident, threats, tricks or bribes are often used to keep the child from telling anyone about it. Grooming is a gradual process used to prepare a child for sexual abuse. It often involves persuasive and manipulative tactics to gain the trust of a child and sometimes their caregiver by developing a bond. It often does not start with sexually abusive touch or behaviours. It is very carefully planned and it can take place over weeks, months or even years. Dr Phuswane-Katse told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that “the public stature of a perpetrator plays prominently in a child coming forward.
If the abuser is a respected member of the community or an admired friend of the family, the chances of a child speaking out are significantly reduced. Fear is perhaps the biggest reason children who are sexually abused don’t tell. In the mind of the survivor, there is much to fear. If the perpetrator has threatened them, they will fear for their lives. If the abuser has threatened their family, they will fear for the lives of their loved ones. They may fear the unknowable. What will happen when I tell? Will I be believed? Will I be supported? Will the abuser be arrested or remain free? Will friends ridicule me? Will the people who I care about shun me?”
The sad truth is many children have unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. Many of them believe, correctly, that someone else knows or should know about their situation, but does little or nothing to protect them. Some tell adults what’s going on, seeking protection and help, only to be met with disbelief, denial, blame, or even punishment. Sexual abuse often begins gradually and subtly or even as a game. Children are often groomed to accept the nuanced advances of an abuser, never realizing they are being controlled and manipulated by the abuser. By the time a child begins to feel violated, he/she may have come to believe that they are complicit in the sexual relationship. Grooming dynamics also shed light on why children may not disclose. Grooming is where a perpetrator manipulates a child using psychological pressure, tangible incentives (such as toys and money) and attention.
Once abuse occurs, the child’s silence may be maintained by the perpetrator suggesting the child will not be believed about the abuse, using threats and blame (“you will ruin the family if you tell anyone”) and distorting the abuse (such as suggesting it is part of a “game”).Research suggests children are more likely to disclose sexual abuse if they feel they have at least one trusted adult they can turn to, who will listen and believe them. Male victims are less likely to disclose than female victims. This may be due to it seeming un-masculine to seek help, being viewed as homosexual (if the perpetrator is male), and confusion about the experience due to the visible physiological responses they may have – such as an erection. Addressing the problem of child sexual abuse directly and responsibly is important to fostering appropriate awareness of this difficult topic.