Friday, September 12, 2014

The international dimensions of sexual abuse

Sexual and interpersonal violence are global issues with the capacity to affect anyone regardless of cultural, gender or social background. This means that sexual and interpersonal violence are part of the human condition as opposed to being specific to any given society. Although, how we prevent, discuss, report, treat, punish and reintegrate in respect to sexual offending will differ based upon geographical location as well as social context (ESRC Online Debate 4). We are starting to see an increase in the awareness of the reality of sexual abuse that transpires intentionally (i.e., in India and the recent revelations about ISIS). Recently UNICEF released a report on the degree of sexual and interpersonal violence globally based on data from 190 countries (Hidden in plain sight). The data is collected for an array of existing national and international data sources, not from the creation or distribution of new surveys. This means that the data is an accumulation of what we already know and therefore is not necessarily as up to date or rigorous as it could be. Important factors to keep in mind when examining this type of report, or data set, are that;

-           the same data was not available for all 190 countries, so the more developed and data driven the country is the more it will be represented in the report;

-          different countries record data at different points and in different ways;

-          there are different terms, categories and definitions of sexual abuse used in different countries;

-          there are different cultural barriers or sensitivities surrounding the discussion of sexual abuse in general, but particularly in regard to certain types of sexual abuse (i.e., male rape) and the gender of victims (i.e.., girl and female sexual victimisation as opposed boy and male victimisation).

The data presented in the UNICEF report therefore comes with its own health warning; it is a snapshot of the current global picture of sexual and interpersonal violence, not the complete picture. The key data is available in the report, but I would like to focus on the sexual abuse data specifically (see chapter 4 of the report for more detail);

-          Sexual abuse against children is not just limited to girls but that boys are impacted too. The report indicates that boys are subject to sexual violence at a lower level than girls and that boys are an under recognised population in respect to sexual abuse victimisation (reinforcing a recent comment by Barnardo’s - independent).

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse where aged between 15 -19 at the time.

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse the perpetrators was an intimate partner or someone known to them.

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse reported that the abuse occurred in everyday locations (i.e., the victim’s home, the home of the perpetrator, home of another known person or on route to a familiar location with a known person).

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of girls (15 – 19) who were victims of physical violence where not necessarily victims of sexual violence in tandem; however, girls who reported being victims of sexual violence also reported physical violence. This shows a complex correlation but not causality.

-          In the countries where data was available physical violence against boys (15-19) outweighed both sexual violence against boys as well as sexual and physical violence against boys combined.

-          The report indicates that victims of childhood sexual abuse delay in disclosing their victimisation, if they ever disclose at all. The reasons for this delayed, or lack, of disclosure includes fear of reprisals, feels of guilt and/or shame, lack of confidence and lack of awareness of support services available to them.

-          The report indicates that in some countries girls (15 – 19) are less likely to seek help and support than adult women, with boys and men seeking less help across the board than girls or women.

-          In respect to online sexual victimisation the report indicates that children are continuing to become more internet savvy, that children feel more comfortable in sharing inmate information online and feel safer online than previous generations. The report indicates that girls are more likely to be groomed online, that older children are more likely to be groomed online compared to younger children and that all children find it harder to differentiate online between “strangers” and “virtual friends”.

-          The report highlights a recent shift in terminology with many governments adopting “child abuse images” as opposed to “child pornography”.

-          The report highlights a recent increase, as reported by governments, in the volume and variety of images, recordings as well as the live streaming of child sexual abuse.

The data in this report reinforces what we already know from the academic literature and the government statistics about the prevalence as well as reporting of sexual abuse. In doing so the report reinforces that sexual abuse is a global issue and that the same types of sexual abuse problems arise globally regardless of location and/or culture. Hence, the issues surrounding child sexual abuse that we deal with on a day to day are not just western issues (albeit the specificity of them maybe) but global ones. The report comes with an additional document highlighting six strategies for action in responding to violence against children, including sexual abuse, which highlights the need for changing social norms, better education and support (for children, families and caregivers) as well as the need for better evidence based policy. These strategies are things that we can sign up to and are already doing in our own work, but what the report does is remind us that we need to be discussing these issues and sharing good practice internationally.

Kieran McCartan PhD

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