Study after study has linked child abuse with depression, mood disorders, feelings of isolation and stigma and poor self-esteem among others.
Investing in children’s physical and psychological wellbeing ensures a higher return than building roads, temples or even buying houses and motorcycles. Most people will agree with this argument. Sadly, except for few children from well-to-do families, most children often go through multiple victimizations of poverty, poor health, poor nutrition, violence, abuse and numerous other maltreatment. Among many of those vices, child sexual exploitation or child molestation is one of the most horrifying and the least talked about issues. As a nation, as a society or even as a family, we often brush aside the issue of child sexual abuse.
Numerous studies have conducted to measure the prevalence of child sexual abuse. In one of the most extensive studies, Marije Stoltenborgh, professor of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and her colleagues found that 127 in every 1,000 children are victims of sexual abuse. The lowest rates were found in Asia, for both girls (113 per 1,000) and boys (41 per 1000). Scholars have pointed that the reason for the lowest rate in Asia is underreporting. Because of our victim-shaming culture, nobody comes forward to report cases of abuse, especially if the perpetrator is from one’s own family.
According to Lucy Berliner, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, in most cases the victims are girls and perpetrators are males (98 of 100). Perpetrators are known to children (family, friends of family) and child sexual abuse prevalent rate is equivalent in families of all social classes.
In Nepal, research on child sexual abuse is scant. In one survey using 150 students in selected high-school in Kathmandu, L Rajbansi (Matron of Chitwan Medical College) reported that 42 percent of the students had experienced sexual abuse. Save the Children reported that abuse is most prevalent in ages between 11-15 years and perpetrators are frequently family members, relatives, neighbors and teachers in Nepal.
Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) had conducted studies among school children. They found that nine percent of children experienced serious nature of sexual abuse and 18 percent have experienced other forms of sexual abuse.
There have been extensive studies on both short-term and long-term effects of sexual abuse in the United States and elsewhere, especially after the 1980s. To illustrate, David Finkelhor and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis and established that sexual abuse of child is the major risk factor in the development of many negative consequences as an adult and adolescence.
The short-term effects range from physical bruises and scars, sleep-disturbances (insomnia, night terrors and nightmares), eating problems, to non-participation in school activities, emotionally disturbed, and low self-esteem. The most common effect is sexualized behavior in children. Sexualized behavior usually included things such as sexualized play with dolls, excessive or public masturbation, seductive behavior, requesting sexual stimulation from adults or other children, and age-inappropriate sexual knowledge.
The ever-increasing volume of research on long-term effect of child abuse consistently shows that the effect is toxic to children. Study after study has linked child abuse with major episodes of depression, mood disorders, feelings of isolation and stigma, poor self-esteem, distrust, substance abuse and sexual maladjustment. Other psychopathological disorders such as suicide, panic disorder, dissociative disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and antisocial behaviors are also common.
According to Stoltenborgh, adolescents sexually abused in childhood are five times more likely to report non-clinical psychotic experiences such as delusions and hallucinations than their non-abused counterparts. Sexually abused adolescents are 18 to 21 times more likely to become substance abusers. The rate of teen pregnancy among sexually abused girls is approximately four times higher than among their non-abused counterparts. Adult women with a history of childhood sexual abuse show greater evidence of sexual disturbance or dysfunction and are more likely than non-abused women to be revictimized. Greater harm is inflicted if the father or father figure is the perpetrator and if sexual abuse involves penetration. Child abuse and neglect also result in impaired brain development with long-term consequences for cognitive, language, and academic abilities.
Frank Putnam has categorized the negative effect on neurodevelopment (physical and biological growth of the brain, nervous, and endocrine systems) and psychosocial development (personality formation including morals, values, social conduct, capacity for relationships with other individuals and respect for social institutions). Stoltenborgh grouped them into four factors—traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness and stigmatization.
Nepal is far behind other countries in protecting its children against abuse, both legally and socially. We do not have a conducive environment to report the crime. We do not have any strong legal mechanism for punishing the perpetrators and we do not have any provision of rehabilitation of victims such as counseling or therapy. Most of the times, we do not want to acknowledge the crime even if it is happening in our own social circle or in our family.
Though there are different legislations that claim to prohibit all types of violence against children, there is no concrete law that provides safety to children against sexual abuse. For example, United States had stipulated child sexual abuse as the biggest crime. The penalty for the perpetrators could be from minimum five years to life imprisonment. Many states are even arguing for the execution of the perpetrators. Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act requires the offender to register themselves and update their whereabouts every three months. The Act also creates sex offender registry and provides an update on the internet.
The belief is that children under 18 are unable to give consent and thus any act of sexual nature despite the child’s consent is considered as a crime. There are similar strict and clear provisions in other developed countries as well. In Nepal, however, we do not have any kind of law that makes provision for registering the sex offenders. Along with the loose legal framework, our society’s value system also discourages to identify sex offenders.