It’s time to speak out about the unspeakable

It’s time to speak out about the unspeakable

Published online in ‘The Punch’,

8th March 2012

During the early 1900s, at a time of increasing unrest over economic, social and political inequality for women, International Women’s Day was born. Now etched in our calendars, March 8th has even become an official holiday in some countries.

The day celebrates both the achievements and the vital contribution women make in society. It’s also a recognition of the role feminism has played in exposing sexual violence and seeking solutions to combat this problem. A problem that is yet to be abated.

The release late last month of the UN Secretary-general’s report on sexual violence during conflict, named military forces, militia and other armed groups as serious offenders in a large number of countries. Sexual violence was noted to have hampered peace building in places such as Timor Leste, Sierra Leone and Bosnia and featured in civil unrest in Egypt and Syria.

While sexual violence flourishes in regions which are at war or experiencing civil unrest, it is not restricted to such zones. In fact, sexual assault is a pervasive social practice which knows no religious, cultural, demographic or economic bounds.

While sexual assault can profoundly affect victims of all ages, child sexual assault is often the most damaging. Extensive research has established the impacts of child sexual assault on the brain not just in childhood but right through the life cycle.

In Australia, an estimated one in three girls, and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted in some way prior to the age of 18. While more typically perpetrated by men, women can and do offend. Sexual violence has long been used as a tool of power and control, instilling and exacerbating fear, helplessness and humiliation in vulnerable populations.

Children are inherently vulnerable. Child sexual assault is a primary act of betrayal by someone in a position of trust, often the very person charged with the child’s care. It violates the child’s basic human rights.

In situations of conflict and post conflict these crimes can be encapsulated in terms of civil and political rights, transgressed in the public domain.  However in Australia, the vast majority of cases of child sexual assault are perpetrated in the private domain, in the home and family.

In the 1970s and 80s, feminist waves first highlighted the often gendered crimes of sexual violence. For the first time, sexual abuse was publicly named, personal stories were told and power imbalance and control were identified as key factors in the perpetration of sexual violence.

While we have evidenced some changes in our societal approach to sexually violent crimes, in Australia we have a long way to go in combating the collective denial, stigma and taboo which would still rather not speak about the apparently unspeakable.

In recent years, the Australian media has begun to report on child sexual assault more frequently. But often they are sensationalised, with the focus shone on the facts of single cases, ignoring more substantive educative messages.

It is time to speak openly and candidly about the factors which foster child sexual assault, and how to mitigate them. More survivors and the organisations which represent them are starting to speak out but they need to be heard by a society which is ready to listen. Only then can survivors start to overcome the soul-destroying shame imposed on them by both their original victimisation and their re-victimisation by communities and systems which minimise, negate and/or dismiss their experiences.

As human beings we share a common humanity. Inherent in our humanity is an accompanying vulnerability. War and civil unrest create vulnerable populations where, fuelled by the oppression of women within those populations, the human rights abuses of violence and sexual violence can and do abound.

Within Australia we have our own history of human rights violations. Cultural dislocation and entrenched disadvantage have presided over an epidemic of violence and sexual violence within Indigenous communities, with substantiated rates of child abuse and neglect being eight times those of non-Indigenous communities.

Yet child sexual assault in Australia is widespread and not confined to Indigenous communities. We, in Australia, who live in the “lucky country”, a country at peace, must address the factors which enable child sexual assault to continue unabated.

This International Women’s Day let’s celebrate the contribution women have made in their various roles as mother, daughter, mentor, colleague, boss or friend. And let’s do what we can to protect the most vulnerable amongst us ­– our children – from child sexual assault.

Child protection programs which educate families on how to keep children safe are to be commended. However, not all children can defend themselves against sexual abusers, or feel safe enough to disclose and ask for help. All Australians need to be alert to the possibility of abuse and its signs in child victims.

The average paedophile has between 50 and 150 victims. If there is any suspicion that a child is being abused, it is important to come forward and notify the appropriate authorities. Should the suspicion not be substantiated, the consequences of being wrong are far less damaging than those of failing to report a case in which a child is actually being abused.

Not reporting not only leaves that child at risk of ongoing abuse, but puts other children at risk. Once reported the onus is on the authorities to investigate but we can all play a part. This International Women’s Day and every day from now on, let’s do what we can to keep our children safe from sexual predators.