Hector-Fowobaje: Speedy trial, stiffer sanctions best for sexual offences

Ololade Hector-Fowobaje

Psychologist/Executive Director, O5 Centre for Children and Women, Ololade Hector-Fowobaje says shorter trials, stiffer punishment will encourage survivors and parents of sexual violence survivors to seek justice. She spoke with GERALDINE AKUTU.

What is responsible for the surge in sexual violence?
Sexual abuse has always been an under reported crime against children. Though social media and technology has made the awareness better, the epidemic is certainly worsening by the day, with pornography and technology as the main culprits. Defilement of children is also on the rise as mothers are increasingly abdicating their roles and responsibilities because the economy has made them sole or co-breadwinners of their families. Of course, this has also inadvertently exposed their children to abuse.

What are the factors that redispose a child or children to risks of sexual violence?
While every child is at the frontline of this clear and present danger in our homes, schools and communities, the family/home structure makes the child more or less vulnerable to abuse. Children who live with step parents, single parents or children living with their relatives, family friends or strangers are more at risk. Also, children living in homes, with a lot of domestics are more prone to sexual violence.

Also, another factor is the fact that most children are sexuality education deficient as parents are not teaching children about their bodies and how to prevent abuse. Ignorance, therefore serves as the fertiliser for abuse because it makes it easy for the predator to groom the child and ultimately abuse her.

Parents who are extremely uncomfortable with, and shy away from doing the needful end up putting their children at higher risk.

Passive, lonely, quiet and troubled children are also easy preys just as children with disabilities are at greater risk. Mute children, for instance are easily taken advantage of. Also, while the prevalence cuts across all socio-economic strata, the risk is tripled for children in low income homes, who live in communal settings and are more easily tempted with inducements. Girls are definitely more endangered, but boys are also abused.

Are there signs that parents can watch out for not to be caught unawares?
Vigilance is key. Parents, particularly mothers, who ideally should spend more time with children need to be very observant and investigate any suspicion or concern immediately, and also note that signs are more of behavioural than physical.

Emotional and attitudinal changes, genital discharge, irritation or infection, painful bowel movement, bedwetting, nightmares, a child walking awkwardly, bruises and marks, sexualised talks and drawings, drop in academic performance, reluctance to be with a particular person, fear of certain places, sudden attachment to a particular person are all signs that need probing. Giving them time, assuring them that you are always there for them when they are generally scared, or worried, spending quality time with them makes you a safe haven to run to. Giving toddlers and young children papers and pencils to draw can let you into their mind. We should not let paranoia set in by asking them daily if someone touched them inappropriately.

What is the takeoff point for a parent whose ward or child has been sexually assaulted?
When a child discloses abuse, or the parent finds out on his/her own, the mental anguish is indescribable. However you must be strong for the child’s sake. Never, ever yell at or blame the child (victim). However, such parents must be calm, get all the facts and reassure the child that they are there for him or her.

The next step is to take the child for medical examination and tests, preferably at a public hospital, after which a report should be lodged at the police station. It is also very important to enlist the help of a relevant non-governmental organisation (NGO) if challenges are encountered.

At this point, the parent and the child would need counseling, and the child must be separated from the offender immediately, especially if they live together. Thereafter, watch out for the possible effects of the abuse, like masturbation and inform the therapist when you have concerns.

Does talking to a victim of sexual violence make matters worse for them?
Not if that is appropriately done. Asking for details from the child when you find out about the abuse is in order; a counselor or the police getting the facts is in order, but making a child recount the trauma again and again thereafter is double-trauma. Loads of reassurance and love is what the child needs at that time.

All said, an informed child is the best defence against any potential threat. It is also important to teach body safety, the same way you would talk to them about general safety, like crossing the road. It has to be done appropriately.

For primary school children, talk about body parts first, using the proper names from a very early age. Then identify the body parts that are private and mention them one by one.

Then teach body boundaries. Tell them that no one should touch their private parts and they should not touch someone else’s private parts too. If anyone tries to, they should yell a loud no and report immediately. Let them know they can say no to an adult if they are asked to do something wrong. Emphasise that no one has the right to touch their private parts, including their sibling, other relatives, friends, neighbour, teacher, driver, religious leader, maids, young, old and the elderly.

Discussing peer-to-peer abuse is vital as children are abusing other children at an alarming rate.
Unsupervised access to technological gadgets for young children must stop too.

What is the best approach for parents to talk to children that have been sexually abused?
By seeing a professional counsellor or therapist for a while. Child sexual abuse is the most insidious crime against children with dire psychological effects. So, psychosocial support must be in place for the survivor to heal over time. However, for those who don’t disclose and don’t seek therapy, they deal with a whole lot more.

Is punishment for sexual offenders in our clime appropriate?
Punishment should definitely be severe. What is also important is for trials to be shorter so that judgments can be faster, to encourage survivors and their parents to seek justice. Special sexual offences courts should be established in every state to ensure that this is done. Many survivors and their families get discouraged and pull out because trials take too long to be completed.

Some parents still doubt the issue of sexually abusing children in school?
Anal defilement of children is stark reality and schools have turned to dens of sexual abuse from field experience. Ensure your child’s school has a child protection policy. Above all, talk to your child about sexual abuse and incest. Let your teenager know there is a time for everything and also shun rape. You are your child’s first teacher, so be the first to talk to your children about their sexuality.

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