With sexual offences committed against children on the rise, parents worry constantly about keeping their children safe. One expert suggests starting with uncomplicated messaging at home.
Thandi Khumalo* is a mother to a 5-years-old girl, and like so many parents in South Africa, is constantly afraid for her child’s safety.
“I think that any parent who has a daughter, their biggest fear right now in this country, is the high likelihood or possibility of her getting raped,” she tells Health-e News. “From family, friends, and strangers, you are constantly filled with that anxiety.”
With incidents of paedophiles preying on children on the rise in the news and social media, parents like Khumalo are desperate to find ways to protect their children. Khumalo has tried to sensitise her child about what to do if someone tried to harm her or does something physically inappropriate.
“We tried to water it down as best as possible. We let her know that she can come and talk to me or her father if somebody does something that she doesn’t like,” she says. “We talked to her about not letting anyone touch her private parts and if somebody touches her private parts or makes her do something that she really doesn’t want to, she should come and talk to either mommy or daddy.”
Simple concrete message
Child rights and protection expert, Doctor Joan van Niekerk, says Khumalo’s honesty and clear communication with her child is the right start.
“What one needs is very simple concrete messaging that is integrated into other safety messages such as crossing the road, not touching someone’s blood or letting others touch yours and so on,” said van Niekerk.
Along with this, parents should include simple messages about not letting others touch genitals or anus. While these words are shocking to adults, there are other ways to warn your children if you are trying to avoid using the blunt phrases.
“Using the proper names but also the names that the family use most of the time, for example peepee instead of penis,” suggested van Niekerk.
Parents should also encourage children to talk to them if these violations do unfortunately take place.
“Parents should invite questions and respond to them honestly and not overload the child with too much information. Simple and clear words and sentences,” advises van Niekerk. “Don’t talk about the dichotomy of good and bad touching. Clever offenders will make sexual touching gentle and pleasant if they want to retain access to the child.”
Parents are the best educators
Although parents may educate their children about these dangers and how to protect themselves, little can entirely protect them from abuse, warns van Niekerk.
“No messaging can protect your child totally. Nothing replaces proper supervision of young, and older children. Children may be threatened with physical or emotional harm, manipulated, rewarded, or feel unable to say no to a respected adult,” she says.
“Very young children do not have the maturity to delay instant gratification such as sweets in exchange for genital touching for example. So, parents must be realistic. You can give your child instructions and messages but these may not prevent abuse,” adds van Niekerk.
While public education on sexual abuse exists at school or on television, parents should still take the lead. Van Niekerk believes that parents are the best source of information for their children on these difficult issues. She believes parents are the ones who educate their children.
“If someone else does this the child might feel that this is too bad to talk to their mom or dad about it,” she said. “One wants to avoid children feeling unable to approach their parents. If parents feel unsure, they are the ones who should consult with the expert, not leave someone else to talk to the child.”
Sexual offences on the rise
The South African Police Services reported that 24,387 sexual offences against children were committed in 2018/2019. Annual crime statistics show that in offences, 18,586 were the victims of rape while 4,451 were sexually assaulted. There were also 788 contact sexual assaults reported, and 562 cases of attempted rape during this period. .
A 2016 study by the Optimus Foundation found that rates of sexual abuse of children in South Africa are higher than the global average. In the study, 19.8% of respondents reported some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime—20% of boys and 19% of girls. A further 11.7% reported having been forced to have sex.
Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to one billon children aged 2-17 years have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect.
— POWER 98.7 (@Powerfm987) June 4, 2020
Parents are also advised to remain calm in instances where their children have been touched inappropriately by older children or adults. Overreacting by the parents is sometimes more traumatic than the abuse itself.
They can do the following:
- Listen to the child’s story;
- Don’t ask closed-ended questions or give the child a lecture or cross-examination;
- Seek help from a social worker or children’s organisation like the Teddy Bear Clinic immediately or call Childline’s 24-hour line on 08000 55555;
- Report it to the police. But, don’t let the police take a statement or question your child unless they are a trained child protection unit officer;
- Ensure the safety of your child from here onward.
Still, if touching and even attempted penetration happens between two pre-schoolers, this cannot be labelled as rape, especially if they are the same age. Children are very curious about each other’s bodies at this age and will look and explore. One has to respond sensibly and teach them the rules.