On 17 March, the Straits Times reported a 30 per cent increase in child abuse cases in 2018 over the year before. Almost one in five of the cases involved sexual abuse.
More recently, the newspapers covered the trial of a retired principal accused of molesting several students. Although reports of people in positions of responsibility, like priests and even parents, breaching the trust placed on them are common, they have usually happened elsewhere.
Yet, sexual assault does happen in our backyard. Some have even been perpetrated in public places like parks and HDB staircases. Others have happened in what we think of as the safest of all places—in the victims’ homes.
The fact of child sexual abuse in Singapore hit home when I attended an event organised by AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research). As I sat watching a locally-produced video and listened to personal accounts of sexual violence ranging from harassment to incest, I was dumbstruck. Words cannot express the mix of emotions I felt. I was outraged by the perpetrators’ vile and reprehensible acts. I was awed by the resilience and courage of the survivors, especially one who called herself a “warrior”. I was also confounded and saddened by the response of those around these children who could have acted to protect them, but did not.
In one account, the victim’s complaint did receive attention. Sadly, it was negative—she was scolded for lying and for making up horrible stories against such a dedicated teacher.
Within my own practice, I had a client who related to me how, when she was a young child, she had run home with her clothes torn from her little body after an assault. Her mother flew into a blind rage and caned her. So traumatic were the sexual violation and her mother’s reaction that she suppressed the memory of the assault for years, and for a long time felt very uneasy with close human contact.
How is it, we may wonder, that family members act in such a disbelieving, callous and even harsh manner? When the appropriate response would be to assure them that what has happened is unacceptable, and to offer protection and help?
There may be different reasons. Sometimes, there is the irrational response of disbelief and denial. In other situations, there may be a difficult choice between protecting the child and the family’s honour. Then there are those who want to give the offenders another chance in the vain hope that the abuse would not recur.
Thankfully, there are cases when family members and others like childcare teachers and social workers believed the victims when they came forward. We now know that children do not make up such stories without cause. When their need for help is recognised and they receive protection and support quickly, their prognosis of recovery is more positive.
In other instances, the adults uncover the abuse. They notice children behaving in a sexualised manner or showing sudden behavioural changes like withdrawing with fear in the presence of an older person. Although it is a grim behaviour to confront, we cannot and must not fail to protect the vulnerable young.
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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