Commentary: When does a touch become unsafe? When a 6-year-old discloses sexual abuse
Safeguarding our children from sexual abuse has got to start young, says Singapore Children’s Society CEO Alfred Tan.
SINGAPORE: During one of our programme on body safety skills, a class of six-year-olds were shown various scenario cards depicting good and bad touches.
When a particular card showed a man touching a boy on his groin area, a boy in class insisted that it was a good touch, despite the rest of his classmates disagreeing.
When asked why, the boy replied that his father, as well as his father’s friend, had taken off his clothes and touched his penis.
To the boy, this was part of their play and because he had not been taught body safety skills before.
He did not realise that he had been sexually abused.
READ: ‘They don’t deserve to take so much away from me’ – how survivors of child sexual abuse find hope, recovery, a commentary
There has been much public attention on the case involving Australian Boris Kunsevitsky, a diagnosed paedophile who is currently facing charges for committing child sexual abuse on dozens of victims.
This case hits especially close to home, since five of his victims were from Singapore.
Even so, it is crucial to highlight that it is not just paedophiles who may sexually abuse children. There are also regressed offenders who typically have no sexual interest in children, but commit sexual abuse during times of stress; such as when they encounter financial pressures or marital strain.
We also often think that sexual abuse perpetrators are strangers, when in reality a majority of perpetrators are people familiar to the children. These perpetrators take advantage of their relationship with the children to groom them, sexually abuse them, and get them to keep the abuse a secret.
LISTEN: Child sexual abuse – grappling with betrayal and trauma, on The Pulse podcast
The case of Kunsevitsky is one of the latest in a spate of child sexual abuse cases reported in the news in the past year.
Child abuse investigation statistics released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development revealed that in 2018, there were 248 sexual abuse cases that were investigated. Almost all involved a family member or relative.
WHY TEACH YOUNG CHILDREN ABOUT BODY SAFETY SKILLS
Child sexual abuse is often shrouded in secrecy and shame, and younger children are particularly vulnerable.
Cases are often under-reported as they may not have the linguistic skills to verbalise the abuse. Some may not even understand that abuse has happened to them in the first place
For these reasons, Singapore Children’s Society has conducted KidzLive: I Can Protect Myself, a body safety skills programme since 2000.
For the last nine years, we have focused our efforts on pre-schoolers and have reached over 10,900 young children in Singapore. The key elements in our programme include guiding children to be able to identify bad touches and inappropriate actions, and to tell a trusted adult should sexual abuse happen.
Even though KidzLive is a prevention programme, we have encountered a handful of sexual abuse disclosures, like the case shared at the beginning of this commentary. This case was screened in for investigation by the Child Protective Service (CPS) and the boy was placed temporarily in his grandmother’s care.
These disclosures, which were flagged to either the CPS or the Early Childhood Development Agency for further intervention, demonstrate that young children can speak up about abuse if given the right tools.
In the course of our work, we have encountered our fair share of sceptics who question whether the children are actually able to grasp the programme’s messages and whether we are, in a crude sense, corrupting their minds.
READ: When children say they’ve been sexually abused, believe them, a commentary
What we have learnt is quite the contrary — our programme evaluation has shown that young children have the capacity to pick up and retain body safety messages.
KEY BODY SAFETY MESSAGES
Body safety teaching is part of sexuality education, and it takes a wider perspective than sex education, which is more narrowly concerned with explaining the act of sex.
Sexuality education, instead, focuses on equipping children with the skills to make responsible decisions about their social and sexual relationships.
Just like academic learning, body safety messages have to be carefully calibrated to children’s cognitive and sexual development. For example, with children aged two or three, we can start by using the proper terms for private body parts and emphasising the “underwear rule” – and that no one should see or touch the parts covered by their underwear.
The key is in keeping our messages age-appropriate and making use of everyday teachable moments. Some essential points to note are:
- For adults to use the proper terms for private body parts. This helps children develop a healthy mindset towards their own bodies. Emphasise that the parts covered by their underwear are private and not for anyone else.
- When children pose questions, keep answers as factual and simple as possible. After explaining, ask children questions to ensure that messages have been understood correctly.
- Tell children that even familiar people should not behave inappropriately towards them. Empower them to be assertive in saying “no” to unwanted touches, including hugs and kisses.
- Remind our children that they should always tell their trusted adults whenever they felt uncomfortable with unwanted touches, and to keep telling until someone listens. Rehearse telling so that children would know exactly what to say, and who to tell, should the situation arise.
PARENTS AS CHILDREN’S FIRST EDUCATORS
Parents are the best people to build the foundation for healthy sexuality.
Research has shown that children who receive sexuality education are less likely to be obsessed with the “mystery” of it all. Being open in communicating such messages also leads to more responsible sexual behaviours and delayed sexual initiation.
In this digital era, children have access to mobile devices at an even younger age. Such access is often unsupervised and this puts children at a higher risk of stumbling upon sexually inappropriate or exploitative content online.
It is increasingly pertinent for parents to maintain an open communication with children about their lives and about general advancements in technology, so that we are able to understand what they are doing in the online world.
READ: When should children be allowed to have their own mobile phones? A commentary
Times may have changed, but the way parents engage with their children, in setting boundaries and teaching about respectful relationships should remain the same.
Adults also need to be supportive and assuring to children who disclose abuse. We have to be mindful of our own tendencies to want to deny, rationalise or minimise the abuse incident.
To provide support to parents and caregivers, Children’s Society also conducts teacher trainings and parents’ talks such that caregivers can also be on board with reinforcing body safety skills. Just this past month, we launched a storybook entitled Jun and the Octopus, that caregivers can use to kick start meaningful conversations about body safety.
EFFORTS MOVING FORWARD
On the legislative front, the Singapore Government has been making progress in enhancing protections for vulnerable victims of sexual offences, including children, through the Criminal Law Reform Bill. The bill provides for extra-territorial jurisdiction in the prosecution of child abuse material offences.
This means that sexual abuse perpetrators from overseas, like Kunsevitsky, who possess, produce or distribute child abuse material involving children in Singapore, are liable to criminal charges under our country’s laws.
We hope the Government could also look into implementing more stringent measures against known sexual abuse perpetrators.
These could include providing for the mandatory screening of would-be employees at child-centric organisations against the sex offenders registry, and tagging offenders so their movements in and out of the country are restricted.
Organisations also have the responsibility to undertake child-safe practices, such as having clear codes of conduct when interacting with children and youth, robust recruitment processes and concrete risk management strategies should allegations of abuse arise.
It takes a community effort to deter potential perpetrator and keep our children safe.
With parents and other caregivers around the children taking proactive steps in imparting body safety skills and supporting children who disclose abuse, we can, and will, create safer spaces for our children to grow up in.
Alfred Tan is CEO of Singapore Children’s Society.