16 Things You Didn’t Know About Incest/Child Sexual Abuse And How To End It

We are pleased to welcome a guest “16 For 16” article from the RAHI Foundation. Established in 1996, RAHI is a pioneering organisation focused on women survivors of Incest and Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). RAHI’s work includes support and recovery through the distinctive RAHI Model of Healing, awareness and education about incest/ CSA, training and intervention, and research and capacity building – all established within the larger issue of social change.

In this article, they provide an overview of what incest/child sexual abuse is and the steps we can take for prevention and intervention when we recognise it in our communities.

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Child sexual abuse is the abuse of a child involving sexual activity by a more powerful person. When this person is a member of the child’s family or close enough to the child’s family to qualify as ‘as if’ family, the abuse is called incest.

Incest/child sexual abuse (CSA) is veiled in silence. Like all forms of abuse and harassment, we want to believe ‘it doesn’t happen here’, but the reality of incest/CSA is far grimmer and made up of uncomfortable truths. Incest/CSA is more common than we realise, and usually perpetrated by someone loved, respected and trusted by the child. They can have damaging consequences on the child which can continue into adulthood. However, its scars are not permanent, and victims and survivors of incest/CSA can heal from their abuse, leave their past behind, and lead rich, fulfilling lives.

Incest/CSA is also shrouded in myths and misconceptions, which none of us are immune to falling for. Here are 16 things you didn’t know about incest/CSA.

*NB: We use the term ‘victims’ for children who have been sexually abused and ‘survivors’ for adults who were sexually abused when they were children.

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Part 1: Get The Facts About Incest/Child Abuse

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #1: It’s more common than you think. Incest/CSA is the epidemic no one speaks about. A government-led study on child abuse in India in 2007 revealed that out of a sample of over 14,000 children, 53.3% had experienced some form of sexual abuse in childhood. RAHI’s own research, detailed in Voices from the Silent Zone (published, 1998 – you can order a copy over email), found that amongst 600 English speaking middle- and upper-class women in cities in India, 76% had experienced sexual abuse in childhood out of which 40% was incest.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #2: It mostly takes place in families. Media reports on incest/CSA usually portray it as an act committed by a stranger. However, the majority of cases of CSA are cases of incest with the perpetrator being a member of the child’s family, or someone close to and respected by the child’s family.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #3: Abusers are not monsters. As much as we would like to believe that abusers are different from us and place them in the guise of ‘monsters’ or ‘mentally ill,’ the truth is that abusers are more like us than they are not like us. It is impossible for us to identify an abuser unless we know that he is abusing.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #4: Victims and survivors find it difficult to disclose what has happened to them. Disclosure is especially difficult for children who may lack the language to speak about what happened, may have been threatened by the abuser or may fear not being believed if they do disclose. Survivors of incest/CSA may only speak up about their abuse years after it takes place. Some may never reveal it at all. It takes an enormous amount of courage to speak about one’s own abuse.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #5: The majority of cases of incest/CSA are unreported. The rate of reporting of incest/CSA cases is even lower than the rate of disclosure. Fear of social stigma, the complexity of the victim’s feelings for her abuser and the daunting process of navigating the criminal justice system all contribute to the hesitation to report abuse.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #6: Survivors of incest/CSA may remember the abuse months, years or decades after it happened. Survivors may suppress memories of their abuse and how it made them feel. Some may not even recall having been sexually abused. However, these memories may be triggered by events or experiences that take place later in the survivor’s life.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #7: Incest/CSA has a long term impact on a woman’s emotional, mental and sexual health. Survivors of incest/CSA deal with comments like ‘It happened so long ago – it’s no big deal’ or ‘ just get over it’. However, when left unchecked, the impact of incest/CSA manifests in adulthood in the form of low self-esteem, relationship issues, eating disorders, self-harm or other destructive behaviours, and more.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #8: Recovery is possible. Survivors do not have to live with the effects of incest/CSA all their lives. Counselling that focuses on recovery and healing from the abuse empowers a survivor to acknowledge what happened and decide to act to reclaim their lives. Through the healing process, survivors are able to move beyond the abuse and build fulfilling lives for themselves.

Part 2: Things You Can Do About Incest/CSA

Incest/CSA can be identified and prevented. It is the responsibility of the adults in a child’s life to identify signs of abuse or distress and take action. Here are 8 things you can do to prevent incest/CSA:

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #9: Accept and believe that incest/CSA could happen in your own family or home. While we want to believe that incest/CSA doesn’t or would never happen in our family, by denying the possibility that our own home could be unsafe for a child we make the space even more unsafe. When we believe that incest/CSA is as likely to happen in our own homes as anywhere else, we can take the necessary precautions to create safe spaces for children and decrease the risk of incest/CSA happening.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #10: Seek help for your own abuse, if any. If you are a survivor of incest/CSA yourself, it is possible that the impact of your own abuse is affecting your behaviour. Survivors may show overprotective or overcautious behaviour that may end up hindering children’s development rather than enabling their independence. When you have resolved the issues around your own abuse, you will be better equipped to take the steps needed to prevent incest/CSA .

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #11: Watch out for signs. While children may not be able to disclose that they are being abused, certain behaviours or signs, such as inappropriate sexual behaviour with other children or writing stories about sex or abuse, indicate that the child is facing sexual abuse. More general symptoms such as frequent illnesses, withdrawal and isolation, and eating disturbances are also signs of distress in a child.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #12: Educate yourself. Read about incest/CSA on the Internet and follow organisations working on the issue on Facebook and Twitter. If there is an organisation near you working on incest/CSA you can volunteer with them or see if they are holding any workshops and training programmes that you can attend (you can reach out to RAHI Foundation for information by writing in to info@rahifoundation.org). When fighting to end incest/CSA, a sound education on the subject is the most formidable weapon in your arsenal.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #13: Talk to children about sexuality and boundaries. Children should grow up knowing that sex is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. It is up to us to teach them their rights and tell them that it’s OK to say ‘no’ – even to an adult. Children should also know who they can go to in case someone does something to them that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #14: Create a safe space for children. Make sure you create an environment in which children and their opinions are valued and respected. In a safe space, a child is not fearful of approaching an adult or wary that she might be reprimanded or punished for saying what she feels. A child that is involved and treated as a vital part of the community – whether it is within the home, school, or any other setting – is more likely to be able to tell a trusted adult if she is being abused.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #15: Talk about it. Since so many cases of child sexual abuse are cases of incest, bringing incest/CSA into everyday conversation challenges the very foundation of the family unit, making it an issue people are reluctant to talk about. This, of course, makes it all the more necessary to talk about it. Talk about incest/CSA as you talk about current events with family and friends, take part in online campaigns and conversations around the issue, and if you have any influence in the media (especially social media), make it a part of your agenda to include the topic in your public conversations whenever possible.

Recognising & Ending Incest/CSA #16: Know how to react. In order to prevent incest/CSA from recurring you need to know what to do when a child discloses their sexual abuse to you. The most important thing to do is to believe the child. Reassure her that she did the right thing in coming to you and that the abuse was not her fault. When you take action, make sure you tell the child what action you are taking. If she feels you are talking about the abuse behind her back, she will feel like she did something wrong. Involve the child and respect her feelings when deciding on what course of action you will take.

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