Stolen innocence: Tell-tale signs of sexual abuse and how to protect your child

By: ROSE ODENGO

She was outside playing with her friends when her father called her into the house. She rushed inside, her intention to quickly complete whatever it was her father wanted her to do, and then continue playing.

She walked into the bedroom, where her father was, and then sat on the bed as instructed. He then started to touch her inappropriately.

She sat there, confused and shocked, unable to say or do anything to stop her father. He assured her he would not hurt her, that he loved her.

Afterwards, he playfully told her that this would be their secret, and that she should never tell anyone. He then handed her Sh20.

Susan Akinyi, (not her real name) was only nine years old at the time, the year, 1971. She is 53 years old now, and a mother of two boys, 19 and 23, but still carries the emotional scars emanating from that incident.

“You feel very helpless, and as a child, you lack the words to describe the emotions that come with sexual abuse, and from your own father,” she says.

Her mother had been away at work during the incident, and when she returned that evening, she must have noticed a change in her daughter’s demeanour, because she asked her whether she was unwell.

“That is all I remember my mum asking me, but I never told her what he had done,” she says.

Soon afterwards, Akinyi began to wet her bed, something she had long stopped doing. She went on to wet her bed until she was 15.

Anita Awuor, a psychologist, points out that regressive behaviour is one of many signs of child abuse, which a parent should never ignore.

“A child who has been abused may revert to behaviour they have outgrown,” she Ms Awuor.

Akinyi believes that the emotional scars one bears from sexual abuse unconsciously influences the choices one makes. In her case, it was “settling for less” in her relationships.

At just 21, she moved in with a man 12 years older. After three years together, the man, who she considered her husband, legally married another woman, and never recognised Akinyi as his legitimate wife, even though they were still together.

They remained so for 30 years until the man, the father of her children, died a few years ago.

VERBAL AND EMOTIONAL ABUSE

“I went through a lot of verbal and emotional abuse, but I stayed put – he was a good provider and cared for the children”.

In retrospect, she now understands that she ran into his arms not more out of love, but for the protection he would offer from her father.

In most cases, the stories of child sexual abuse that are reported in the media are those of children who come from poor homes, where the father, also the abuser, is uneducated, poor, and unemployed. But experts say that sexual abuse of children cuts across all spheres of society. Akinyi’s father for instance, was an educated man with a university education, a senior government official who was extensively travelled.

She would later learn, many years later, that her father had sexually abused her two younger sisters as well, but they too had kept the terrible secret to themselves.

In 2012, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He was ill, and the violent man she knew was now subdued and vulnerable. During a visit to check up on him, he turned to Akinyi, stretched his hand towards her and said, “My daughter, please forgive me.” As he spoke, a tear rolled down his cheek.

She says that she is in the process of forgiving her father, an act she hopes willfinally heal her emotional wounds. The process began when she came across a book on forviness.

“I have learnt that though I will never forget what happened to me, I need to accept, heal and live free from the negative emotional effects of that experience.”

She is yet to gather courage to confront her father though;

“I need to hear him admit what he did with his own mouth and say why he chose us, his children.”

Akinyi’s sons are not close to their grandfather, she made sure they were never in close contact with him while growing up. The fear of what happened to her also prompted her to bar her children from sleeping over in other people’s homes, including their relatives’.

She spoke about her experience for the first time when she was 40 years old, 31 years after the incident happened. It was during a counselling class in college. One of classmates opened up about being sexually abused, moving her to talk about her experience too.

Three years later, she attended a forum on sexual abuse were she stood up and shared her story. Since then, she uses every opportunity that comes her way to talk about it, something she says is therapeutic.

Akinyi, a social worker, is now studying for a degree in psychology.

“My dream is to put up a shelter for abused children, where they can get the therapy they need, as well as love and compassion.”

IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT

Most of the people that are sexually abused, as well as their families, keep quiet because of the shame, and humiliation attached to sexual abuse.

They feel that it is more palatable to keep the matter covered, rather than report it, even though this would expose the perpetrator. Others deny that it happened all together.

If you are a parent, you are probably asking yourself how you can keep your child safe. There are several steps you can take,

“To begin with, you need to set boundaries and ensure they are respected, for instance, do not allow your child to spend time alone with strangers, or people you are not familiar with,” says Ms Awuor .

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEXUAL ABUSE

Start to talk to your children as early as possible about their body parts. This includes pointing out their private parts and telling them why no one should touch them. Three years is a good time to start.

You can use a song to teach your children about their body, for instance the one that goes, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” and then incorporating the private parts.

Also teach them to distinguish between normal touch and inappropriate touch.

Nurture an open relationship with your child, so that they are comfortable enough to share their experiences with you.

Teach your children the difference between good and bad secrets.

Define the parameters of social engagement. Never force or encourage your child to kiss or hug anyone.

Be the one who bathes your child until a certain age, and then teach them to bath themselves. Your child can bathe himself by five years.

HOW WE EXPOSE OUR CHILDREN TO POTENTIAL ABUSE

You do not have an open relationship with your child, making it difficult or even impossible for them to talk to you openly about what is happening to them.

You allow them to accept gifts, for instance sweets, from anyone, including strangers.

You do not monitor what they watch on television.

You rarely spend time with them, making it difficult to spot tell-tale signs of abuse.

THESE ARE SIGNS OF SEXUAL ABUSE

Age-inappropriate behaviour, such as touching their dolls inappropriately or eating certain foods in a sexually provocative manner, or if your child touches another inappropriately.

Highly inappropriate speech, for instance, “Lift your skirt and let me touch you there.” At age four, this could be an indicator of sexual abuse.

When your child suddenly becomes scared of someone who they never had a problem with before.

For school going age children, grades may drop.

Sudden withdrawal when they are normally chatty or playful.

If you are giving them a bath and their body language changes, such as pulling away or flinching when you try to wash their genitals or other areas.

Some may start to have nightmares.

Some may revert to behaviour they had stopped, such as wetting their bed, sucking their thumbs, or become clingy.

If your four-year-old tells you that someone did something inappropriate to them, believe them. The younger the child, the more likely it is happening.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION