A little girl is often sent to her uncle who she loves so much to play. A few months after, the once bubbly and vibrant little girl is now quiet and withdrawn. Her mother notices the change but chalks it up to school troubles. It is another long weekend and she tells her daughter she would be sending her to uncle again for the weekend; the little girl protests and throws a tantrum. Over the course of a few years, this continues, until one day when the little girl tells her mother her uncle has been touching her inappropriately. The mother dismisses her story and refuses to believe her, saying her (own)younger brother would never do that (anything negative) to her daughter. “He is just playing with you” she says. And the little girl is scarred for life. This scenario plays out in various ways in our society today. In fact, almost every day there is a new case of child abuse in the news. In 2015, UNICEF reported that one in four girls and one in 10 boys in Nigeria had experienced sexual violence before the age of 18, with 88 per cent of victims knowing their abuser. And only 4.2 per cent of girls and 3.4 percent of boys receive needed help.
According to a survey by positive Action for Treatment Access, over 31.4 per cent of girls said that their first sexual encounter had been rape or forced sex of some kind. The fact is that the statistics are alarming and the stories are heart-rending. Even worse though is the effect of abuse on the innocent victims. When a perpetrator engages with a child this way, they are committing a crime that could have lasting effects on the victim for years. The child is usually unaware of what is going on but he/she knows that it is wrong and the resulting guilt and pain that come after is something that never leaves.
Yet even more cutting than the abuse is when parents or guardians refuse to listen, not just hear the words but actually listen. The fast-paced and economically difficult world that we live in today gives most parents less time with their children and even when they do spend time with their children, they are too distracted to truly listen to their children. Listening goes beyond just making out the words being uttered to actually wanting to understand the emotions behind the words, deciphering the pauses and the meaning behind the words. It takes full concentration which sadly in our new ultra-interconnected world requires effort. Effort which most parents do not have the time to make.
The late American psychologist, Edwin Shneidman, said, “When you listen for the pain, hurt and fear in people, it is always there. And when people sense you doing that with no other motive than to alleviate all of those, they will lower their walls and reveal them to you”. When parents spend time with their children and listen to them, they will reveal their inner thoughts and fears. And when they do, believing them can go a long way because most abusers threaten children with the saying that no one will believe them. Having a close relationship with their children will help parents because, then, the children will be able to approach them with every fear or pain and trust that they will listen. As a society, we need to re-examine our responses to these issues. While the parents of victims are not to blame for the abuse that occurred, it is important that all parents become more sensitive to the needs of their kids. Because perpetrators are often family members and people we trust, we need to work harder at protecting children. Being willing to take the risk of potentially looking paranoid when questioning an adult’s behaviour toward a child is perhaps required in this regard. Most important, when children speak up, we have a duty of truly listening if we are going to be in position to help them. This is not just a responsibility of the parents but the society as a whole.
- Wale-Olaitan is of the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.