By Martina Tomassini
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 22 October 2014 — No, in Cambodia it does not happen to girls and women only: boys too are victims of sexual violence and we need to protect and help them. This is the crystal clear message that transpires from my conversation with Socheat Nong — a soft-spoken 32 year-old social worker, researcher and trainer who works with First Step Cambodia (FSC),one of the few NGOs in Cambodia focusing on the needs of male victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
Violence against boys is real and is happening — now. There is an urgent need to talk about the issue and take action. Why? Because we need to make the invisible visible and challenge the silence that surrounds this issue. Because violence against boys is still considered a taboo, which needs breaking. And, most importantly, because by understanding and changing the cultural and social norms that support violence against boys, we can challenge the status quo and make violence against all children entirely preventable.
The Government of Cambodia recently launched the report of the Cambodian Violence Against Children Survey (CVACS) 2013 : a study led by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, and coordinated by UNICEF and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CVACS provides, for the first time, national estimates that show the magnitude and nature of violence experienced by girls and young women, and boys and young men in Cambodia. The findings reveal that approximately five per cent of males aged 18 to 24 years reported at least one incident of sexual abuse prior to age 18. Among those, 87 per cent had experienced more than one incident.
The power of listening
“Listening is one of the most important things we can do” says Socheat. Many of the boys affected by sexual violence are ashamed to speak up and do not seek help. Providing them with support services where they can share their trauma is the first step towards healing.
“I remember this boy who shared his life experience with me; he was 12 at the time. When I interviewed him, he really touched me. He was the eldest sibling and was responsible to support his very poor family in a remote rural area of Cambodia. One day, when he was sitting on the beach, a man approached him and asked him to stay with him at a local hotel. The boy thought the man just wanted to be his friend”. Socheat pauses for a moment,then adds, “The boy started crying when he was telling me this; it was the first time he was talking about what happened to him. We kept quiet for a little while. He was really ashamed: sexual exploitation got him the money he needed to support his family but the price he had to pay was too high. Eventually, he managed to break free and seek help: he realized he had to help himself first before helping his family. Sometimes he still has nightmares; he never told his family what happened to him”.
Socheat tells me that talking to this boy made her see something she had not realized before: that the emotional wounds that sexual violence inflicts on boys and girls are equally deep. Many people in Cambodia are not aware of this, nor of the fact that there are of several myths surrounding sexual violence against children which are rooted in popular views and need to be challenged to stop fuelling malpractice and discrimination towards boys. Here are some:
Myth: Boys are invulnerable
According to traditional beliefs boys are supposed to be strong and are expected to protect themselves. Fact: boys are vulnerable and can be victims too. The attitudes that many people have towards boys in many cases make them more vulnerable, as the issue of abuse and protection is rarely if ever discussed with them.
Myth: Foreigners and/or homosexuals are primarily responsible for sexual violence
“People in society hear from the media that it is mostly foreigners abusing boys but by talking to children it becomes clear that it is also locals” explains Socheat. Fact: abusers often include neighbours, friends and family members (including women, who are Khmer and not necessarily homosexual). It is important that sexual abuse is primarily about abuse of power and a desire to control, humiliate and subjugate the victim and not sexuality — research reveals that the vast majority of those who abuse boys are not homosexual at all. Perpetuating these myths can result in us not protecting boys from many of those likely to abuse them.
Myth: When it occurs, violence against boys is not a serious problem
“Some people believe that the impact of sexual violence on boys is less compared to girls. In my experience, this is not the case; in addition it seems that boys find it more difficult to speak up compared to their female counterparts” says Socheat. The CVACS shows that among males aged 18 to 24 years who experienced sexual abuse prior to age 18, over three-quarters had never told anyone about an incident (i.e. they had never told anyone prior to disclosing in the interview); only 1 in 17 sought help following an incident. Males were found less likely to tell someone about an incident of sexual abuse than females. Fact: violence against boys has physical, mental and emotional repercussions on the victims in both the short and long term. Some of the issues include nightmares and inability to focus/study.
Here is a practical example that Socheat shares with me: a common form of abuse, not recognized as such by the perpetrators and rooted in common social practice, involves pulling down a boy’s trousers as a joke and/or touching a little boy’s genitals. This is normally done by family members, neighbours and/or friends and is meant as a harmless display of affection. “When we interviewed boys about it, none of the boys said they liked it” explains Socheat. What happens is that the boys who suffer this humiliation are likely to do the same thing when they grow up, in addition to building up anger and resentment. Facilitating people’s understanding of their own traditional beliefs has the potential to change this: according to the CVACS findings, older males who acknowledge their learned behavior mentioned their willingness to change this practice.
Every year more than 500 cases of sexual exploitation, rape and trafficking are reported to the police. Violence can take many forms — sexual, physical and emotional, as well as neglect — all with potentially long-lasting damage for the victims and society at large.
Violence is learned with direct or indirect experience (in the family, community or media). The CVACS shows that many children in Cambodia either experience or witness violence by people they know and consider role models, including their parents, teachers and friends. Physical and emotional violence is often seen as a normal part of a child’s rearing. What this actually teaches children is that it is acceptable to use violence to negotiate differences, resolve conflict and meet their needs. In addition, since it is often used by people children love, violent discipline often establishes a link between love and violence. This has the capacity to create a cycle of violence which often gets repeated from one generation to the next.
The impact of sexual and other forms of violence is so profound that working to end violence against children prevents productivity losses (related to lower educational attainment or school dropout and/or later unemployment as a result of being unfit for work) and saves costs related to responding to social, mental and physical health problems, as well as increased criminality. Most importantly, working to end violence against children is a moral imperative: it is about protecting children’s rights.
The findings from the Cambodian Violence Against Children Survey will help guide efforts in Cambodia to develop and implement evidence-informed prevention and response strategies, including efforts to respond to sexual violence against boys.
Before saying goodbye and thanking Socheat for sharing her first-hand experience with me her, I ask her, “How do you think we can move forward to combat the myths that have traditionally fuelled violence against children in Cambodia?” Without hesitation, she answers, “I think by providing education and raising awareness that can eradicate harmful beliefs. One at a time”.
Raising awareness starts with each of us: make your voice heard and join UNICEF’s social media campaign to #Endviolence campaign here: UNICEF Cambodia Facebook-page. For more information about the sexual abuse of boys and the services available from FSC please visit www.first-step-cambodia.org