Bully for them: Researchers get a handle on child abuse
Study finds one in three young people interviewed in schools had experienced some form of sexual abuse
Despite the many recent sexual abuse cases reported at schools, they are where young people were likely to speak more freely about their abuse – at least more comfortably than at home, a recent study showed.
In the UCT study more than one in three young people interviewed in schools had experienced some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives.
This means that at least 784,967 young people in South Africa have been the victims of sexual abuse by the age of 17. A total of 351,214 cases of sexual abuse had occurred among 15- to 17-year-olds in the past year alone.
Sexual abuse is slightly more likely to occur only once in a young person’s lifetime but in 40% of these cases it occurs twice or more.
One of the authors, Catherine Ward, said researchers had to get permission from the caregiver to come into their homes. Even though the interview was conducted in private, if teenagers wanted to keep abuse a secret or protect an adult, it was easier to talk about it in a school setting.
“What was surprising was that boys were reporting sex abuse at fairly high rates. We need to distinguish between different types of abuse. Boys are more likely to suffer from exposure abuse, for example, exposure to pornography, while girls are more likely to report contact abuse by a known adult,” said Ward.The study was done for the Optimus Foundation and published in Lancet Global Health. It researched 5,631 teenagers nationally between the ages of 15 and 17.
The research looked at the many factors that increase the likelihood of sexual and physical abuse taking place.
“It's very multifaceted thing,” said Ward. “It’s anything from improving employment, where parents then have better self esteem and are less stressed and likely to hit kids, to emotional abuse, which causes children to be more vulnerable to be groomed by another adult into sex.”
Other factors associated with greater risk of sexual abuse are substance abuse by the child, being disabled, and a poor relationship with female caregivers.
Recent cases included:
Two teachers at Bothitong High School in the Northern Cape accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old pupil last year, while the other faced a charge of attempted rape of an 18-year-old.
A sports coach at Parktown Boys was caught on CCTV footage fondling a young boy and opened a floodgate of charges including rape and assault.
Earlier this year Reiger Park Secondary School in Ekurhuleni was shaken when the charismatic and respected principal was implicated in videos that showed him allegedly engaging in sexual acts with pupils and teachers.
“Schools are violent places because they are microcosms of society,” said Ward.Shaheda Omar, director of clinical services at the Teddy Bear Foundation, said they definitely saw an increase in incidents in which the crimes were more violent, brazen and blatant: “I think previously it was more clandestine and undercover.”
And it is not just teachers. Pupils as young as eight or nine are engaging in violent fights and bullying, she said.
“We had a case 10 days ago [when a child] from a rural informal settlement came and attacked other children.”
She said fights and outbursts are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Children are not only attacking each other, but teachers.
In January a 15-year-old boy was accused of murdering his teacher at Bosele Middle School in Manyeding Village near Kuruman, Northern Cape, allegedly because he was unhappy with failing.
Earlier this month a video went viral showing a Vereeniging pupil throwing a book at a female teacher in frustration.
This comes down to how children are being taught to deal with anger and frustration, said Omar.
“Children look to identify with mentors. They start to identify with aggressors because of the sense of power and being in charge. It's a maladaptive response. When they find themselves in a challenge they re-enact.“They are bombarded with images of sex and violence, and people in positions of power and authority abuse that.”
She said although corporal punishment is no longer allowed, in many cases it is still used and sends the wrong message to children – that violence is the way to deal with problems.
Omar, who works with young victims of abuse, said: “The key element is the loss of trust and the inability to trust again. That’s so vital, because how do we begin to help if they are not to trust anymore? The system that is meant to protect them has failed and violated them.”
She said there is no one method to help children to overcome abuse. “It’s different strokes for different folks. We use conventional methods and alternative methods such as music and art therapy.
She said it’s important to work at the pace of the child and validate what they bring to the table. “Children are resilient and if given the necessary support can overcome it.
“Our intervention is not just reactive but proactive. We are going to work with all the children at school, not just one who was affected. We work with each child in context. The child is part of a classroom, a school and a family. On different levels we work with different systems.”Ward said US literature suggests that about 30% of those who are physically abused will go on to become perpetrators of abuse, but this is not a final sentence.
“Children who consciously choose to overcome their past won’t become abusers,” she said.
“A common misconception is that bad people abuse. I would argue that there are very few bad people; it’s a bad environment that sets them up for bad habits. They don’t know what to do when they are angry. They don’t have an alternative to aggression.”
On paper South Africa had an excellent legal framework to protect and deal with victims and perpetrators, but it was not being implemented properly, according to Paul Colditz, head of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools.
“However, the laws and even implementation of the laws is not our primary concern. It is the attitude of all citizens towards laws, values, principles and compliance that is our main concern.
“Every citizen of this country has the obligation to respect the Constitution and particularly the foundation principles of the Constitution of human dignity, equality and freedom. It is therefore an attitudinal and value system problem and not a problem of insufficient laws and enforcement of the law. Our sense is that there is a general disregard and to some extent an attitude of lawlessness in the country which has a very deep underlying cause.”
The good news is that there seems to be more people coming forward and reporting incidents.
“We do see paradigm shift and people are speaking out. There is more awareness but there is a lot more work that needs to be done,” said Omar.Colditz agrees and said: “There is no doubt that reportage has improved, inter alia due to the increased use and influence of social media. There definitely is an increased awareness of the problem and of recourse and therefore one can say with certainty that more incidents are brought to light.”
Suzanne Bester, a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Psychology at UP, said there was enough research evidence to support the notion that violence in schools was just a reflection of society.
“In South Africa there are many societal issues that may contribute to violence. Poverty, neglect, child-headed households and abusive home environments may result in children who experience feelings of hopelessness and despair, leading to involvement in criminal activities, violence, high-risk behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse.“Furthermore violence and aggression in schools are closely associated with school climate and research evidence suggest that a positive school climate, where pupils feel connected to their school, is associated with reduced aggression and violence as well as bullying.”
Her colleague in the department, lecturer Alfred du Plessis, agreed. He said schools should work toward developing pupils who are self-aware, socially aware, who have the ability to make responsible decisions, who can self-manage, have relationship skills and are emotionally competent.
This, he said, would not only ensure that they were less vulnerable and were less likely to fall victim to predators, but it also diminished the chances that they would become aggressive.
“I also believe that ethical decision-making should be taught to pupils, and teachers should be trained in this. Critical thinking skills need to be developed to assist pupils and teacher in making pro-social decisions when they are confronted with violence and violent behaviour.
“We especially need reform actions and strong ethical leadership in our government which should steer teacher and pupil development programmes.”Advice for teachers dealing with teachers dealing with violent children:..