Children’s vulnerability to sexual violence during Covid-19

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Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

In September 2020, the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) handled 15 telephone counselling cases of sexual violence involving child victims below the age of 18, our highest monthly total to date.

The WCC wishes to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on children’s vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation. These are mainly committed by family members and trusted persons.

During the movement control order period between March and May, the WCC saw a near doubling of child sexual violence cases. Compared to January and February, where we handled three and four cases respectively, the number of cases rose to an average of seven per month between March and May. While the numbers may look small, children’s risk of sexual abuse during Covid-19 is of great concern.

As reporting is made difficult when children are in lockdown with the primary offender, it is significant to note that the largest spike in our child sexual violence cases occurred after the movement control order was lifted. From June to July, the number increased nearly twofold from seven to 12 cases, rising to 15 cases by September.

Although girls form the majority of the victims, boys are not spared. In 2020, the number of boy victims supported by the WCC in court has nearly doubled compared to last year, with eight boys in 2019 and 15 boys as of September 2020. Earlier this year, a security guard in Penang was charged with 23 counts of sex-related offences, including seven counts of physical sexual assault on a nine-year-old boy.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that “movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and observe physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home, particularly those children already living in violent or dysfunctional family situations.”

Interpol also identifies several factors which exacerbate the risk of sexual violence against children, including the closure of schools and subsequent movement to virtual learning environments, and the increased time children spend online for social and educational purposes.

Family members, childcare workers, and educational personnel often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation, especially in the current context where many cases remain undetected or unreported. They must be alert and vigilant to physical and behavioural changes in children which may indicate some form of sexual abuse. These include complaints of pain in their private parts, fearful behaviour around certain persons and age-inappropriate sexual behaviour. Children often do not disclose such abuse upfront because they may be unaware or even threatened by the perpetrator.

The WCC calls upon the government to ensure the continuous training of relevant agencies such as the police, welfare department and hospitals to improve their handling of child sexual abuse cases with sensitivity. There is much to be done to protect our young against this serious threat.

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