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Experts unpack sexual violence amongst children

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The Teddy Bear Clinic says it has assisted children as young as five that have instigated or orchestrated instances of sexual violence, having full awareness of the wrong they were about to commit. The clinic’s director, Dr Shaheda Omar, spoke to VOC’s Breakfast Beat show following the alleged gang rape of a mentally ill woman by six teens in Parkwood.

“We’ve worked with children as young as five and six years old who have orchestrated this kind of acts behind closed doors under a shroud of secrecy. They do know that this is not acceptable behaviour. The older children are more aware than younger children. Unless the child has a cognitive challenge or a mental disability, the circumstances may be somewhat different,” said Omar.

Police confirmed that the Wynberg family violence, child protection and sexual offences detectives are looking into the matter which occurred on Monday. Metro officers become suspicious after noticing boys running along the train line. Upon further investigation, they discovered one of the teens raping the 35-year-old woman, while the others reportedly stood and watched. The boys, between the ages of 13 and 16, were allegedly taking turns to violate the woman.

People are now not only concerned about the well-being of their children around potentially dangerous adults, but also about children who are perpetrators themselves. Dr Omar stated that these types of incidents are on the rise and requires South Africans to look at society closely.

“If we look at the fact more than 43% of sexual assault is committed by children against other children and in this instance, it’s an older person. We know that, in this instance, there is group influence and multiple acts of sexual violence. We seem to be surrounded by a culture of violence. The culture of violent micro-aggression that is demonstrated by reference groups, an iconic person and by role models.”

Risk factors include:
– being exposed to violence
– influence of substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs (Either experimenting/engaging themselves or coming from homes where it is the social norm)
– living in environments of poverty, where overcrowding, lack of ambition/progress are factors
– living through domestic violence, where “there’s a lot of conflict or tension within the immediate environment”
– also children that have a history of victimization- sexually, physically or psychologically
– absence of an adequate role model (particularly male) or coming from single-parent households.

Omar, however, added that not all children coming from these backgrounds will become criminals, but that these circumstances are ideal for harvesting negative feelings or emotions. She explained that child-perpetrated rape is seldom about sexual gratification, as much as it is about power and control.

“A lot of these children lack self-esteem, lack impulse control and get socialized into believing that if you face inner conflict situation, or if you feel out of control, this (rape/violence) is a way to assume some sense of power and control. This requires a lot of intervention. Providing some kind of psycho-therapeutic support is not self-sufficient. It’s on different levels – micro and macro level –  and we need to unpack the layers because it’s often around underlying and unmet emotional needs, unresolved issues that the children are faced with,” she said.

Omar further pointed to the importance of an open line of communication with someone able to provide guidance, particularly in light of the unlimited access granted to them by the internet. She added that the age group that is the most curious is between 9-14. The director also noted however that it is uncommon that they will feel open to discuss issues.

“Children are having access to information that they’re not even ready for, they are not able to comprehend or make sense of. If we just look around us, every time you put on a program it’s all about sex, violence and alcohol. And sex is over-exaggerated, eroticized, the grandiosity of it all etc.”

“They don’t have somebody available to always process that information for them and they make up their own answers and I think this is where the challenge lies. Around the influence of media: we need to tackle responsible advertising and awareness-raising content.”

“Yes, some of these children may have mental health difficulties, depression and anxiety, hyperactiv(ity) or other disorders, just as many people in the general public do. But, obviously that doesn’t justify the fact that they resort to committing a sexual offence.”

The focus, Omar believes, should be on the adolescent as well as adult groups, to ensure the youth have viable and responsible role models and guides.

“Sex is still a taboo subject at home, including sexual knowledge and sexuality. The education around the rights and responsibilities, acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, and also the fact that actions have consequences so that one cannot act on a whim or an Impulse,” she said.

“(Speak about) how do they manage (the impulses), talking about puberty and the inner the physiological changes in the body and that sexuality is a normal phase of development. So, having sexual impulses would be normal, but how to contain or how to manage that.”

“Government also has a role to play whether it’s health or education, even in the corporate sectors. We, adults, are more equipped on how to engage and speak to children about these very things because we know that the urge, arousals and pestilences can emerge after being exposed to technology. The important thing is that children need to know this is normal.”

She added that the support of parents or caregivers is crucial. Their response when finding out about their child being the rapist, for example, requires a measured response. Omar emphasises the need for the adults to always act in the best interest of the child and refrain from becoming abusive as this “doesn’t promote healing or develop any insight or understanding in the development of the child”.

“It’s always helpful taking a step back taking a few deep breaths. Yes, any parent would feel strongly about what they’ve witnessed but it’s about taking charge of those emotions and then responding,” she concluded.

VOC


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