Daring to see what we do not want to see. This phrase could sum up the impact of the chilling figures contained in a study on sexual abuse of children and adolescents in Spain and its evolution in that country. It was presented on 23 February 2021 by the ANAR Foundation.
The 2007 Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse affirms that sexual abuse is among the worst forms of violence against children and that it seriously jeopardises their health and psychosocial development. It adds that the well-being and best interests of children are fundamental values shared by all member states and should be fostered without discrimination of any kind.
The 2021 study on the subject has shown that, between 2008 and 2019, there was a dramatic increase in the number of cases of sexual abuse of minors in Spain reported to the ANAR foundation helpline. There was an increase of 300.4%, from 273 cases in 2008 to 1,093 in 2020. These figures reveal the unspoken reality of the problem. It must be brought to public notice as it is more frequent than we might expect. We must also recognise the harm done to victims.
What is happening?
The basic pattern of sexual abuse of children has not changed in that aggressors are mostly adults from within the family or from the circle of trust. However, in the last five years, there has also been cyber-abuse (virtual harassment, grooming1, sexting2, etc.), group assaults (gangs), with one out of ten cases being group sexual abuse, and gender-based attacks by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends.
There are more and more cases of abuse and they are more varied. The victims have to endure them for longer and more frequently. The level of severity is higher, to the point that 95% of the calls received by ANAR required the urgent mobilisation of resources (psychologists, health workers, social workers, police, public prosecutors, etc.).
The study points to two categories of victims. The majority are adolescent girls, 78% are female and 60% are between 13 and 17 years of age, and 69% suffer repeated abuse. The second category are younger children. These are children under 12 years of age, who are also more vulnerable and are less able to react. More than half of the victims (53.4%) are boys.
Only one in ten children will tell, and often they are not believed. Of those who dare to tell, 70% of cases do not go to trial because it is considered that there is insufficient evidence. The perpetrators “leave no marks”. It is the most unpunished crime in history (Rozanski).
Regarding the consequences of sexual abuse, it is highlighted that these do not differ in cases where technology is involved (cyberbullying). Abrupt changes in behaviour and mood, academic retardation and psychosomatic symptoms are highlighted. In boys, there is aggressive behaviour, inappropriate sexual knowledge for their age and sexually explicit behaviour.
Victims complain of a lack of support. It is often the victims themselves who ask for help and talk about what they have experienced.
Abused children will need an average of ten years of therapy to recover from the harm they have suffered.
How can personal and social awareness be raised?
Here we take up some of the points of the ANAR Foundation manifesto to combat the scourge of sexual abuse of children and adolescents:
- We ask for the reporting of crimes against sexual freedom committed against minors to be possible at any time in life.
- Prevention campaigns for the general public need to be implemented.
- We are calling for the regulation of minors' access to the internet and digital media by blocking access in order to protect them from being exposed to pornographic, violent or inappropriate content.
- We insist that a certificate issued by the Sex Offenders Register, which is mandatory for those working with minors, must be requested periodically and not only at the time of access to work.
- We call for the 'pre-constituted' evidence to be guaranteed, that is for the victim to tell her/his story only once to an expert psychologist and that it be recorded, thus avoiding the re-victimising of minors.
- The risks and consequences of sexual abuse of children do not allow for any delay or saving of resources when it comes to fully protecting them under the terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It is incumbent on adults to be ready to believe and listen to children who have been sexually abused, to create safe spaces of protection and care, and to provide therapeutic and psychological support that puts the best interests of children first, ensures their safety, confidentiality and avoids stigmatisation.
1 Grooming: An adult pretends to be a minor for the purpose of sexually abusing the victim. Article 183 of the Penal Code (Spain) punishes perpetrators with up to three years in prison.
2 Sexting: Dissemination of images or videos of sexual content via mobile phone or social networks without the consent of the victim. This is criminal conduct.
The TA Safeguarding Advisory Panel.
TA Translations Team.