Bridging the Gap: Protecting Boys From Sexual Abuse

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This text was written by Dr. Johanna Higgs and First Step Cambodia as part of the publication ‘Bridging the Gap. Protecting Boys From Sexual Abuse: Legal Theory and Its Implementation in Cambodia. Read the introduction here. For the full publication, please see the bottom of the page.


Protecting Boys From Sexual Abuse: Legal Theory and Its Implementation in Cambodia.

People say ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ meaning all members of society play a crucial role when it comes to children’s rights, including parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, doctors, peer groups, neighbours … just to name a few. However, this is also true when it comes to child protection, it takes a collective effort to keep a child safe. This is largely because harm towards children can happen anywhere. It could take place within the family setting, at a sports club, in schools, within the neighbourhood the child lives, within the public space or while working as escorts, masseurs, models or as sex workers (Dennis 2008). A study conducted by Unicef in 2014 found that in Cambodia, boys were much more likely to be abused in their own homes than girls (45% against 8%) and that 33% of boys had been sexually abused by a family member compared to 10% of girls. However, 24% of girls reported being sexually abused in a romantic relationship compared to 6.5% of boys. The perpetrators can be friends, family members, teachers, religious leaders, neighbors and other children. Significant efforts have been made to protect children from violence and globally, the child’s best interest and recognition of their rights became a reality on the 20th of November 1989 with the adoption of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. This was the first international, legally binding text that recognizes the fundamental rights of the child. Cambodia has ratified this convention and has included it in their national laws.

Amongst the many forms of violence facing children, one of the most prevalent, is sexual violence and abuse. However, while much has been said about sexual violence and abuse against girls, much less is known about the sexual abuse of boys. Globally, the sexual abuse of boys is a largely hidden epidemic that affects the lives of millions of boys worldwide with no country being an exception. However, the sexual abuse of men and boys, is persistently underreported and in most societies around the world, is significantly underacknowledged and even less understood. As a result, there continues to be insufficient research, policy and practice that takes into account males experiences of sexual abuse (Adjei et al. 2017). This lack of acknowledgement is in part due to social and cultural assumptions that exist globally, that assume that men and boys are inherently strong, capable and cannot be made vulnerable to sexual abuse (Kia-Keating et al. 2005). As a result, male sexual abuse, is often downplayed and not taken seriously, particularly if the perpetrator is a woman (Hilton et al. 2008). However, despite these dominant, global cultural narratives surrounding masculinity, vulnerability 4 studies on the effects of sexual abuse have shown that men and boys do suffer significantly from being sexually abused.

Internationally, statistics show that 1 in 6 boys have been sexually abused before reaching adulthood and in Cambodia, research has found that an estimated 6% of boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before they have reached the age of 18 (Orha 2020). A recent “Sauve report” written by an independent commission in France shed a light on the long running issue of sexual abuse within catholic institutions. It was found that since 1950, an estimated 330,000 children fell victim to sexual violence while within the Catholic Church. The report, published in October 2021 also highlighted the long-term effects of sexual abuse on children with the majority of the children reporting feelings of shame, guilt or isolation. Another report published in 2022 documented severe shortcomings of the German Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope of the Catholic Church) in dealing with abuse of boys in his archdiocese in Munich. Germany’s Catholic Church has been rocked by a string of reports in recent years that have exposed widespread abuse of children by clergymen.

While these statistics are frightening, the publishing of these reports is also a positive sign that sexual abuse is no longer remaining hidden and that many countries and institutions are becoming more accountable on these issues. A review of 217 studies found that 12.7% of children have been sexually abused worldwide before reaching the age of 18 (UNICEF 2020). In Cambodia, at least 5% of the boys have been sexually abused, making them as vulnerable as girls to sexual abuse. A study from UNICEF in 2014 found that on average, the first incident of sexual abuse happens earlier for boys (10 years old) than for girls (15 years old). The same study also reported that among those aged 18 to 24 who experienced sexual abuse prior to age 18, approximately 7 in 10 females and nearly 9 in 10 males experienced multiple incidents of sexual abuse. Yet while both boys and girls face similar levels of vulnerability to sexual violence, the study showed differences in disclosure and help-seeking behaviours between boys and girls. For examples, only 13% of boys versus 55% for girls, said that they would disclose their experience of being sexually abused to another person. Less than 6% of boys seek help after being sexually abused, compared to 40% of girls (UNICEF 2014). Boys who are sexually abused often suffer from significant stigma and social shame, may be rejected by their family and community and receive little or no support (Family for Every Child, 2018)). There is therefore a considerable need for more research to understand the experiences of boys who 5 have been sexually abused in order to ensure that they receive sufficient protection from the law.

For example, in a 2004 gender analysis on the effects of sexual abuse on both men and women, it was found that the male participants showed higher levels of mental health symptoms than women including symptoms such as anxiety, depression, anger, dissociation, and concerns over their sexuality (Banyard et al. 2004). It was found that boys experienced an increased sense of guilt and shame as well as negative effects from social stigma. Survivors of sexual violence can suffer from long term effects, both physically and mentally which can result in the adoption of harmful coping mechanisms such as violence or substance abuse which can have serious, adverse effects on the society at large. This makes addressing this issue of sexual violence and abuse against men and boys all the more imperative in order to ensure that more action is taken to protect males from this type of violence.

An essential component in the protection of children, including boys, from sexual violence is an effective judicial system. The implementation of strong and effective laws punishing sexual violence and abuse can not only ensure that children have a means of accessing justice should they be abused but it is also a deterrent for perpetrators. However, throughout the globe, despite the existence of strong laws and international treaties to protect children from sexual violence, the sexual abuse of both boys and girls remains a serious problem. Laws are often ignored and in many cases, individuals are not even aware that they exist. However, children can face a number of difficulties before they even reach the courts, such as fear of speaking up about their experiences due to the stigma and shame attached to being sexually abused. Though when implemented properly, laws can change the physical or social environment in which children are raised and provide safety and security. However, experience from around the world demonstrates that just laws alone may not be enough to sufficiently protect children. Especially when it comes to child rights, other measures are needed as well.

Read the rest of the research project here:

Bridging the Gap. Protecting Boys From Sexual Abuse: Legal Theory and Its Implementation in Cambodia
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