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Child sexual abuse happens when adults or older children take advantage of younger children, and force the children into sexual acts like intercourse, or fondling or oral sex or fingering. These sexual acts are for the gratification of the abuser.
Some children may not be traumatised because they could tell their parents and something could be done. Some children who have to live through the abuse, especially if the abuse is over years, grow into adults who sometimes manage to bury the fear, the anger, the shame but whose lives are deeply affected by what happened to them as a child.
This article is part of a series written as a partnership between Help & Shelter and the Guyana Chronicle. Some readers may be disturbed by what they read. This article is not comprehensive, but is intended to raise awareness that the adults who have been sexually abused can recover and survive and go on to lead healthy and productive lives which are free from fear, anger or shame.
The feelings of the children who are abused
The children who are sexually abused and who cannot get help are often powerless. They may be young, or small and many times the abuser uses threats or bribes to silence the child. The child may feel afraid to tell any adult, because the abuser may have threatened to harm the child or the adult.
The child may feel dirty, or may feel that they are bad and that they deserve the punishment. Some children who are older may want to run away from home, or turn to drugs or alcohol or try to turn the anger on other younger children, or on themselves. If the abuser leaves the child's environment, the child may try to bury all feelings, and get on with their lives.
The adults who survive sometimes have flashbacks, and their relationships are affected. Some adults find it difficult to be good parents or to have children.
The abusers of children use shame to add to the power they have over the children. They tell the children that it is a secret, that they must not tell anybody. Sometimes they tell the children that they have been bad, and this is the punishment.
Some children are told that if they tell, then their younger brothers and sisters will suffer. The shame continues into adulthood.
A clear message has to be given to all those who have survived sexual abuse - 'You are not to blame; You could not do anything about the abuse, you were little, the abuser was bigger. Sometimes you might have felt that you wanted to be touched or hugged, but then the abuser did more things which made you feel dirty. As an adult now, things will look different because you are bigger and stronger.
`Nobody deserves to be abused, no child deserves to be punished that way. What happened to you was wrong, regardless of what anyone else told you. Do not blame yourself for not running away or not screaming or not telling anyone or for being afraid. You have survived, and you will continue to survive.
`It is not your shame. You are not alone. There are men and women who like you feel the same way, but because of the society's views, they cannot talk or tell their story. It was not your fault.'
Anger is a healthy emotion and is an important part of the healing process. Any survivor must feel angry as long as they want, and not be ashamed about the anger. Anger becomes dangerous when it is targeted at the self, resulting in self destructive behaviours like suicide, or increasing risk for depression or other mental illness.
Anger is dangerous when it is targeted at partners or friends or loved ones. Anger is dangerous when it is targeted at young children, perpetuating the abuse. There must be a time though, when a survivor realises that he or she cannot undo the abuse, that he or she might not be able to get back at the perpetrator.
At some time, it will be important to let go of the feeling of wanting to hurt the abuser as much as they have hurt. And then turn that anger into a positive motivation which says that the child will survive, that adult has survived and will live a good life which is his or her right.
Many of the men and women who are abused feel dirty about themselves and do not enjoy sex. Some women withdraw totally from relationships and find it difficult to trust any man. Other women feel that they must punish themselves and are trapped in abusive relationships thinking that it is their punishment.
Some women feel guilty if they enjoy sex with someone who loves them. Some women do not trust having their male partners around the children, fearing that the partner will sexually abuse the children.
Men who have been sexually abused as children suffer twice, because society will mock the men who attempt to tell their stories and recover. Some men will feel that they must have done something to deserve the abuse. Boys are as powerless as girls, and many adults - men and women - use their power to abuse the boys.
However, many boys cannot tell because they feel that they would not be macho, that it is a sign of weakness. So they carry that shame at being weak into adult life - and then they find it difficult to have relationships - with other men or with women. Some men become confused about their sexual orientation.
The fear and dislike of homosexuality in Guyana prevents many men from talking about the abuse they suffered since they fear being branded as 'anti man'. Some male survivors may be gay, others are not, but the trauma of childhood prevents many survivors from enjoying their sexuality in loving relationships.
Part of the recovery process is recognising that it is okay to love and be loved, to deal with the anger, to talk and to acknowledge that you have survived, and not to be ashamed about one's sexuality and not to use sex as a way of reinforcing revenge or punishment.
Dealing with the feelings of guilt, anger, shame, fear and powerlessness is hard, especially in Guyana where there are limited psychotherapy resources available. There are resources which are on the Internet e.g. the Morris Centre for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse has a self help guide at http://www.ascasupport.org .
Please contact any psychiatrist, psychotherapist, experienced social worker or NGO like Help & Shelter if you want to talk about your experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse.