Child sexual abuse is written about everywhere in the media nowadays. Systematic sexual exploitation of children in places like Rotherham and Derby, high-profile offenders like Jimmy Savile, the historical abuse of children in institutional contexts like care homes and faith settings. Every day we are subjected to descriptions of unimaginable harm that leave us angry and distressed.
There’s been more over the last few weeks. A Scottish Government committee recently examined a bill to allow victims of abuse to claim compensation beyond the current time bar. If passed, it could permit claims dating back to 1964. The current time bar of three years has been a major barrier for survivors of sexual abuse achieving justice.
Police Scotland’s Detective Chief Superintendent Lesley Boals told the committee that the force last year examined files for the ongoing Scottish child abuse inquiry and identified 2,300 relating to 4,400 victims in the Strathclyde area alone. She argued this was “a small proportion of children who have been abused or neglected in Scotland across the years”.
How big a problem is child sexual abuse in Scotland? It’s difficult to estimate as only around one in eight cases of sexual abuse are ever known to police and social work.
The reasons why children find it difficult to tell of sexual abuse are complex. For many, shame and embarrassment are key factors. For others, when the perpetrator is someone close, they may want the abuse to stop but do not want their abuser prosecuted. In some cases the child will be groomed and threatened. Many are just too terrified to tell.
We lack good data in Scotland but the crime survey for England and Wales in 2016 found 1 in 10 adults experienced childhood sexual abuse. Some research suggests higher rates. This means that, at any one time, the number of people who have experienced it in Scotland by the age of 16 is roughly equivalent to the population of Dundee.
Studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse is statistically associated with poor mental health. It’s not the case for everyone – in 20 years of working with survivors I have been repeatedly amazed by the strength and resilience of many who have experienced incredible adversity in their early years.
For many, being coerced into sexual activity before they can consent can potentially affect a child’s capacity to build healthy relationships in adolescence and adulthood.
We urgently need to discuss what we can all do to protect Scottish children now and in the future. That means acknowledging that we can’t simply leave the problem to police and social workers. If we really want to protect children, we have to make sure we all have the basic information and knowledge we need to play our own part in prevention.
Child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable. But only when we all – that’s parents, teachers, carers - understand how we can play a part in preventing children from being abused in the first place.
Stuart Allardyce is national manager of Stop It Now Scotland, the programme for child sexual abuse prevention. For information, visit www.parentsprotect.co.uk.