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Every person was born with mana, everyone is sacred, and no-one was born to be abused.

(Egan-Bitran, 2022)

Child Safeguarding Week 2023 is placing a spotlight on preventing child sexual abuse.

Why focus on this? Because Aotearoa has high rates of child sexual abuse when compared to other developed countries (UNICEF) and we know that it is a particularly difficult type of abuse for people to think and talk about. We also know that children need adults in their communities to do exactly that, think and talk about this issue, skilling themselves up to prevent and respond as protectors of the future. Therefore, we are using our voice and this platform to raise awareness of the issue, to promote adults’ responsibilities to prevent and protect and to remind people of what help is out there in the form of resources, services and advice.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child to take part in contact or non-contact sexual activities. A child may or may not be aware of what is happening.

  • Physical contact including intentional touching, oral-genital contact, or assault by penetration (rape or oral sex).
  • Non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing, and touching outside of clothing.
  • Non-contact activities such as getting the child or young person to view or participate in the production of sexual images.
  • Exposing a child or young person to sexual activity or pornography.
  • Encouraging children or young people to behave in sexual ways.
  • Grooming children and young people in preparation for abuse.
  • Forcing or enticing children and young people to take part in sexual acts.
  • Voyeurism – gaining sexual pleasure from secretly watching or filming a child or young person while they undress, are naked or engage in sexual activity.
  • Production, distribution or watching of child sexual abuse imagery and media.
  • Child Sexual Exploitation – forced to engage in sexual activities for affection, money, gifts, drugs, alcohol or to be accepted.
  • Prostitution of a child or young person, including sex trafficking.

Child sexual abuse is commonly perpetrated by people known to the child including parents, siblings, relatives, friends or others in their wider community who are in positions of trust such as their sports coach, teacher or religious leader. Child sexual abuse is perpetrated by people of all genders and by children as well as adults. However, International and New Zealand research does identify the majority of perpetrators are male. New Zealand research found that “the majority of perpetrators were male family members of the victim”. (Fanslow et al., 2008). The Australian Institute of Family Studies Resource Sheet provides an overview of the evidence available regarding those who abuse children.

Institutional child sexual abuse

The term institutional child sexual abuse is used to distinguish abuse in an organisational setting from that which occurs in a family or other non-institutional environment. Those who commit abuse in an institutional setting often have multiple victims and abuse over many years. If an organisational culture of acceptance of abuse exists, this can lend itself to supporting numerous perpetrators. Many organisations have compounded abuse through cultures of denial, secrecy and self-protection.

Aotearoa New Zealand statistics

The evidence is clear that for children being sexually abused, the negative social, economic, psychological, spiritual and health effects are detrimental and have long-term costs for individuals, family and whānau, communities and society. Directly or indirectly, sexual abuse impacts us all.

The true statistics are not known as most sexual abuse goes unreported due to grooming, shame, stigma and institutional cultures of denial. The Royal Commission of Inquiry, Abuse in Care is only just revealing the nature and extent of institutional abuse in state and faith care settings in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In addition to this, Aotearoa New Zealand has limited statistical data on the numbers of children where sexual abuse is reported.  A snapshot of what we do know about rates of child sexual abuse are presented below.

Aotearoa New Zealand research has found that 23.5% of women in Auckland and 28.2% in Waikato reported having been sexually touched, or made to do something sexual that they did not want to do prior to the age of 15 years. (Fanslow et al., 2008).

Due to increased risk factors and fewer protective factors some children are more vulnerable and are at increased risk of being sexually abused than the general population. This includes Māori, Pacific, Takatāpui/Rainbow, Pasifika/Rainbow, LGBTQIA+, refugee and migrant and disabled children. (Fanslow et al., 2008; Fa’alili-Fidlow et al., 2016; Ministry of Justice, 2023; Zou & Anderson, 2015; Egan-Britan, 2022; Skarbek et al., 2009).

We need to think about how we protect those groups and communities of children and young people. If we are aware of these vulnerabilities, we can intervene early and provide them with extra protection which can lower the likelihood of child sexual abuse, and if abuse has occurred, can help support healing. ​

Government investment is required to improve national data collection and information systems so that a more accurate baseline of the nature of problems such as child sexual abuse is established to support possible solutions becoming clearer and subsequent monitoring of progress.

Child sexual exploitation

Young people are particularly vulnerable to child sexual exploitation and that this often occurs as a concept of exchange. The young person is enjoying this relationship as they get perceived rewards from it, however this can be conditional that they ‘exchange’ sex for, this is a form of sexual exploitation. If you are working with young people who display the following behaviours or indicators, it is worth stepping closer to them and finding out what their relationships look like:

  • Going missing from home/school.
  • Getting money/phone credit/clothes/drugs or alcohol from an unknown source.
  • Start a relationship with an older person.
  • Spending all their time with an older person, not seeing their old friendship group anymore.

International child sexual exploitation happens here in Aotearoa New Zealand. ECPAT are an international organisation who have a New Zealand office, working to protect children from sexual exploitation.

Recognising potential signs of child sexual abuse

Children and perpetrators can exhibit behaviours which may indicate possible sexual abuse.  It is important for those in a child’s world to be able to identify and appropriately respond to such behaviours. These warning signs are opportunities for prevention. A chance for adults to recognise and act on risks to protect children. Prevention results in no child victim to heal or perpetrator to punish.

Trust your gut! You may be the only one who takes action. Research has shown that children may not disclose sexual abuse for many years, if ever. (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017; Allnock & Miller, 2013). If something makes you uncomfortable, speak up. Your voice is the first line of defence in keeping children safe.

One sign does not necessarily mean that a child or young person is being sexually abused. However, it should not be discounted. Begin asking open questions and think about seeking help if several signs have been observed. Bear in mind, some signs are seen at other times of stress such as:

  • During a divorce.
  • Death of a family member or pet.
  • Problems at school or with friends.
  • Other anxiety-inducing or traumatic events.

Below are signs, symptoms, behaviours and indicators of sexual abuse you may notice. Please note these lists are not exhaustive and should be put in context of the situation.

  • Statements by a child or young person that they have been sexually abused.
  • Acts out in a sexually inappropriate way with toys or objects.
  • Has knowledge of sex beyond their developmental age.
    Inappropriate sexual behaviour with other children.
  • Keeps secrets.
  • Has nightmares or sleeping problems.
  • Becomes withdrawn, clingy or secretive.
  • Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Regressing to younger behaviours. For example, bedwetting.
  • New adult words for body parts and no obvious source.
  • Unexplained soreness, bleeding or bruising around genitals or mouth.
  • Not wanting to be alone with a person.
  • Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Self-cutting and suicidal behaviours are also more common among adolescents.
  • A teenager avoiding traumatic reminders may withdraw socially.
  • Teenagers might be more likely to abuse substances or engage in high-risk behaviours, including indiscriminate sexual behaviour.

Although many children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioural and emotional changes, many others do not. It is therefore critical to focus not only on detection but on prevention and communication. This can be achieved by teaching children about body safety and healthy body boundaries, and by encouraging open communication about sexual matters.

  • Refusing to allow a child or young person sufficient privacy.
  • Insists on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child or young person does not want it.
  • Insists on and creates opportunity for time alone with the child or young person.
  • Spends most of their spare time with children and/or young people and has little interest in spending time with people their own age.
  • Regularly offers to babysit children and young people for free. Has sleepovers or outings alone with them.
  • Behaves in a way that is concerning but happens so often that people accept it as normal.
  • Treats a particular child or young person as a favourite.

Sometimes children do disclose what is happening to them, so it is crucial in these situations that we believe children and young people when they disclose as research shows false allegations are rare. (London et al., 2008; O’Donohue et al., 2018).

We understand that child sexual abuse is a sensitive and difficult issue to talk about. Unless we talk about it as a nation and we step up as adults, fully embracing our responsibility to protect children and respond effectively when we suspect, or when a child discloses sexual abuse, we need to ask ourselves – can we live with the consequences?

For resources and guidance on how to do this, refer to our sections specifically created for either Parents (including community) or Organisations working with children or their families.

Join the movement to STOP child sexual abuse.

Abuse is PREVENTABLE not inevitable!

Allcock D, Miller P. (2013) No-one Noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. NSPCC

Egan-Bitran, M. (2022). “The Gremlin of Silence”: Exploring the New Zealand Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Institutional Responses to Interpersonal Violence(opens in a new tab). Doctoral thesis. University of Auckland. P.29. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.14445.97769.

Fa’alili-Fidow, J., Moselen, E., Denny, S., Dixon, R., Teevale, T., Ikihele, A., Adolescent Health Research Group., & Clark, T.C. (2016). Youth’12 The Health and Wellbeing of Secondary School Students in New Zealand: Results for Pacific young people. Auckland: The University of Auckland.

Fanslow, J.L., Robinson, E.M., Gregle, S. & Richards, G. (2008). Child sexual abuse in New Zealand: Findings from the New Zealand Violence Against Women Study. Research Bulletin, November 2008, no.8. Injury Prevention Information Centre, School of Population Health, The University of Auckland.

Fleming, T., Archer, D., King-Finau, T., Dewhirst, M., & Clark T. (2021). Youth19 Safety and Violence Brief(opens in a new tab). Youth19 and The Adolescent Health Research Group, Auckland and Wellington.

London K, Bruck M, Wright DB, Ceci SJ. Review of the contemporary literature on how children report sexual abuse to others: findings, methodological issues, and implications for forensic interviewers. Memory. 2008 Jan;16(1):29-47. doi: 10.1080/09658210701725732. PMID: 18158687.

Ministry of Justice. (2023). New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey. Key findings – Cycle 5 report. Descriptive statistics. June 2023. Results drawn from Cycle 5 (2021/22) of the New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Justice.

O’Donohue, William & Cummings, Caroline & Willis, Brendan. (2018). The Frequency of False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: A Critical Review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 27. 1-17. 10.1080/10538712.2018.1477224.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017). Final Report

Skarbek, D., Hahn, K., & Parrish, P. (2009). Stop sexual abuse in special education: An ecological model of prevention and intervention strategies for sexual abuse in special education. Sexuality and Disabilities, 27, 155- 164.

Zou, C. & Andersen, J.P. (2015). Comparing the Rates of Early Childhood Victimization across Sexual Orientations: Heterosexual, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Mostly Heterosexual. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0139198(opens in a new tab).

UNICEF Innocenti. (2020). Worlds of Influence: Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries. Innocenti Report Card 16, UNICEF Office of Research. Innocenti, Florence, 2020

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