How to know your child is being abused


Having to talk to children about child abuse is very much like taking their favourite toy and slashing it to pieces in front of them. We want children to believe that the world is filled with beauty, love, awe and wonder.

That evil coexists with good can be very difficult for a child to understand. And yet, we must put protecting our children from harm before all else, so it is crucial we find ways to talk to our children, and equip them with skills, to lessen the chance they become victims of abuse.

“I think we put undue pressure on our children to protect themselves,” says Dumisile Nala, national executive officer of Childline. “We give our children conflicting messages: We teach them to respect their elders and not talk back and yet we expect them to be able to shout ‘No!’ in a situation of abuse. This needs to change. We should take responsibility as adults to protect our children.”

Read: How to recognise and report child abuse

What the numbers say 

In South Africa, we face horrendous child abuse statistics. The US child protection organisation Stop it Now! ( cites studies that find that up to 93 percent of abusers are known to children, whether they are friends, relatives, or acquaintances. Reliable South African statistics are hard to come by as abuse is vastly underreported here for a variety of reasons, including lack of faith in the justice system and fear or retribution by the perpetrator, according to Dumisile.

But what we do know is that we have one of the world’s highest rates of woman and child sexual abuse. Additionally, even in cases where abuse is reported, abusers have a notoriously low conviction rate.

Are strangers dangers?

So “stranger danger” is a misnomer: it’s hardly ever a stranger. Having said that, it is of course still vital to teach children not to trust strangers implicitly, not to accept gifts or bribes from them, and not to leave safe places with strangers.

We may also think “stranger danger” is something we mostly need to talk to young girls about. Exploitation by “sugar daddies”, for example, is a pressing current problem, says Dumisile. But girls and boys of any age – as well as, of course, adults – are at risk of domestic and sexual violence. And we face the scourge of baby rape in our country, possibly exacerbated by the myth that having sex with a virgin can cure AIDS.

Also read: Being pregnant with HIV

Don't hold back

Dumisile says, “Violence is endemic in South Africa, which suffers from a range of social ills. And the high rate of sexual violence is part of the greater problem of living in a violent society.” These horrifying facts are our national shame. We all need to work towards eradicating this evil.

Firstly, understand that you have an obligation to any child who might be in danger – under the law. According to the Children’s Act and the Sexual Offences Act, if you even suspect abuse and you fail to act, you are breaking the law.

You may remain anonymous, but you must find a police station or social worker and alert them – or phone Childline on their national tollfree number, 08000 55 555.

Protection starts small

If baby rape stories have taught us anything, it is that protecting our children from child abuse is no longer an issue for over-fives. We need to give our children as many skills as we can to reduce their chances of abuse – from the time they are born. Here are some suggestions.


Infants cannot speak to tell a parent about abuse, nor can they run away from a threat, so the answer at this age is to be an extremely vigilant parent. Across the board, and at any age, children are far more likely to be abused by a familiar person, such as a relative, than a stranger. Most abusers – though not all – are men.

Bear this in mind as you decide who you trust enough to leave your child with while you are not there. Check out the employees of any crèche or nursery school your child attends – insist on seeing police clearance certificates, as well as meeting the staff yourself. And do not assume that, because someone is a relative, your child is safe with them. They may not be.

Interesting: How much does nursery school really cost?

At this age, you will be able to read signs of abuse on the body rather than be told about it. If your child has injuries, especially in the genital region, or any unexplained bruises or bleeding, investigate the cause and do not stop until you are satisfied that there is a good explanation. If the little voice in your head tells you to be uncomfortable around a certain person or situation, remove yourself and your child immediately.

If you are in a violent relationship with the perpetrator or are economically unable to get away from the situation, speak to a police officer, social worker, hospital doctor or nurse, religious leader or school teacher who will be able to put you in touch with a safe house for abused women and children in your area. Do not stop until you get help.

Two years old

Every time Uncle Joe tries to roughhouse with your child, she bursts into tears or screams “no!” at him. Your whole family thinks your child should learn to be more respectful, or to take the joke.

It’s tempting to quash a child’s “rudeness” when they express displeasure at an adult, but a child who is vocal about her displeasure is a child who’s harder to snatch… If Uncle Joe is always tossing your child in the air and your child doesn’t like it, it is better, on balance, for Uncle Joe to feel insulted or uncomfortable than it is for your child to be cowed into believing he or she must endure physical contact he or she doesn’t like because protesting is not allowed.

Protecting your child is the single most important aim here, so fly in the face of family or cultural norms if you must. At this age, trauma will manifest in a change of behaviour, says Dumisile. A brutalised child may begin bedwetting, showing aggression or withdrawal, be sexually inappropriate, or show other unusual behaviours. Investigate, investigate, investigate.

Three years old

Your child is now learning her body parts and showing an interest in her genitals is a normal part of her development. Become comfortable with naming body parts – while dressing your child, say, “Let’s put your panty on. These are your private parts, nobody may touch you there.”

Emphasise that even adults can be “barred” from her body. Say, for instance: “Only Mommy and Daddy can wash your vagina in the bath, and nobody else is allowed to touch it.”

To lighten the mood, you could allow her to “test” out how loudly she would scream or what she would say if somebody was doing something to her body that “didn’t feel right” (expect an enthusiastic response!) On a serious note, you may well be empowering her to insist on body privacy.

Adults can feel uncomfortable with using the anatomically correct terms “penis” and “vagina” with a small person, but there is an argument that a child who knows the words for genitals can tell of any abuse easier than a child who has no vocabulary for the parts (and uses something that can be misconstrued easily, such as “flower”).

At this age, children can spend significant amounts of time playing with their genitals – in public, because their sense of privacy and social appropriateness will not develop until they are about six. You should not shame a child for exploring her body, as masturbation is normal and ageappropriate.

But you can start educating children about body safety. With distraction and gentle correction (such as saying: “Like picking your nose, you can do this while you’re alone, not with other people”), your child will soon start to learn what sorts of behaviours are socially acceptable and which need to be kept private.

Children of this age may show an entirely normal interest in each other’s genitalia too, and this is not an automatic sign of abuse, says Dumisile. But a danger signal is if a child seems to know too much sexual information, or uses “adult” sexual vocabulary, or behaves in a sexual way that you suspect may have been learnt from an adult. If this is the case, you must investigate further.

Four years old

As your child’s vocabulary increases and becomes more sophisticated, your best insurance against abuse is consolidating your already close bond with your child.

By this stage, your child will be able to discuss a variety of topics with you, and you can steer the conversation in the direction of: “What is a secret? Who keeps secrets? Are some secrets good and others bad? Do you have to keep a secret from Mom or Dad if someone asked you to?”

A timid child may by this stage benefit from a sport activity aimed at fostering a sense of confidence and pride in herself and her body.

Hand in hand

Together with your child, develop a communication system and a signal if your child does not feel comfortable in a situation. Above all else, consistently demonstrate that you are her ally and protector so that she is likely to confide in you should she be threatened.

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