It knows no socio-economic boundaries. Blind to race, gender and religion, it’s infected thousands and infiltrated public consciousness like nothing in recent memory.
An ever-present topic in the news, trending on Twitter, conversation among friends revealing deep-seated, highly illogical fears.
I’m talking, of course, about Ebola.
As I began preparing for a trip to the continent of Africa, I explained to friends, family and acquaintances that I would be traveling to South Africa – the bottom tip of the continent, that the Ebola virus is in the north western horn, thousands of miles away, and that – while Ebola is indeed a very real and very serious threat and, if not closely watched, could become a global catastrophe – I had a better chance of being attacked by a wild water buffalo than contracting the deadly virus.
I was going to deal with another evil, just as insidious, as indiscriminating as the dreaded and deadly Ebola virus, but still cloaked in darkness: the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
Every three minutes a child in South Africa is raped. (A figure I learned while conducting victim sensitivity training with the Cape Town police force.) As is the case worldwide, most of the time, this rape occurs at the hands of someone the child knows, loves and trusts.
Let’s contrast these figures with the number of new Ebola infections occurring every day in South Africa: Zero.
Yet where is the focus? Where is the widespread fear and outrage that mobilizes public attention and galvanizes government action?
Child sexual abuse is an issue shrouded in secrecy, an intimate and sinister crime that silences victims — an estimated 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys — with feelings of shame, guilt and isolation, and emboldens predators — who will offend against an average of 117 children in their lives — with each new offense.
While the stats are staggering, the solution is clear: 95 percent of child sexual abuse is preventable though education and awareness.
So what’s preventing us from getting there? Perhaps it’s embarrassment. The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is, admittedly, uncomfortable and difficult to talk about.
But during the 11-hour flight from London to South Africa, I saw enough protective facemasks to be reminded that people will risk embarrassment and discomfort when they feel their safety — or the safety of those they love — may be threatened.
I will admit, the paranoia experienced by my fellow passengers gripped me for a moment, and I as I squirted hand sanitizer onto my palms, I wondered… If not embarrassment, perhaps, then, it’s denial and the idea that “it won’t happen to me” keeping otherwise responsible and intelligent adults away from this particular threat to public safety, health and wellness. Because it is just that: survivors of child sexual abuse are at a greater risk for maladaptive behavior throughout their lives.
From Florida to New York to Barbados to the Netherlands to Canada and beyond, we see that the single greatest risk factor for being a victim of child sexual abuse is simply being a child. In South Africa, I heard stories from children like Joyce — the daughter of an ambassador who was molested at the hands of her family’s houseboy, often in the room right next to her parents’ — and also Disha — who lives in a township outside of Cape Town and is forced to sleep in a bed with five of her siblings or with her grandparents; either arrangement means a night of sleeplessness, shame and violation for the innocent little girl.
Or even more disturbing: I met a mother whose six-year-old daughter slipped out from beside her in bed one night to use the bathroom outside, tiptoeing barefoot out of their encampment, not wanting to wake her sleeping family. The little girl never made it more than a few steps: she was snatched, brutally raped and then doused with gasoline and lit on fire. The girl’s family discovered her ragged, well-loved teddy bear a stone’s throw from their front door, leading them to her body, which had been dumped unceremoniously in a nearby field. Though she was almost naked and very badly burned, tattered pieces of the girl’s charred pajamas still remained and helped her mother identify the body.
When I shared this story with teachers and police during training sessions, the faces staring back at me did not register shock or horror; I was met with responses like “Yes, just awful what happens here, isn’t it?”
YES. It is truly, profoundly awful. It should not matter whether you are born in a township in Cape Flats or a flat in Manhattan. Each and every child has a right to safety.
So I ask again: Where is the outrage? The disbelief? Where is the call to protect those most innocent among us?
Child predators know no boundaries, and we shouldn’t either in the quest to protect our children.
As a survivor and someone who has dedicated my life to making things different for other children, I can talk circles around this issue. Do you prefer facts and figures, or do emotional appeals change your mind and open your heart? I have pages and pages of numbers, and sleepless nights filled with stories from little girls, and boys, like Joyce, Disha and the little girl who never saw her seventh birthday. Some of the stories that haunt me, that drive me, are my own memories. And I will not rest until we do better for our children. And the fact remains…
Number of children being raped in South Africa: one every three minutes.
That’s 20 every hour, 480 each day.
That’s 5,280 children’s lives forever changed, shattered by sexual violence, during the 11 days I spent in South Africa.
And how many new cases of Ebola? Zero.
So let’s look at the facts, listen to the stories and start to have the difficult conversations. Let’s begin to support children who come forward and prevent the monsters who hurt them from victimizing others, because they will if allowed to thrive in darkness, continuing their vicious cycle. Let’s create an international registry to track sexual predators and inform international officials. Let’s teach children that their bodies are their own and they have a right to decide what is safe and what is unsafe.
Let’s protect childhood. Together.