At Childhood, we are often asked whether some children are at greater risk of sexual abuse. Any child may become a victim of violence and sexual abuse, regardless of where they live and their social and cultural background. In general, however, perpetrators seek out children who, for various reasons, are easier to assault and where there is a smaller risk of being discovered. One particularly vulnerable group is children with various types of disabilities.
Numerous studies show that children with disabilities are more vulnerable, and that they are at higher risk of sexual assault than other children. For example, international research shows that children with neuropsychiatric disabilities are at three to four times higher risk of violence or assault compared with other children.¹ This applies to both physical and virtual assaults; a study by the Swedish Media Council shows that children and young people with disabilities are also at higher risk of sexual violations online.²
There are several reasons why children with special needs may be more vulnerable: They are usually more dependent on adults, and for a longer time. It is often more difficult for them to tell someone what has happened to them, and to testify. It may also be more difficult for children with some disabilities to understand and interpret what is happening when they are the victims of sexual abuse. They are what is known as “safe targets”, where perpetrators often believe that they are at lower risk of being discovered and punished if they abuse children with disabilities. ³
The good news: More and more organizations are drawing attention to this and are actively working to increase children’s safety and protection and to obstruct the perpetrators.
Cambodia: Widespread discrimination
Discrimination against children with special needs is widespread in many countries where Childhood operates. It begins in village communities, where the children are often avoided, stigmatized and neglected, and/or subjected to violence and abuse.
Children with disabilities are extremely vulnerable in Cambodia. The country has adopted several laws to protect them, but they are not applied in practice and a de facto welfare state does not exist. In most cases, they cannot attend school, as the teachers are not trained or used to including children with disabilities in their lessons, nor are there any adapted classrooms or bathrooms. Even if these did exist, the children would be unable to get to school, as the schools are often located far from their villages and school transport is mostly nonexistent. This makes the work performed on the ground by Childhood’s project partners, Safe Haven Medical Outreach in Siem Reap and Epic Arts in Kampot, so very important.
Many children are left alone while their parents work
Safe Haven is a small grassroots organization that works with children with disabilities and their families. The team is made up of nurses, physiotherapists and social workers. Providing medical help and support is the foundation of Safe Haven’s work, but as they have met with children and their families, the realization about the importance of protecting children from violence and assault has grown. Many parents whom Safe Haven encounters are poor, and they have to leave their children alone in order to work since there is no local child care. Sometimes the children are unsupervised all day long, or they are taken care of by neighbors and relatives – who don’t always have their best interests at heart. With Childhood’s support, Safe Haven is working to improve parents’ knowledge of ways to protect their children. In most cases, the parents are unaware that they are subjecting their children to risks, since disabled children are often easy targets for perpetrators.
When we met the Safe Haven team in August 2017, they told us about Arun (whose name has been changed), a boy they had worked with for nearly seven years:
Arun has congenital cerebral palsy. When we got to know him, he was eight years old and had spent his entire life lying on a mattress. Slowly but surely, Pheakdey, our physiotherapist, has helped him learn to sit. For someone who has never done this before, this is an extremely painful process that causes vomiting, headaches and dizziness. Arun had never played with other children; he was kept indoors since the neighbors were afraid of him. The family seemed to think that communicating with Arun was difficult; it felt as though he was viewed more as a burden than as a full member of the family. Therefore, an important part of our work is communication training for the families, so that they have tools they can use not only to create a positive relationship with their child, but in discussions with neighbors, relatives and others.
Arun is now 14 years old, and he has a wheelchair he can use to move around freely. The feeling of freedom is tremendous! He has also gotten glasses and has seen the dentist for the first time. And he has made friends.
Inclusive art education
“Together we can build a society where every person counts.” This is the motto of Epic Arts. The purpose of their work is to include and strengthen children with disabilities, and to show them, their families and people nearby that these children are capable of anything if they are given the right conditions. Epic Arts offers preschoolers support to prepare for school as well as independent education for children who will never be able to attend any other school, since Cambodia’s educational system is not currently adapted for children with special needs.
Art plays a prominent role in Epic Arts’ activities, and many of their classes focus on theater, dance and singing. The students at the school recently became world famous for their cover of the Pharell Williams song “Happy”, where they repeatedly dispel many of the myths about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.
Some of the organization’s work is paid for by the earnings from its own café and shop as well as theater and dance performances.
Supporting and strengthening children is the top priority
Childhood is supporting an Epic Arts project designed to ensure that children with special needs who attend their classes are not subjected to violence, sexual abuse and other violations by the staff, parents or other children and young people involved with the organization. Our support also enables younger children with disabilities (three to five-year-olds) to attend the Epic Arts center once a week with their parents, to promote the child’s development and to provide the parents with tips and advice on how to best support their child.
Sokny Ohn is the Director of Epic Arts. When asked why she thinks their work is important, she tells her own story:
I got polio when I was two years old. The disease deformed one of my legs. When I was growing up, I was told that I was a burden to my family and that people felt sorry for my parents who had such a daughter. I felt early on that I didn’t have a place in the family and that I was treated differently than my siblings. I was ashamed of who I was and how I looked. I used to pretend that I wasn´t disabled, and hid my leg under long sarongs. The only thing I wanted was for people to be nice to me and not look down on me. My childhood was a huge, black and negative cloud.
My life changed when I took a dance class at Epic Arts. I met people who supported me and gave me motivation, which I had never experienced before. I got a job at the organization as an accounting clerk shortly afterward, and I became one of the Managing Directors ten years later.
I think the most important aspect of our work is the way we are involved in changing the perception of people with disabilities, and how we strengthen the confidence of children and young people. I identify with many of our new students. They are thinking the same things I was: I can’t succeed, I can’t do anything, I’m worthless. The combination of the power of art and our support enables them to develop and build their confidence. By the way, my own family is surprised about what I’ve achieved. Obviously they never believed that I could become the head of a nonprofit organization, let alone a mother. A disabled woman who has children!
When I think about myself as a young child, I wish I could have told that little girl that she is unique and valuable. There will be people who believe in you, and in the end you will believe in yourself as well.
Text: Åsa Andreasson Åkerström, photo: private