Child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable

By Jon Brown, lead for tackling sexual abuse, NSPCC

Child sexual abuse is an international problem of ‘staggering’ proportions. In the UK, we estimate 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused – that’s more than one child in every classroom.

Abuse can affect children and young people in many ways and, if left unaddressed and untreated, the effects can endure in adulthood and become lifelong. The impacts can range from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol and substance misuse, self-harm and other related mental health problems and illnesses. Tragically, on occasions it can lead to someone taking their own life.

The scale of child sexual abuse and its impact on society led James A Mercy, from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US to describe it as a ‘disease’:

Imagine what we, as a society would do if such a disease existed. We would spare no expense. We would invest heavily in basic and applied research. We would devise systems to identify those affected and provide services to treat them. We would develop and broadly implement prevention campaigns to protect our children. Wouldn’t we?

Seeing and understanding the challenge of child abuse as a preventable public health problem helps to organise thinking and services across the prevention continuum:

  1. Primary prevention: universal and before abuse has occurred, such as parents talking to their children about the Underwear Rule, or primary school children taking part in the NSPCC’s Speak out Stay safe
  1. Secondary prevention: with higher risk individuals, families, areas and communities, such as Protect and Respect, a service which includes work with young people who are at risk of child sexual exploitation.
  1. Tertiary prevention: after the event interventions and programmes to address and mitigate the effects, such as the NSPCC’s service Letting the Future In.

With Letting the Future In, children have a chance to talk about their abuse experiences and to express themselves through creative therapies. These sessions enable the children to safely work through past experiences and come to understand and move on from what has happened. The evaluation found that the proportion of children receiving the service who experienced the highest levels of trauma reduced from 73% at the start of the programme to 46% after six months.

At the tertiary prevention stage, when sexual abuse does occur, we must be ready to provide the expert help that children need to deal with trauma. With high-quality therapeutic support, children and young people can rebuild their lives. Where we have already failed to protect children from abuse, we cannot fail them again by ignoring the impact that abuse has on their lives.

Timely help and support is important preventative work because it can also increase resilience and break the cycle of abuse. If left unaddressed and unrecognised, abuse can be perpetuated. It can become tacitly accepted and seen as something that ‘just happens’ in some families or communities.

We know that child abuse is not inevitable; we can prevent child sexual abuse before it occurs. It will require effort from all areas of society, and it is up to all of us to help prevent child sexual abuse from happening.