Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: ‘Many Child Abuse Cases Remain Unreported’

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Sep 3 2009 (IPS) - Geoff Bahnert, 46, had been holding on to a secret until he decided it was time to speak out to ease the agony and pain of keeping it: As a child he was sexually abused, first by his female babysitter and then by an old man involved with his baseball club. All along he thought it was his fault and no one would believe him if he told his story.

Like Bahnert, there are more than two million adult survivors of child abuse in Australia, a developed country whose cities consistently rank among the highest in the world in terms of livability and quality of life. Together they have suffered abuse of their basic human rights, mostly perpetrated by primary caregivers, experts say.

Between 2007 and 2008 some 317,526 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect were reported to Australian state and territory authorities, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the national agency for information and statistics on health and welfare.

But the actual figures for child abuse and child sexual abuse might be five times higher than the official number, suggests a report released in November 2008, jointly compiled by economic consulting firm Access Economics, the Australian Childhood Foundation, which seeks to put a stop to child abuse, and Monash University. The report also states that the number of children who have been abused or neglected and have not been identified could be 18 times higher than the number of those who are.

This is because child abuse and neglect often goes unreported and undetected due to the private nature of the crime, the difficulties children experience in recounting what they have gone through alongside the fear that they will not be believed, and lack of evidence to prove the crime.

Kay Collison, 65, was first sexually abused at the age of five by two great uncles. She was then placed in the care of her uncle, who abused and exploited her till she was in her mid-20s, but by the time she had the mental strength to report the crime to police, her uncle had died.

"I was suicidal and depressed as my uncle continued to offer me to other men, whom he invited to the house, while he watched me being raped. I didn't report the abuse at that time as I felt no one would believe me," says Collison, who had an abortion following a sexual assault at 30 and decided to see a doctor. She was treated for depression. However, she still feels unsafe, insecure and suffers from insomnia.

A key organisation, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), which advances the needs of adults who have experienced child abuse in Australia, is demanding that child abuse and child sexual abuse by caregivers in the private domain be recognised as a violation of human rights.

"Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) specifically addresses abuse by primary caregivers," Dr Cathy Kezelman, chairperson of ASCA and a child abuse survivor, told IPS. "But child abuse and child sexual abuse occurring in the 'private' sphere is not acknowledged as human rights abuse and yet the majority of those abuses are perpetrated in the home."

The CRC, which was Adopted by the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in November 1989, calls on all states parties to take all appropriate measures "to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child."

A 2007 study, initiated by five Australian universities, of 21,000 older Australians found that over 13 percent reported having been sexually or physically abused in childhood. These figures did not include those emotionally abused or neglected, or forced to endure family violence.

Lesley Eastwood (name changed on her request) was born in Essex (Britain) to a mother who did not want a child. "I felt totally unsupported by my parents and spent most of my free time away from the house, playing on the streets or at friends' houses," she recounted. Then one day, while playing with a group of 12- to 13-year-old boys, she was raped. "They decided to tie me to a tree and one after the other (all five of them) had sex with me at knife-point and threatened to kill me if I screamed or told anyone," she said.

Eastwood developed severe anxiety attacks and came to Australia on a working holiday, got a job and made friends, but still suffered from loneliness and bouts of depression. "I started drinking every night after work, and in my drunken state would frequently wake up in someone's bed feeling ashamed of myself," she said.

With support from a therapist and ASCA, Lesley said she is now in control of her life, but she is "hyper vigilant, and intimacy and relationships still present a huge challenge."

Society pays the price of child abuse on many levels with many survivors experiencing a host of significant social, behavioural, mental and physical health issues into adulthood and even old age.

"Like many sexual abuse survivors," Bahnert told IPS, "I developed some addictive behaviours and looked for ways to 'get a normal life'. I became a policeman, married and had children. I lived what appeared from the outside to be a successful life, but was constantly struggling with suicidal thoughts to escape from the pain within." Although he was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, he feels fortunate to have the support of many people who helped him overcome his ordeal.

An Access Economics report published last year estimated that 130,237 children were abused or neglected in 2007. But the actual figure could be as high as 490,000 children, or almost four times higher. Based on these numbers, the projected cost of child abuse and neglect that will be incurred by the community over the lifetime of children who were first abused or neglected in 2007 was 13.7 billion Australian dollars (approximately 11.38 billion U.S. dollars), but could be as high as 38.7 billion Australian dollars (some 32.16 billion U.S. dollars).

Kezelman has co-authored a report to the Australian Human Rights Commission Consultation currently underway by the Federal Government. It highlights the ongoing human rights abuses experienced by victims of child abuse into adulthood. Statistics from the 2000 AIHW report show that one in three girls and one in six boys are being sexually abused before the age of 18. Furthermore, 96 percent of abusers have a relationship with the child, 72 of percent of whom being the natural parents. Only four percent fall into the ‘other/stranger’ category.

Dr Jennifer Wilson, leading human rights academic from the Southern Cross University’s Centre for Peace and Social Justice and Kezelman’s co-author, says, "Sadly, evidence suggests that in times of financial hardship, child abuse cases increase, with some counseling centres already experiencing a 15 to 20 percent increase in presentations" or cases.

An international coalition of organisations, established by Women's World Summit Foundation, a humanitarian organisation with U.N. consultative status, is celebrating International Child Abuse Prevention Week from November 13 to 19 to alert governments and civil society organisations to play a more active role in the promotion of and respect for the rights of child, as well as to contribute to the prevention of child abuse.

"A broadening of the terms of the human rights discourse would result in a better framework for understanding the tragedy of child abuse and its effects by society," says Dr Wilson.

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