Despite worldwide estimations that one in six boys is affected by sexual violence before he is eighteen years old, very little evidence is available. As collaborating agencies working in childcare and protection, ChildLinK and Blossom Inc. have, over the past five years, noticed an increase in reports from boys who have been sexually abused. This observation is also supported by the Child Protection Agency’s reports.
The increase in reported cases is a positive, as underreporting has long been an issue of concern. However, the increase in reporting also expounds on the fact that there is an urgent need for evidence-based campaigns that focus on the care of boys.
Sexual violence is a wide-reaching social issue that affects persons from all genders, sexualities, races and classes. While data on the violence experienced by women and girls has been steadily built upon over the years, when it comes to men and boys, data is often lacking.
As a result, ChildLinK is currently in the process of developing a two-year, evidence-based public education campaign. This campaign will focus on caring for boys, encouraging adults to play a larger role in protecting boys from harm, and supporting their wellbeing.
On April 16, ChildLinK will be launching its Blue Umbrella Day (BUD) in collaboration with four other countries. BUD forms part of ChildLinK’s wider programme activities, and falls directly under the One Thousand Boys Initiative. Highlighting the harmful social norms that drive abuse against boys, this initiative builds on the work of both Government and civil society agencies for protecting children from all forms of abuse, particularly child sexual abuse.
The gender norms that surround the way boys are raised have a large role to play in the violence that continues to be meted out against them. From young, boys are taught that they must be providers who must not only be strong, but also be protectors of those who are deemed weaker than they are. They themselves are not allowed to enable or exhibit weakness. These patriarchal customs keep young boys and men trapped within a narrow idea of what it means to be and act like a man. These customs unfortunately have many toxic elements that contribute towards the violence that is both experienced and perpetuated by men and boys.
These customs have led to the solidifying of the perception that sexual assault happens only to young girls and women. Evidence of this can be seen from the policies that are implemented, the support services that are provided, and the cultural attitudes that continue to frame young boys as not requiring care and protection. While there is an intent focus on policing the lives of young girls, boys are often provided free rein and very little supervision. Both these lax and hyper-vigilant responses are steeped in harmful cultural beliefs. They do, however, expose the way in which the different genders are treated when it comes to their protection.
Given the stigma and discrimination that are often meted out against sexual assault survivors, males who experience sexual assault are often reluctant to come forward with their experiences of abuse, due to the fear of not being believed and being ridiculed. The hyper-sexualisation of young boys often sees female abusers not being recognised as such. Their families and peers often celebrate young boys who are preyed upon by older women, rather than getting them the support and justice that is necessary. If their abusers were male, there is a clearer line of it being abuse, but there are added barriers to coming forward with their experiences, given the fear that they will be discriminated against and labelled as being homosexual.
Cultural and traditional factors continue to largely impact the responses towards child sexual violence.
The lack of institutional support and services for young boys and men continues to contribute towards underreporting and stigmatisation of male sexual violence. Addressing the violence that young boys face means also addressing the religious and traditional norms that continue to harm them and keep cases of abuse wrapped under cloaks of shame and fear. We all, as parents, caretakers, community leaders and advocates, must ensure that boys have access to the care and support necessary for them to grow up in safe and caring environments. Care that centres on the humanity of young boys, that breaks down the expectations to be hypersexual and aggressive, will result in healthy, well-adjusted men and strengthened communities.