Over the weekend, horrific false news about a teenage girl being “euthanised” due to mental illness was reported all around the world. The truth was almost as uncomfortable: a teenage girl dying by suicide from the impact of sexual abuse and assault. Emily Writes discusses the conversation we must have.
Content warning: This post discusses child sexual abuse. If you need to speak to somebody now, you can call Safe To Talk on for free, confidential support.
The stories everywhere were immediately click-worthy. I hate that straight away I was drawn in. Authorities had apparently granted a Dutch teenager her wish to be given assisted suicide. Legal under certain circumstances in the Netherlands, it seemed unlikely but possible. Very soon after, but probably too late by then, it was revealed that the initial stories were inaccurate. Noa Pothoven, 17, died after refusing to drink or eat.
Her death sparked a discussion about euthanasia and mental health. What is suicide? What is assisted suicide? Lost in the mix by many was what sparked her anorexia and her ultimately fatal mental illnesses.
Noa Pothoven was raped for the first time at age 11. And again by two men at age 14.
It’s hard to get accurate statistics on sexual assault of children due to it being so under-reported. Any statistics we have are likely far less than the reality.
The World Health Organisation estimated in 2017 that up to one billion children aged two to 17 years-old have endured physical, emotional, or sexual violence in their short lives. Unicef estimates from 2014 revealed 120 million children were the victims of sexual violence – the highest number of victims in any age breakdown. In 2017, they reported that in 38 countries, at least 17 million adult women suffered through ongoing sexual abuse and violence during their childhood.
These children aren’t just abused offline, according to data from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). Every seven minutes a web page shows images of children being sexually abused.
New Zealand has one of the worst records of child abuse in the developed world. According to Unicef every year Oranga Tamariki receives more than 150,000 reports of concern relating to children. On average, one child dies every five weeks as a result of violence in New Zealand. Children under the age of 18 make up 20% of all violent deaths in New Zealand.
As many as one in three girls under 16 and one in six boys in New Zealand experience some form of sexual abuse.
Children often don’t report sexual abuse directly, especially as it tends to be carried out by someone they trust – like a family member. It’s important as adults that we learn how to identify and look out for signs of sexual abuse as often a child can’t tell us.
It’s important to remember there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the identification of children or young people at risk. But if you have a child in your life whose behaviour has suddenly changed – maybe they’ve stopped sleeping, eating, or they’re bed-wetting – or they seem to know more about sex than a child their age should, and they seem depressed or withdrawn or feel unwell (without signs of physical illness), start a conversation. If they’re hurting themselves or others, or thinking about doing this, you can get assistance from Oranga Tamariki. Here are some other signs of possible abuse.
If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 111. If you’re worried about a child and want to make a referral or report of concern, call Oranga Tamariki on freephone 0508 326 459.
There are also many sexual violence specialist support agencies across the country that you can contact if you or a child is in crisis, or even just to talk things through if you are unsure or concerned about someone you know. The new 24/7 national sexual violence helpline, Safe to Talk, is also a good place to seek help.
But that’s after the fact. What can be done to prevent child sexual abuse? The Rape Prevention Education Trust has tips that might be helpful.
Actively be a role model to the children around you – don’t make jokes about rape or sexual assault and intervene when you hear those comments being made. Children will look to you as an adult to see what is right and wrong. If they see you laughing about rape or assault, you’re basically telling them they’re not safe to talk to you. Learn more about being an active bystander here.
Don’t deny the problem. There are so many myths surrounding sexual violence. People can’t seem to help but deny the size of the issue – to confront it is to own it, and to feel compelled to do something about it. Being honest about it is an important first step. To stop child sex abuse we have to know about how big the problem is, where it’s happening, and how we can stop it. Educate yourself and learn about consent, rape culture and sexual violence.
Model active consent in everything you do. Who gives a crap if your great aunt has a nervous breakdown over you not forcing your child to kiss her?! Ensuring your child knows they don’t have to kiss or be kissed, touch or be touched – when they don’t want to – is crucial when it comes to learning about consent. Teach your child about boundaries. As RPE says: Respecting boundaries helps people to feel safe and reinforces that people have the first and last say over what happens to their bodies.
Helping your child understand “My body my choice” or “My body my rules” and “No means no!” will help not just them, but other children around them. Just like water or road safety, you can teach your child about body safety. Listen to children when they say no and respect their no. Teach them the correct names for their genitals. Talk about OK and Not OK Touching. Teach your children some parts of their body are private. Talk about secrets – secrets can be happy, like a surprise party, or they can be yucky or bad. Make sure they know that they must tell you if a secret feels bad or yucky. It is rare for a child to make abuse claims, so take them seriously. TOAH-NNEST is a fantastic place to find resources about doing this.
Talk to your child’s kindergarten or school and ask them what programmes they have in place to support children around sexual violence. Do they have consent programmes? Do they provide language to children to talk about their bodies or what’s happening at home? Do they have a staff member who the children know is “safe” to speak to?
Finally, be prepared to step up for kids. Watch all children like they’re your children. Be interested and involved in the lives of children who are in your life. Be prepared to do something to keep a child safe. People who sexually abuse children are likely to be people we know. It’s a horrible reality people have to face. Keep an eye out for red flags, as suggested by sexual abuse prevention organisation Stop it Now: does this adult or older child insist on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention. Do they frequently makes sexual references or tells sexual or suggestive jokes with children present? Do they expose a child to adult sexual interactions without apparent concern? Do they have secret interactions with teens or children or spend excessive time emailing, text messaging or calling children or youth?
If someone seems “too good to be true,” for example, they baby sit different children for free, take children on special outings alone or buy children gifts or gives them money for no apparent reason? That could be a red flag.
If your child is showing sexualised behaviour or you’re afraid they might hurt other children, you can contact WellStop. WellStop has programmes for children aged five to 12, and young people aged 13 to 18 who are showing harmful sexual behaviours.
Surviving sexual assault takes everything, and sometimes even everything isn’t enough. We need to talk about Noa Pothoven’s life, not just her death. Sexual abuse took her life. We must do everything we can to save the lives of other children.
Where to get help dealing with sexual violence
Safe to Talk sexual harm helpline – 0800 044 334 or text 4334. Open 24/7
Rape Crisis National 24 Hour Helpline 0800 883300
Victim Support National 24 Hour Helpline 0800 842 846
ECPAT Child Alert 09 376 5252 – Hotline for reporting of child pornography
If you or someone else is at risk of harm call 111 immediately or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.
Mental health helplines
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Safe to Talk sexual harm helpline – 0800 044 334 or text 4334. Open 24/7
Counselling for children and young people
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.