Often the cases appear as a few words in the local press: “Man and woman arrested over the rape of a 13-year-old girl.” A police statement adds that the victim’s uncle had been raping her for the last six years, with the full knowledge of the girl’s mother and grandmother. In this case, arrests took place on May 5 in Pinheiros, a city of 77,000 people in northern Brazil, but neither the age of the victim nor the circumstances of the crime are unusual. The most recent statistics from the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (FBSP) are shocking. Every hour, four girls under the age of 13 are raped in Brazil. More than half of the 66,041 victims were under that age, according to the 2019 report.
These cases hide the true scale of the issue as they are the ones escalated to the police or medical specialists. Much abuse takes place hidden from view and protected by family omertà. “Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence,” says Marcia Bonifacio, the head of a team of psychologists at São Paulo City Hall who provide support to schools for problematic students. Their disruptive behavior often hides a life of sexual abuse and other forms of violence at home.
Sexual violence against children is shrouded in a pact of silence
Marcia Bonifacio, psychologist for abuse victims
The psychologists have seen cases of a four-year-old girl who masturbates four times a day in class, a 10-year-old girl who starts to show signs of pregnancy, or the seven-year-old boy who pressures classmates into performing oral sex. “It’s a very perverse circle with few happy endings,” says Bonifacio. Brazil’s patriarchal and macho culture is plagued by taboos about sex, but at the same time promotes precocious sexual activity. The victims do not follow any pattern of age, race or social class, but their aggressors are almost always family members or close family friends. “I have never heard of a case perpetrated by a stranger,” explains Bonifacio. Fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and older siblings, however, are common.
The Brazilian Penal Code considers any sexual relations with a child under 14 to be statutory rape, and further considers them as rape of a person considered “vulnerable” (unable to consent due to age, illness or incapacity). As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood. Often the victim will be blamed for destroying the family or leaving it without an income if they complain and the aggressor is the main financial provider.
Unfortunately, cases can start extremely early. “When they are between zero and six years old the victims have little understanding of what is happening, they may even perceive it as a game, as a sign of affection. They feel pleasure and they have no boundaries – frequently the aggressor requires them to keep it a secret,” explains prosecutor Renata Rivitti. However, this ignorance can stretch into a child’s teens given a lack of information and sex education.
Bonifacio recalls the case of a 13-year-old from an evangelical family. The girl discovered in science class that what her father had been doing to her since she was eight years old and got her first period was sex. With no television, cellphone or internet, she had simply not heard of it.
Detecting abuse is the first step, and in the case of young children, this is usually discovered according to their behavior at school. When they are older, they often tell someone they trust, but the most serious cases come to light at hospital. A further difficulty once abuse is exposed is protecting the victim without re-victimizing them, and prosecuting the crime. The child will have to repeat their testimony to different services, the police and doctors. They will face intense scrutiny and have to undergo a thorough forensic examination. Many end up far away from their relatives, neighborhood, school and friends, and blame themselves for speaking out. Some retract their accusations because the price paid for speaking up is too high.
Rivitti says she encourages information sharing with victims, to make them aware of what abuse is and how it works. “Then they will know how to explain it, and they will have to be believed,” she says. They try to identify a family member who will protect the girl at home and separate her from the rapist. If he is providing for the family then they try to seek extra financial support.
Getting a case strong enough to bring before a judge is another major difficulty in Brazil. It is usually the child’s word against the adult’s. The worst nightmare of those fighting child rape is that the court will acquit the accused. “We simply cannot deliver the lamb to the wolf with a judge’s approval,” Rivitti says.
Given the complexity of the challenge, Luciana Temer runs the Liberta Institute, which seeks to raise awareness with documentaries to break what she terms “the perverse circle of the normalization of abuse.” Also on board is one of the most famous men in Brazil, Globo TV presenter Luciano Huck, who is politically influential.
As it is not uncommon for the mother of the child or other relatives to be complicit, the abuse can extend through childhood
Rivitti is trying to replicate the model she created in Jacareí, a city of 235,000 inhabitants in Brazil’s interior, at the São Paulo state level. This works by coordinating educational, social and health services to better protect victims, leading to higher rates of detection and rape complaints, fewer witnesses in trials and more convictions. She works with a network of 70 other prosecutors.
With schools closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the team Bonifacio leads had to pivot online to create an outlet for children to denounce violence. They created a website that received 200 complaints in nine months. Of these, 56 were for sexual violence.
‘They see it in corridors, in bathrooms, on the bus’: UK schools’ porn crisis | Pornography
Barnardo’s works directly with children who are victims of abuse or display signs of harmful or risky sexual behaviour. In 2020-21, they worked with 382,872 children, young people, parents and carers.
In a recent survey of their frontline workers across England and Wales, staff reported a rise in the number of children participating in acts they have seen in pornographic videos, despite feeling uncomfortable or scared. They describe porn as having a “corrosive” effect on child wellbeing.
Child sexual abuse expert Sarah works with children who are displaying signs of inappropriate sexual behaviour. She also trains other professionals who work with children
“I started out as a primary school teacher eight years ago, and I’ve been worried about children seeing porn ever since. Children don’t have to be able to type to see porn – it can be sent to them or shown to them on someone else’s phone. They see it at school, in the corridors, in the bathrooms, on the bus. There is just no censor on any of it – one video leads to another. If you can imagine it, it exists as porn, and children are seeing it.
“I am working with a teenager who was sexually abused by a family member. This young person had been exposed to porn and it was perpetuating what the abuser told them – that this is normal, that it’s not abuse.”
She is particularly concerned, as are her colleagues, about the increasingly extreme nature of the porn freely available on mainstream sites.
“A common role play theme on porn sites is intra-familial abuse – on mainstream sites you will see fetishisation of grandad and granddaughter sex, or stepfathers and stepdaughters. This may lead to a young person not disclosing or getting the support they need. From both angles it is dangerous; it puts the child at risk and encourages the perpetrator.
“The impact of porn shows in children harming others or themselves because they either don’t understand or are so ashamed of sexual urges. Shame is very prevalent and is often hidden.
“We are working with a seven-year-old who has been exposed to porn and is now displaying sexualised behaviour. They had free rein on a device, and someone hadn’t deleted a browser history. Once a young person sees porn, they may feel a need to come back again and again – porn is designed to meet a need. That is a form of sexual abuse against that child.”
Brian* is a senior social worker who has worked with children for over 30 years
“Unfortunately, porn is a feature for the majority of the children who come into our service. The children we support are very damaged. They would be likely to have experienced multiple forms of abuse – sexual, physical and domestic. Porn in and of itself is not the cause of their behaviour but it becomes a compounding factor when it hits that history of vulnerability.
Adult sex offenders can give children a distorted rationalisation for their behaviour, and the messages that are given through porn then fit with that distortion.
Lucy* has worked within the field of child sexual abuse for 16 years.
“We know children find porn distressing – they are telling us that themselves. We have done research with children in schools so that we have a cohort to compare our vulnerable children to, and they are saying the same thing.
“This is not what could be described as erotic or soft porn. They may start on porn sites and quickly begin to see very hardcore material. Or [extreme material] lands in their social media feeds, and they can then feel compelled to go back and look again.
“Children are less able to manage sexual arousal, and this material is designed to be arousing. Lots of children can feel guilty and distressed by what they see. We have 14-year-olds telling us they have to watch it as soon as they wake up. They describe being preoccupied with accessing porn to an extent that impacts upon their day-to-day life.
“We also regularly work with children with learning disabilities, another group vulnerable to the harm of porn. They may be shielded from sexual information and then reach 13 or 14 and take away the wrong learning from porn. They may learn that no means yes, that if you persist, women will enjoy forced sex. These messages are harmful for any child but for children with learning needs or who have developed unhealthy beliefs around sex as a result of abuse, it’s particularly bad.
“After lockdown, we began to get more calls from parents where there is no other obvious trauma, just the exposure to porn. I’ve been doing this 16 years, and children have far more access to porn now.”
* Names and some details have been changed to protect identities
French centre-right tilts toward Pécresse
Valérie Pécresse, a moderate conservative who has likened herself to former British and German leaders Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, has emerged as a front-runner in primaries in France’s centre-right Les Républicains party, Reuters reports. “I won’t flinch. I have a project for a clean break, a project for the unashamed right,” she said Thursday, ahead of elections against liberal incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right contenders in spring.
Poland plans to set up register of pregnancies to report miscarriages | Poland
Poland is planning to introduce a centralised register of pregnancies that would oblige doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government.
The proposed register would come into effect in January 2022, a year after Poland introduced a near-total ban on abortion.
This has raised serious concerns among women’s rights activists, who believe that in light of the abortion ban, the register could be used to cause legal difficulties for women who have self-administered abortions.
The draft legislation is part of a wide-ranging project to update the medical information system in Poland.
“It’s about control, it’s about making sure that pregnancies end with birth,” Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist from Aborcyjny Dream Team told the Polish weekly Gazeta Wyborcza.
The plan prompted online protests. A social media initiative titled “I’d like to politely report that I am not pregnant” encouraged Polish women to email photos of their used sanitary pads, tampons and underwear to the Polish ministry of health.
The ministry has strongly denied the project amounts to a centralised pregnancy register, with a spokesperson saying the changes are simply part of wide-ranging digitalisation project that will update the way data about a multitude of conditions, including allergies, is stored.
The spokesperson said doctors always had information on pregnancies, but before it was stored on paper by hospitals, rather than centrally by the government.
The concerns of activists about the register grew considerably after a bill proposed by the government that would establish an “institute of family and demographics” passed first reading in the Polish parliament by one vote on Thursday.
The institute would aim to monitor family policy, pass opinion on legislation and educate citizens on the “vital role of family to the social order” and the importance of “cultural-social reproduction” in the context of marriage. The institute would have access to citizens’ personal data and prosecutorial powers in the realm of family law, prompting worries it could be used to enforce the country’s strict abortion law.
The project has drawn widespread criticism from Polish academics and civil rights advocates.
“Maybe just call it the ‘Red Center of Rachel and Leah’,” a feminist organisation from Łódź said in an Instagram post, referencing Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel the Rachel and Leah Center is a training facility for women designated to be “breeders” by the authoritarian regime.
The committee of demographic researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences has issued a statement expressing concerns that the “pro-natalist propaganda” would take precedent over scientific research at the institute.
“The project aims exclusively to promote traditional model of family,” Adam Bodnar, Poland’s former ombudsman for citizen rights, told the Polish news website Oko.press. “It could also become a tool against those who fall outside this model, for example those who do not conform to heteronormative norms.”
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