Over the summer, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published research on the underacknowledged and often overlooked subject of how child sexual abuse affects those from ethnic minority communities, and the myriad issues and barriers that those communities face.
This is an important piece of research coming as it does so in the immediate aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter movement.
We have prepared this briefing on the research to highlight the key themes and issues emerging from it, recognising that race equality has been an important area that many of our clients and contacts have been considering over the summer.
As the title of the research paper highlights “people don’t talk about it” and there are still taboos and stigmatisation in relation to child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities that sometimes emanate from cultural norms and expectations. Further, there are issues of trust between ethnic minority communities and institutions, given experiences of racial bias, which perpetuates a reluctance to disclose. IICSA’s research has three aims in seeking to address this and it considers the following issues:
- the barriers to disclosure experienced by ethnic minority communities;
- the experiences of institutions (such as the police, schools, courts, religious and health organisations and children’s social care) by individuals in such communities; and
- the support received by victims and survivors from such communities.
Seven key findings were made through the research:
1. Cultural stereotypes and racism can lead to institutions and professionals failing to identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse. They can also make it more difficult for individuals from ethnic minority communities to disclose and speak up about such abuse.
Racism and stereotypes have an impact on how such abuse is understood, identified, disclosed and responded to, in two specific ways:
- firstly, through misconceptions about what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ for certain ethnic groups; this can lead to abuse not being recognised or no (or insufficient) action being taken; and
- secondly, the wider context of racism in society makes it more difficult for individuals from ethnic minority communities to speak out about abuse because they are worried about reinforcing undesirable stereotypes.
Inversely, institutions and professionals may fail to intervene or take appropriate action because they are afraid of being seen as racist – this was a concern which contributed to the significant failings by the local police and political leadership in the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. As one participant in the focus group commented:
"I just wish social services just barged in and took me into care, and took me and my siblings into care…but they were so intent on not coming across racist or coming across culturally insensitive that they forgot about the person that was being hurt here."
2. Some professionals’ view of a person is solely shaped by assumptions and stereotypes about their ethnic group, rather than the whole person.
Participants emphasised the importance of institutions and professionals seeing the whole person when responding to child sexual abuse and not just looking at their ethnicity. Others stated that institutions and professionals must be non-judgemental, appropriately trained and preferably from the same ethnic background as the individuals who are disclosing the abuse. Some participants talked about feeling “othered” by professionals and institutions, which in turn creates a lack of trust and further reinforces the challenges around disclosure.
As one participant wrote:
"To them it’s like I think there’s an external view of our people which is: ‘Oh, you lot do that anyway, don’t you? You marry each other.’"
3. Shame and stigma were frequently mentioned by ethnic minority participants as leading to “a code of silence”.
Whilst prevalent in all communities, participants said shame and stigma were specific factors that influence responses to child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities. This is because such abuse is often seen as taboo and experiences of racism in mainstream society can create fear of stigmatisation and the community’s reputation being damaged.
Shame and stigma can contribute to the abuse being kept secret in order to preserve the honour of the victim and survivor, their family, the perpetrator or community, over the victim and survivor’s needs. Often the abuse is afforded the status of an open secret, where people know it occurs, but it is not explicitly acknowledged and little or nothing is done to address it.
4. Child sexual abuse can have a serious impact on victims and survivors’ sense of identity and belonging within their communities.
Some victims and survivors are ostracised from their communities, having made disclosures, or are no longer safe within them or choose to leave them, due to the community’s response to their experiences. These risks, along with the fear of not being believed or even being blamed, can deter victims and survivors from making a disclosure.
Victims and survivors reported a range of adverse impacts as a consequence of child sexual abuse, such as:
- education and employment problems;
- an impact on their identity;
- sense of loss following separation from their culture; and
- isolation caused by making a disclosure which can have impact on the victims and survivors’ needs.
The most beneficial form of supporting victims and survivors was reported as them being able to share the experience of being abused with someone who understands and is non-judgemental. For many, this meant receiving support from other victims and survivors of the same ethnic group and gender. Peer support was suggested in the research as an effective means of providing support when underpinned by adequate training and resources.
As one participant wrote:
"She understood not only as a black woman being abused, sexually abused. She ticked all my boxes. Everything I said she got me. And I realised how important, how much I needed that. Someone that I could look at, I recognised, but understood me."
5. The way that child sexual abuse is seen and responded to in ethnic minority communities is linked with expectations about gender within those communities.
For example, in some South Asian communities, boys and men often felt less able to discuss child sexual abuse because of particular stigma and shame, and such abuse was seen to have a specific negative impact on marriage prospects for girls and women. In some cases, victims were even encouraged to marriage their abuser.
Participants challenged the assumption that all perpetrators are male and victims are female. These different gender stereotypes impact how children are protected, how abuse is identified and responded to and how comfortable individuals are in disclosing it.
6. Participants’ perceptions and experiences of institutions in relation to child sexual abuse were mixed but tended to be negative.
There was a general feeling of mistrust and a lack of confidence relating to responses by institutions. This was underpinned by a perception that statutory institutions, and some professionals, hold racist views and assume cultural stereotypes. This was also informed by the perception of institutional racism within the police. Some participants viewed institutions as too ‘white’ and considered the lack of cultural diversity as a deterrent to disclosures and a hinderance to institutional responses.
Several participants said they would prefer to make disclosures to voluntary sector organisations or their own community. However, not all the participants’ experiences of institutional responses were negative or related to racism. For example, some acknowledged the importance of institutions, particularly schools, in responding to and protecting children from sexual abuse.
7. Although better than in the past, more can be done to raise awareness, remove barriers to disclosure and improve responses to child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities.
Participants thought that education (such as sex education in schools) and media coverage has raised awareness in their communities about child sexual abuse. However, participants explained that many parents in South Asian communities objected to sex education and had withdrawn their children from these lessons. Raising awareness is essential in all communities because it helps victims and survivors recognise that their experiences constitute abuse, that it is wrong, and teaches them the words and gives them the tools to make a disclosure. It also informs individuals on how they can report the abuse and helps communities foster acceptance towards victims and survivors.
What can your organisation do?
Following the publication of IICSA’s research, organisations would be well advised to seriously consider and take action in these areas:
- consider what organisations can do to help eliminate the barriers that so clearly exist to the disclosure of child sexual abuse experienced by ethnic minority communities;
- improve communities’ experiences of the organisation itself; and
- ensure that victims and survivors are fully supported.
Addressing these issues will help ensure that child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities is not just talked about but proactive steps are taken to help alleviate the unique issues faced within these communities.
Examples of how organisations can achieve this in practice include:
- ensuring that when a disclosure is made by an individual from an ethnic minority community, individuals within the organisation must be non-judgemental, appropriately trained and, if possible, from the same ethnic background as the disclosing individual;
- improving the diversity of their own workforce through positive action in recruitment and promotions, given that the "whiteness" of institutions is often seen as a barrier to disclosure from individuals from ethnic minority communities;
- vocalising that the organisation will not tolerate racism of any kind. This can include publishing press statements to this effect and reviewing policies to ensure that cultural stereotypes and racism are explicitly prohibited, and there will be repercussions on those who fail to comply. It is essential that this is realised through action, not just words, in order to gain the trust and cooperation of ethnic minority communities;
- communicating with the organisation’s employees who are from ethnic minority communities, to understand how they think child sexual abuse affects their communities, and take steps to enact their recommendations;
- providing compulsory training to all the individuals within their organisation so that they understand the stereotypes and misconceptions which certain ethnic minority communities are subject to, and are taught how to avoid reinforcing these. The training should also acknowledge how such stereotypes and misconceptions can impact their safeguarding duties;
- commissioning an independent review of the organisation and how it interacts with ethnic minority communities, with a focus on how individuals from such communities perceive disclosure of child sexual abuse to the institution, interactions with it and its support for victims and survivors;
- raising awareness and supporting local community-based charities which provide peer support (including adequate training and resources) for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse; and
- respectfully encouraging children to attend sex education classes in schools, which includes education about expectations about gender. From September 2020, Relationships and Sex Education will be compulsory in all secondary schools (see Mary Breen and Xinlan Rose’s article on this here). It is essential to bear in mind that parents have the right to withdraw their children from such classes.
In conducting the research, the IICSA Research Team and the Race Equality Foundation contributors engaged with a range of ethnic minority communities, particularly from Caribbean, African and South Asian ethnicities.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2020