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June 3, 2016

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Foundation bids to shine a light on child abuse

MOST people have fond memories of their schooldays, but for some it is a time they would prefer to forget.

A teacher in central China’s Hunan Province is currently awaiting trial on charges of sexual assault after 23 girls came forward to say they had been abused over a three-year period.

It is claimed that school and education officials were aware of the alleged abuse but no one informed the police.

Many of the girls were “left-behind” children, those whose parents are migrant workers in other cities.

More than 60 million children are considered left-behind in China and, according to lawyers and children rights campaigners, they are at greater risk of falling victim to sexual or physical abuse.

Unfortunately, saving face and reputations often trump a desire for justice, especially for older care-givers, said Li Huiye, a lawyer in Hunan.

“Silence and private settlement is the preferred solution, instead of conviction,” Li said, adding that such a culture enables sexual predators to commit crimes against children.

Sex education can help

From 2013 to 2015, at least 968 incidents of sexual assault against minors, involving 1,790 victims, were reported in Chinese media, according to the Girls’ Protection Foundation.

It seeks to bring the subject of abuse out of the shadows, and protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse.

Sex education can help, child protection experts say. Children are not being taught about their bodies, their individual right to privacy or how to define boundaries and this lack of understanding only exacerbates the already entrenched stigma attached to victims of abuse, making children even more vulnerable, they say.

Fei Yunxia is a volunteer with the foundation and visits schools to teach children about their bodies and their rights. During each presentation the mood is often the same: students lower their heads, avoid eye contact, and, more often than not, an awkward silence hangs heavy in the air.

But she says children who understand their bodies are more likely to know if certain interactions are appropriate or not. Meaning that if they are being abused, they understand that it is wrong, or if someone tries to push their boundaries in the future they can prevent it.

The foundation has been funding lectures, campaigns and research to prevent sexual violence against children since 2013.

“Before me, nobody told these students about their bodies, sex or how to protect themselves from harm,” Fei said.

In the past year, she has given lectures to 2,000 students in four schools in Hunan, and wants to reach out to more. There are about 6.9 million students in elementary schools and junior high schools in the province.

Hard to get support

“It is just hard to get support from schools or education authorities. They think the topic is ‘sensitive’ or ‘unspeakable,’ and others do not think sexual abuse deserves special attention,” she said.

There is no program on the prevention of sexual abuse, and many schools would not even consider approaching the subject, said Sun Xuemei, one of the founders of Girls’ Protection.

Last year, the organization polled more than 4,700 students, and 40 percent of respondents could not identify their private parts. It also interviewed 363 parents, and 40 percent said they never spoke to their children about sexual abuse.

Many parents also avoid any mention of sex education.

“They either think it is too early to talk about sex, or talking about it would corrupt their children. It seems that sex is just not a topic suitable for public conversation,” Sun said.

Xiao Yun is a survivor-turned-campaigner with the foundation. She was sexually abused by her neighbor when she was 8. “There is hardly anyone for victim to turn to. The security net around children is far too porous,” she said.

“After a lecture at a school, I received a text message from a girl who said she had a sexual experience against her will, but when I called her back, her phone was dead,” she said.

According to the People’s Public Security University of China, for every report of sexual abuse there may be at least seven unreported incidents.


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