Young sex abuse victims suffer in shadow of shame

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2007, 12:00am

Cultural concepts of filial obedience and reverence for teachers prevents children telling parents about rape

Concluding a series on the state of the mainland's children, Ng Tze-wei looks at sexual assault and harassment of society's most vulnerable members

'I'm still a good kid ... I'm thinking ... Am I really a good kid?'

The seven-year-old's lips waver and tears stream down her face.


'Because ... because all the adults say ... this is not a good thing.'

Lang Lang (not her real name), a timid fourth grader from a village in northern China, describes herself to social work researcher Long Di . The child was one of six girls in her class subject to two years of sexual abuse by their teacher.

Ms Long's book, Child Sexual Abuse: Shame or Hurt, is the first academic research on child sexual assault on the mainland. She argues that long-standing cultural shame has led to the pain of the abused being covered up.

Sexual assault is not uncommon on the mainland, but it remains a little-discussed taboo.

Ms Long says the twin cultural emphasis on filial obedience and women's physical purity are obstacles to the discovery of sexual harassment, and also to the much-neglected post-trauma rehabilitation of the child victims and their families.

The Confucian concept of filial obedience extends reverence of parents to teachers and other authority figures. In Lang Lang's case, the pupils were not used to questioning their teachers and dared not tell their parents for fear of upsetting them.

The social tendency to overlook the individual also made it difficult for family members to discuss their emotional needs.

All of these factors have created a unique situation on the mainland, demanding special attention, Ms Long says.

She says there is still no designated government department providing social service to families and child victims of sexual assaults.

And there is no specific policy addressing the needs of these children, who are not considered 'children in adverse situations' under existing rules.

Ms Long's study examines one of several high-profile cases a few years ago of teachers sexually assaulting or raping students in rural villages from Liaoning to Shaanxi and Beijing.

During months of contact with the six girls and their families, Ms Long found that the child's trauma caused as much psychological damage and confusion to the victims' family, which in turn aggravated the child's psychological wounds.

'My first thought was that this child's life is over,' Lang Lang's mother said.

She was most worried that no one would want to marry her daughter - the biggest mission for parents of a rural girl - and that she would be looked down on all her life.

She also initially thought her daughter had become 'imperfect'.

Ms Long says a lot of the damage to the family was through loss of face, since the girl's body is considered closely linked to the family's reputation. Most of the parents' first reaction was denial, suspecting their daughter was lying. That was followed by a desire to 'find a crack in the ground in which to hide'.

The villagers might show sympathy towards the 'impure' girls, but they also gossiped, indirectly probed the children about their experience and hinted that the parents were trying to attract media attention for their own interests. Some forbade their children to play with the girls.

Recently, the media reported two cases - in Anhui and Inner Mongolia - in which students were repeatedly raped in their dormitories and near their schools, but not one girl spoke up.

Ms Long said that despite China's apparent openness towards sex these days, public 'attitudes towards a woman's body have not fundamentally changed'.

A parent said this social scar would be 'even bigger than murder' when her daughter reached the age of marriage. And the girls, before they knew what virginity meant, were subject to all these additional social pressures and parental anxiety.

Above all, Ms Long noted that throughout the process the girls 'were left at the fringe of all actions and decisions'. Most parents hoped that by not mentioning the incident their daughters might forget about it.

But Lang Lang's reply was: 'Who can forget such a thing?'

Eight months after the assaults were reported and shortly after the sex offender was put to death, Lang Lang is still troubled by nightmares and lack of appetite. She doubts herself, refuses to play with others, fears boys, and blames herself for not telling her parents earlier about the incident and for upsetting them.

Other girls also showed similar symptoms, mostly anger and anxiety, and fear of revenge from the teacher, even after he was executed.

Most of the parents did not understand or know how to handle the emotional distress of their children, Ms Long says.

When they wanted to be nice to their injured daughters, they focused most often on not saying 'no' to the girls' demands and satisfying their material needs.

Ms Long called for emphasis to be refocused on the psychological needs of the children and their families. She found what the girls most wanted 'was not to win the lawsuit, but not to be beaten or scolded at home, their parents not to fight, their school performance to improve, to have someone to play with and to have teachers who respected them'.

As a result of the case, three government departments jointly issued a notice requesting quicker and stronger measures to be taken, including administrative punishment of officials in charge of the village and school.

'It isn't the case that the government is not paying attention to [the prevention of sexual harassment and rehabilitation]. It is just not included in the government's regular work,' Ms Long says.

She says that in particular there is an absence of a multidisciplinary social work model of rehabilitation, which should include psychological, legal and welfare help, and with an emphasis on the 'family' unit.

Although arrest and punishment are important to stop and deter offenders, it is also important to do case studies of sex offenders on the mainland, Ms Long says.

'We still know very little about sexual harassment of children in China', which has led to oversimplified responses, she says.

Another new dimension to the problem concerns rural children left in the custody of elderly grandparents while their parents seek work elsewhere.

In 2005, in Xizhou, Henan , 21 out of 62 cases of sexual assault against children involved those left behind and a village male known to them, the Henan Daily reported.

Ms Long believes sex education must be extended to discussions about 'the relations of power'.

'Sexual assault is not about assaulting virginity. It assaults a child's right and freedom to use his or her body according to their own wishes. It's about a human right.'

Dirty secrets

Sexual assaults remain a taboo subject but reports of attacks have increased recently

The All-China Women's Federation say the number of reports of girls being raped in the latter half of 1997 was 135

For the whole of 2000 this had risen to 3,000