Boys can be victims, too: Sopheak's story
In 2016, a case of a young girl being sexual abused was reported to the local police in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Investigations revealed she had been the victim of a teenage boy living in her community. It also showed that she was not the only victim. In the wake of the official investigation, ASEAN HOPE referred a 6-year-old boy, Sopheak*, to First Step Cambodia (FSC). It was a fortunate development for Sopheak, as it meant he was able to finally access the support he so desperately needed.
Missing the signs
Sopheak was living with his parents and three younger siblings in a poor community, growing up in a wooden shack on a piece of rented land outside the city. Uneducated, Sopheak’s parents were working hard and facing the daily struggle to survive. They did not understand the strange and aggressive behaviour their son was displaying more and more. Over time, they noticed Sopheak was skipping classes regularly, had difficulty to engage in normal interactions with his peers, and started showing sexually harmful behaviour towards some.
Unfortunately, neither Sopheak’s school nor his family had been able to spot the signs that might have warranted him being referred for specialist support. It was fortunate that the separate investigation had enabled his story to come to the attention of the authorities, as this meant he was able to access the help he needed to recover.
As Chamreun Yaim, Executive Directorof First Step Cambodia, says, “In our country, there is a saying – that girls are white cloth, and boys are made from gold. It infers that boys are more resilient, and that they are unable to be damaged; whatever happens. It’s an example of how gender norms can lead us to treat boys and girls differently, and it leads to Cambodian society being generally less vigilant when it comes to spotting potential signs of sexual abuse of boys. In fact, it’s an issue that is still not given the attention it needs. We are working to change that.”
The importance of whole-family approaches
Upon receiving Sopheak’s case, FSC’s social workers conducted a thorough assessment, leading to the conclusion that the boy’s behavioural problems were indeed the result of sexual abuse.
However, the parents’ lack of knowledge and skills in how to respond to his behaviour were adding to the problem. As Chanthao Yung, a social worker at FSC, says, “The impact parents’ skills and understanding of sexual abuse can have on a traumatised child is highly underestimated.” That’s why they developed an approach to help Sopheak to recover that involved his family too.
FSC’s social workers immediately started providing psychological counseling and support, helping Sopheak work through the trauma. Through psychoeducation, he slowly learned to correct his unhealthy behaviour, develop useful problem solving skills and learned how to protect himself in the future. Through partnerships and small financial contributions, FSC ensured Sopheak received the necessary healthcare and the support to go back to school. Simultaneously, FSC worked with Sopheak’s parents, helping them to understand the impact of sexual abuse on a child and how best to support their son and how best respond to a victim’s challenging behaviour.
After two challenging years, Sopheak’s parents are very happy to see their son’s behaviour has changed, no longer displaying any aggressive or sexually harmful behaviour. He started engaging in new and healthy relationships with his peers.
Sopheak is now seven years old, attending school every day, and making new friends to play with. His mother recently informed the staff at FSC that he ended among the top performers of his class for 2018.
But our work is not done
Sopheak’s story ends well, but it also highlights just how easy it could be for things to turn out differently.
Had the investigation into the girl’s report never happened, Sopheak may have never received the support he needed to recover from his childhood sexual abuse.
In Cambodia, as in many cultures, sexual violence affecting boys is still a sensitive, taboo subject. The effects of traditional cultural norms make it hard to discuss it, and even harder to tackle. Professionals, communities and schools also need to be given the right training to spot potential signs of abuse, so they can support children by referring them to the right places.
Because of reasons like this, First Step Cambodia are supporting our United For Boys Charter.
The United For Boys Charter is a set of six evidence-based commitments to change, developed by Family for Every Child with member organisations just like them.
As an organisation leading our global campaign, First Step Cambodia can access the tools they need to get other organisations on-board. Once they sign up, these organisations in turn have the opportunity to become part of a global network of signatories, with access to learning materials and bespoke support that can help them to make the system-wide changes we need to help more children like Sopheak, and their families.