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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A tragic cycle of abuse

Nong Socheat  (left) and Kong Sokhem (right), social workers at First Step Cambodia, talk about child abuse earlier this month
Nong Socheat (left) and Kong Sokhem (right), social workers at First Step Cambodia, talk about child abuse earlier this month. First Step deals with cases of sexual abuse specifically regarding males. Hong Menea

A tragic cycle of abuse

Social worker Nong Socheat is well-acquainted with the ugly scope of child abuse. As a counsellor for First Step Cambodia (FSC), a local NGO that focuses on supporting male survivors of sexual assault, she regularly provides support for boys dealing with the aftermath of molestation.

But protecting children, she said, also means confronting the occurrence of “sexually harmful behaviour” – the clinical term for when children harm or abuse other children sexually.

“If we cannot stop that kind of behaviour, it can become a cycle – we don’t want to see those children become adult perpetrators in the future,” said Socheat, adding that although most victims never go on to commit sex crimes, it is relatively common for perpetrators to have been abused in the past.

Local social workers said the issue has been barely addressed in Cambodia, despite statistics indicating the gravity of the problem. A UN study conducted last year reported that among the 20.4 per cent of men who admitted to committing rape at least once, 52 per cent first did so as teenagers, while 15.8 per cent were younger than 15 years old.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests it is an “enormous problem”, said Alastair Hilton, a technical adviser at FSC, adding that 50 per cent of their referrals in Siem Reap, where FSC launched a pilot project this year to tackle the issue, involve children under the age of 12 sexually abusing other children.

Hilton, who previously worked on the issue as a social worker in the United Kingdom, said that incidences of sexually harmful behaviour usually come to his attention after a referral from one of FSC’s partner organisations, such as Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap or M’Lop Tapang in Sihanoukville, from the parents or caregivers of the victims, or from the children themselves.

“After it has been confirmed that they have been abused, it may be that they’re talking about children harming them rather than adults in some cases,” he said, adding that certain reactions, such as fear of other children, also bring cases of abuse to light.

Socheat said that children with behavioural problems are often afraid to start counselling as they are worried they will get in trouble with either the social workers or the police.

“It takes one or two sessions to get them to share, and sometimes more than that. It might take more than two years to get children to describe the truth,” she said, adding that the children are not always able to identify at first which of their actions were harmful.

Complicating matters is that Cambodian law does not provide legal avenues for state-mandated social intervention. Any services provided to the children must be with the caregivers’ blessings, which Hilton said is not always easy to obtain given a lack of understanding of the issue’s seriousness.

“Human rights organisations or police may tell the children off, ‘re-educate’ them and send them home, but what they and their families need is intensive care and support, and help to overcome these problems, often over a long period of time,” he said.

Hilton added that many childcare institutions, such as orphanages, ignore the issue out of fear of getting into trouble with the government.

“This can essentially lead to more abuse as the truth is hidden, but the deep problems leading to the abuse remain,” said Hilton, adding that reporting abuse ought to be mandatory. Further education to institutional caregivers to recognise the problem should also be implemented.

Of utmost importance, Hilton said, is to ensure that the children, who are often as young as six – and can be perpetrators as well as victims – are helped rather than stigmatised. Extensive assessments and counselling should be prioritised over imprisonment, for which minors as young as 14 are legally eligible, Hilton said.

“Both the victims and the children with harmful behaviour need help … and they may try to punish the children, but ultimately, that doesn’t help,” he said.

Multiple officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation’s Social Welfare Reintegration and Child Protection Department declined to comment for this story.

Socheat said that referrals for sexually harmful behaviour have steadily risen since the first case came to FSC in 2011. Since 2013, 27 cases have been taken on by the group.

While Socheat said that a concrete study must be conducted before she can draw any conclusions, she surmised from her experiences that various forms of child abuse and experiencing and witnessing domestic violence are all factors that may lead to such behaviour. Another common example, she said, is a family or community member showing sexually explicit material to a child without understanding the psychological repercussions.

“They will show the pornography on the computer to let the boy see, and they will tell the boy that real men learn to be strong and act like that,” she said, adding that she has even encountered internet cafes that knowingly provide pornography to young children.

Even with mounting statistics and anecdotal evidence, Hilton stressed that local research, which FSC plans to undertake next year, remains an absolute necessity.

“We need to carry out our own research to not only understand more about why [sexually harmful behaviour] happens but how we can work with children, families and others to support them and prevent it happening both now and in the future,” he said.



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Alastair Hilton's picture

For the last few years, FSC has been working with children and families to prevent abuse and support children with 'harmful sexual behaviours'. A complex area of work that is demanding and resource intensive, with few simple solutions.

A few weeks ago we were approached by the Phnom Penh Post who were seeking to highlight work with boys and young men and this article is the result.

In many respects we recognise that it can be very challenging for journalists to write an both accurate and short article that reflects the issue in its entirety but they have done quite a reasonable job and we would like to thank the Post for their interest.

That said, we are not entirely convinced that the headline chosen for this piece is entirely appropriate however, as it implies that victims of abuse enter a 'cycle' where becoming an abuser is perhaps inevitable.

FSC would therefore like to make clear that in relation to children with harmful and abusive sexual behaviours - that there is a complex set of dynamics and circumstances that lead to this behaviour. This can include being exposed to violence within institutions, families & communities, neglect, pornography and the sexual behaviour of others.

It is also most important to state that the VAST MAJORITY of children who are sexually abused DO NOT move on to harm or abuse others. The suggestion of an almost inevitable 'cycle', suggested in the headline is therefore somewhat inaccurate.

Many victims and survivors (male and female) sadly continue to be abused (due to the lack of concern, services and other issues); some may become abusive (in the widest sense - so may become aggressive or also harm themselves) but many - and in our experience the majority - become 'PROTECTORS' of others.

Most victims of abuse have immense capacity for recovery and resilience and with the right support from families, friends and professionals - can and do move on to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Ensuring that they receive that support and are portrayed accurately in the media is an important part of our work.

If you would like to know any more about our work with children with harmful sexual behaviours and plans for research next year, please contact FSC through our web site and Facebook page which can be accessed at

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