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.