Working together to support family devastated by child abuse
As a recent shocking case shows, abuse harms the victim, family, and whole community, requiring all partners in child protection to work closely together
Whenever a child is sexually assaulted or abused, it causes shockwaves of trauma. The impact on the child is devastating and can have lifelong consequences on their wellbeing and development, but the shock and damage also affects the child’s family, friends and whole community. And when the perpetrators come from within that same community, the trauma can be even deeper.
This is unfortunately what happened last September, when a small community in Kandal Province was celebrating Cambodia's sacred Pchum Ben festival. A girl of 12 was at the local pagoda when two men separated her from her friends and raped her. Despite her fear, the young girl was supported by her sister to report the crime to the local police.
The first person the police reached out to was Wen Chenda, the local focal point for the Women and Children’s Committee, and the person most responsible for the wellbeing of children in the commune. What was already terrible became even more nightmarish when she spoke to the girl and realised that the two perpetrators were men that she personally knew.
“As a mother living in the community, I found the crime terrifying and couldn’t believe it had happened,” she says now, still shaking her head at the idea. “The fact that it was in the pagoda, a place that should be respected and safe for all, that made it worse. And then the victim was able to point to the two men who did it in my Facebook friends list. It was devastating. There had never been a crime like this in my village before.”
Fortunately, Mrs. Wen had been trained in child protection by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth (MoSVY), UNICEF and partners, and knew what steps she needed to take next. She was immediately able to call on a network of partners to do all they could to bring the perpetrators to justice and begin the work of providing healing and psychosocial support to the victim, her family, and the whole community. The case was entered into the Primero online case management system developed by MoSVY and UNICEF to ensure that all cases are safely and confidentially managed and accessible to authorised partners, so they can collaborate effectively on providing all the necessary support.
When we meet Mrs. Wen, she is sitting at a table outside the District Town Hall, surrounded by the partners she has worked most closely with in the recent months. They are Sat Sity, Child Protection Lead from the Provincial Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth, En Maya, a social worker within his department, Sophorn Prim, a social worker from local NGO Krousar Thmey, and Sophea Phok, a Child Protection Officer from UNICEF. They estimate they have now met eight times since the case was first reported, and spoken even more on the phone, and that this united effort has been crucial in giving the child, family and community the best possible chance of recovery from the incident.
“In a case like this, so much multidisciplinary support is needed, and we all have to work together so that the girl and the family receives it,” says Mr. Sat, explaining his role in ensuring that all the partners coordinate their responses. “Different actors have different roles to play. None of us can do it alone. Without collaboration, we will never address the issue of child protection and ensure the best interest of the child.”
The highest priority was, of course, the welfare of the victim. Mrs. Wen played the pivotal role in working with her and supporting her, which meant establishing a relationship of trust. “When I first met her, she was so scared, and terrified of all men,” she says. “After visiting her many times, I can say she is recovering. We have become close, and we can even joke a little now. Mentally she is stronger, and not just because of me but because of all the support from all the partners.”
One thing that all the partners quickly established was that the girl had already been facing major challenges before the incident. Her family is extremely poor, and the girl had received very little education, and could not read or write. It was considered essential that if she were to recover from her experience, she and her family needed to have a good future to look forward to.
Krousar Thmey, supported by UNICEF, provided psychosocial support to the girl and financial assistance to help the family launch a fish-selling business. It is providing a monthly grant in the form of education materials and a small educational stipend for the children. The partners are working with the girl to help her identify the work she wants to do when she becomes an adult and match her with the right vocational training to achieve her goals.
In addition, Krousar Thmey is working with all the partners to support the family and the community. “We have made certain that the parents will come to our local positive parenting classes to help them support their child,” says Mrs. Prim. “We will also continue our work with local children to ensure they are educated on their rights and to understand if they are dealing with abuse, neglect, or exploitation.”
Though there is nothing positive about the trauma the girl has experienced, the child protection specialists gathered today do agree that there are some encouraging aspects to how the situation has been handled.
“I started working in child protection 25 years ago and back then there weren't good coordination and reporting systems,” says Mr. Sat. “Children were often victims of abuse and it was never reported to an authority, communities felt like they just had to tolerate it. Now things are changing, and children and families have a better understanding of abuse and more trust that it will be dealt with.”
Everyone at the table agrees with this point and is also impressed with the whole family's commitment to seeking justice. The suspects offered a compensation payment to the family if they didn’t pursue the case, but despite their financial struggles they did not accept . “The girl was worried about these two men doing the same thing to other girls,” Mrs. Wen says, with admiration. “The whole family’s priority was making the community safer for other girls and that’s why the suspects are now detained and awaiting their trial.” The Child Protection Unit, another expert local NGO, will provide the girl with support to go through the upcoming legal process without further emotional harm.
Mr. Sat hopes that when other people in the communities and around Kandal Province see that the girl has been supported and justice has been done, it will encourage others to report crimes in the future. “I am further from the community from the other people here,” he says, gesturing to the others at the table.
“But I still felt the pain of the victim and the family. Child protection is my top priority and whenever a child gets hurt it hurts my heart. I want us to do even more work to educate the community. We must turn this into an opportunity to try and prevent further incidents.”
Mrs. En, who has often squeezed Mrs. Wen’s arm supportively during the more difficult moments of the conversation, says that it helped that they had all worked together before. “We are close to each other. We all have a shared goal, which is working to benefit children.”
In the case of the young victim, that shared goal is helping her to recover and begin to feel hope again. Mrs. Wen says, “My dream is that with support from us all, she will be able to have a good future, and find the right vocation and succeed. I just want her to have a good life ahead.”