Child sexual abuse : a construct reconsidered.
Jairam, Linda Visvaranie.
MetadataShow full item record
It has become increasingly apparent to those in the field of child protection that there has been considerable progress in the campaign to protect children from sexual abuse. The last three decades of the twentieth century saw a burgeoning of research into the phenomenon of child sexual abuse (CSA). There have been considerable advances in research at all levels ― epidemiology, aetiology, definition and recognition, pathogenesis, prognosis, treatment and prevention of CSA (Leventhal, 2003). Empirical research on CSA has gained currency over the years. Empirical research assumes that everyone knows and agrees on what CSA is. This ‘knowing’ of CSA has become so deeply embedded in language, culture, laws, policies, practices and institutions that some of these ideas have become accepted truths. Despite this sense of ‘knowing’ that many have in relation to CSA, the majority of children in the world still remain at risk and sexually abused children are fundamentally no better off today than they were 100 years ago. This study, therefore, raised questions concerning the knowledge most people have in relation to CSA, especially those with professional knowledge in particular fields related to it. The study examined professional knowledge about CSA as articulated through trained practitioners in particular fields related to it. It also raised questions concerning the epistemological origins of and the frames of reference underpinning their knowledge of CSA, the assumptions and judgements upon which their knowledge is based, and whether this knowledge best serves the interests of children in the twenty-first century. The underlying premise of the study is that the act of constructing CSA and creating knowledge about it is social and political. Representing a social problem in a particular way requires power. Professionals in a revered field of knowledge, such as education, health or the law, command power and are significant voices that contribute to our understanding of CSA. Fundamentally, this study focused on the discourses that six trained practitioners (three school counsellors, a chief medical officer, a social worker and a police official from the Child Protection Unit) in particular fields related to CSA in the Central Durban area utilised in their constructions of CSA, and what functions these discourses serve. In South Africa they form an integral part of the country’s inter-departmental initiatives (health, education, justice and the police service) in its integrated and multidisciplinary approach to preventing abuse. These practitioners are professionals in revered fields of knowledge, such as education, health and law, and are significant voices that contribute to our understanding of CSA. Knowledge of how they construct CSA is vital because their constructions circulate within the broader community, are supported by various institutions and become the official or normative understanding of CSA. Through the use of in-depth, open-ended questionnaires with these six purposively selected trained practitioners and the analysis of two CSA case documents from a hospital in the Central Durban area, the study addressed two pertinent questions: what discourses do trained practitioners in the field of CSA utilise in their constructions of CSA, and what functions do these discourses serve? The results suggest a complex interplay of dominant discourses that are based on bio-psychosocial and medico-legal constructs. The results also suggest that while the field of CSA is dominated by these deeply embedded discourses that often act as barriers to other ways of understanding CSA, trained practitioners also utilised unscientific and irrational orientations in understanding this complex phenomenon. Considering the findings, it is imperative that these epistemic gazes established by these dominant positions be challenged, grounded alternatives be provided that are consistent with the realities of CSA, and concerted efforts be made toward a paradigm shift in the way CSA is conceptualised, if we are to serve the best interests of children. Children surely deserve no less.