Child abuse is still a taboo topic, even in Germany's open society. In the face of tens of thousands of cases, however, more efforts to raise awareness may be necessary. But, are existing programs being neglected?
On the subject of child abuse, many parents actually think of themselves as enlightened. They are able to openly discuss abuse cases, such as those at the Odenwald School in the state of Hesse, or within the Catholic Church. But, what if your daughter suddnely claims that her teacher molested her?
Most children know their abuser
Children have to repeat themselves to adults up to six times until they are believed, says Ulrike Mund, Managing Director of Eigensinn, a counseling association. Her colleagues and those at other counseling centers that work to combat child abuse have made the same observations. "This is the crux of the taboo, that what should not be, cannot be. If children then describe situations that are also difficult for adults to understand, they do not believe the children," she said.
Perpetrators usually manipulate their victims and exert massive pressure on them to keep their act a secret. "That's why awareness work is essential," Mund said - for both children and adults. She encourages parents, therefore, to educate their children in a way that strengthens their personality.
New government campaigns
The German Ministry for Family Affairs takes a similar view, and has just started a prevention and awareness initiative aimed primarily at children themselves. According to Family Minister Kristina Schröder (CDU), the core is the interactive play "Tell me", which will be touring Germany, beginning in March. The play actively gets the children involved. It is intended to make clear to them what their rights are, how sexual abuse begins and that they have control over their own bodies.
Accompanying the play is the "No room for abuse" campaign, which the family ministry introduced on Thursday (10.01.2013). "The campaign is intended to sensitize parents, professionals and the public, and educate them about the problem and such things as new legislation.
Parents should be encouraged to ask their children's institutions whether they have protective concepts," Paula Honkanen-Schoberth of the German Child Protection League said. The awareness campaign focuses on flyers, TV ads, education materials and contact details on the Internet.
'Sexual abuse is everywhere'
The Odenwald School was the location of abuse cases in the 1990s
There is an urgent need for action, Honkanen-Schoberth said: "Rough estimates suggest there are more than 100,000 victims of sexual abuse - 12,000 to 14,000 reported criminal cases occur each year in Germany, but the true figure is much higher." All age groups and both sexes are affected, but most sexual violence is directed against girls, she said. The perpetrators are by and large family members, or from the more immediate social circle, and belong to many different social backgrounds.
Although the problem is not new, it only gained more attention in Germany in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, the first incidents at the Odenwald School in Hesse became known; from 2010, the scandals in the Catholic Church drew increasing media attention, and since then, the issue of child abuse has constantly been in the limelight.
The cases that have become known have raised the question as to whether there are certain structures that can foster sexual abuse, such as celibacy, or a general tolerance of promiscuity. "There is the phenomenon that abuse is made possible by very authoritarian structures, or by structures where there are no clear boundaries," Mund said. But there has not been a lot of research on the topic, she said.
What do awareness campaigns achieve?
The German government's new awareness campaign is not the first of its kind. In response to the disclosure of sexual abuse cases in early 2010, the then-commissioner for the processing of abuse cases, Christine Bergmann, launched a similar initiative, including a telephone hotline. Such initiatives are important, Honkanen-Schoberth said: "If success is measured by how many messages and calls for help follow the campaign, Ms. Bergmann's campaign clearly shows that the demand has grown enormously."
But Honkanen-Schoberth sees a blatant contradiction between awareness initiatives and the precarious financing of counseling centers, which then face sharply increased demand. "There have been no funding programs from the government for child protection and counseling centers, which often do not know whether they will be able to work with the same team next year, or whether the funding will be cut." And there is insufficient support for pedophile adults seeking help, she said.
Mund said the high-profile campaigns are important, but also said that her association, like many other facilities across the country, has worked successfully in the field for many years and possesses the necessary expertise. Her criticism: Instead of investing in existing projects, the government starts new ones.