Wednesday, 4 November 2020

South Asian child sexual abuse – what we need to know

Vanisha Jassal is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent where she is Director of Studies for the MA in Advanced Child Protection. She can deliver bespoke training for local authorities around barriers to CSA disclosure amongst BAME communities.



The June report published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), “People don’t talk about it”, discusses how children and young people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME) can face additional barriers to disclosing and reporting child sexual abuse (CSA).

I have been researching one such barrier for three years, investigating how concepts of Shame and Honour in South Asian communities can amplify the secrecy of intra-familial CSA for female victims from Britain’s Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani families. Having interviewed eight adult survivors to date, my research concurs with the IICSA report in that certain cultural norms can be a significant impediment to disclosure. None of the eight interviewees reported the abuse to statutory services.

Develop an understanding of what ‘Shame’ and ‘Honour’ means to South Asian service users
Feeling shame is a universal emotion and most people will want to represent both themselves and their families in a positive light. However, for those of South Asian origin, as am I, shame is known to take on greater intensity (Gilligan and Akhtar 2006; Sawrikar and Katz 2017; McNeish and Scott 2018[i]) as concerns over family reputation and community standing can predominate decisions about matters related to the private affairs of one’s family. Child sexual abuse is deemed shameful, and victims/survivors and perpetrators, are only too aware of this. Disclosures are consequently not forthcoming, and abuse can continue for many years. As one interviewee stated:

“Sharam [shame] it’s like, you know, it’s a big thing and saying something like this [disclosing sexual abuse] would have been really bad because we are from a strict family…so I’d never have said anything to anyone.”

My interviews reveal that these cultural norms can be deeply embedded within an individual, governing her thoughts and behaviours as far back as she can remember. She is very aware of what is categorised as shameful to her family and her community and how a disclosure of CSA will bring shame upon the family and have nothing short of disastrous and damaging implications for her loved ones, and for her. Another interviewee stated:

“I basically don’t want any of my siblings at some point in their lives to meet someone and then it doesn’t work out because their partner’s family doesn’t want to get involved with my family because of the sexual abuse.”

Understand that perceptions of child sexual abuse can be different within the community
The IICSA report highlighted that there can be a perception, and even a firm belief, that CSA does not occur in one’s community. That it is something that happens in other communities. This leads to a direct or indirect denial of the abuse. My interview data revealed that such views discourage victims from disclosing. One interviewee stated that a cousin had disclosed CSA and was told by her parents not to not say anything; their concern being that the family’s reputation, and the girl’s, would be tarnished. The interviewee therefore felt that her parents would have the same reaction and never disclosed her abuse. Perpetrators, familiar with such likely responses, can therefore exploit the situation and are protected by these perspectives. Another interviewee was told by her perpetrator that her parents would not do anything about what she was saying and may not even believe her.

Appreciating that community relationships with statutory sector services need to be developed
BAME communities often feel that they cannot reach out to statutory sector services as they feel that these are too Eurocentric in their models of family intervention and support and would not address the abuse appropriately or in a culturally sensitive way. This is a further barrier. The need to be ‘culturally aware’ and ‘culturally competent’ is engrained in social work values and is something widely discussed but how can we actually support practitioners to achieve this? Having taught an MA in Advanced Child Protection to experienced professional for several years, I am aware of the challenges this poses for well-intentioned practitioners. As one interviewee said to me: ‘It is such a relief not having to explain what shame and honour mean to you’, indicating that practitioners of non-South Asian origin are not sufficiently aware of how these concepts can influence one’s life.

Below are some recommendations to support organisations and practitioners in developing skills and confidence in this area:

Advice and tips
1. Organisations are advised to introduce or strengthen their workforce development skills around what shame and honour means for service users, enabling practitioners and managers to feel more confident when responding to relevant cases. This will develop an understanding of the deeply embedded meaning that these norms hold for effected communities and how this materialises in situations of abuse. It will also allow practitioners to challenge their own biases about these concepts which may seem alien and difficult to comprehend. The charity Karma Nirvana supports victims of honour-based abuse and also provides training, and is a useful starting point to learn more about the issues.

2. Practitioners are advised to read some of the high profile cases of honour-based abuse which highlight these concepts in a very clear way, and their serious and sometimes tragic consequences for individuals. These BBC news articles provide a brief overview of the cases: Shafileah Ahmed and Banaz Mahmod. You can also view documentaries on You Tube: Shafileah Ahmed documentary and Banaz Mahmod documentary.

3. Shame and honour are called ‘Sharam’ and ‘Izzat’ by South Asian communities. Listen out for these words in your everyday practice with communities and try to use this knowledge to enhance risk assessment processes and decision-making.

4. Consider carefully how concerns about shame and honour can be exploited by perpetrators of abuse, aware that a victim is unlikely to want to be the cause of family disharmony or dishonour.
Without this concerted effort to try to understand the meaning and implications of shame and honour, these will remain as barriers and practitioners are likely to remain less well equipped to respond.

A word of caution: exploring cultural norms and seeing the child beyond these norms
Developing cultural competence continues to be developed, especially due to the continuing inequalities across health and social care services for BAME children and families. However, it is also critical to remember that a child should not only be seen through the lens of his/her ethnicity or culture. The cases of Victoria Climbie, Humza Khan, Khyra Ishaq, Bilal and others, are reminders that this can lead to poor decision-making. Although shame and honour emerged as a theme in my research, it was not the only significant factor when discussing non reporting of the abuse. Some interviewees simply did not want to disrupt family life, some did not know what to do about the abuse and could not make sense of it, others thought that they were in a meaningful relationship with the abuser. These are findings which are commonly known in CSA cases amongst all communities and so by demarking a child singularly by her culture will be limiting our assessments of risk.

The research is continuing for the remainder of 2020 and if you are a British female CSA victim/survivor of South Asian origin, over 21, and would like to be a research participant or would like to find out more about the research, please email sacsauk@gmail.com which is a confidential email address for the research. I would also like to hear from social workers who have worked with cases of South Asian origin and further details can be supplied through contacting me at the same email address.

Contact details
Work email: v.jassal@kent.ac.uk
Research email: sacsauk@gmail.com
Twitter: @vanishajassal
Website: mysandtray.com



[i] Gilligan, P. and Akhtar, S. (2006). ‘Cultural barriers to the Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse in Asian Communities: Listening to What Women Say’. British Journal of Social Work, V.36, pp1361-1377.

McNeish, D. and Scott, S. (2018). Key Messages from Research on Intra-Familial Child Sexual Abuse. (Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse: Essex).

Sawrikar, P. and Katz, I. (2017). Barriers to disclosing child sexual abuse (CSA) in ethnic minority communities: A review of the literature and implications for practice in Australia. Children and Youth Services Review [Online] 83:302–315. Available at: www.elsevier.com/locate/childyouth [Accessed: 7 December 2017].

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