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Healing Hidden Wounds

  • Community Awareness
  • Complex trauma
  • Victims & Survivors
  • Workforce
Dr Leanne Beagley, CEO, National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse

I recently wrote to the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney MP to alert her to the hidden health epidemic of women and girls who experience child sexual abuse, and the Minister agrees that change is required. “This is the turning point for women’s health in Australia and I’m glad we’ve finally arrived here,” said Ged Kearney MP ahead of the National Women’s Health Summit.

Today, I participated in the Australian Government convened, 2024 National Women’s Health Summit. I came together with experts, policymakers, community advocates, and women with lived experience to discuss how together, Australia can fundamentally transform the health system to improve health care, services, and outcomes for women. “I’ve convened the National Women’s Health Summit to bring the best and brightest together to work out how we can improve health care and services for women,” declared the Minister.

This was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the silent health crisis that is posing a grave threat to the wellbeing of Australian women and girls, the epidemic of child sexual abuse.

Recent statistics paint a grim picture, with more than 1 in 3 Australian girls being sexually abused before the age of 18.(Mathews B, 2023) The Australian Bureau of Statistics offers a sobering glimpse into the prevalence of sexual assault against girls under 18 years old. According to the latest data, a staggering 59% of recorded sexual assault victims in 2022 were under the age of 18, even more concerning is that most young victims (79%) were female. This alarming trend has persisted uninterrupted for years, with records from the past 10 years consistently showing that the most common victims of sexual assault are girls aged 10 to 17 years old.

While these statistics underscore the urgent need for comprehensive measures to prevent sexual violence against girls, we must also act now to address the lifelong health impacts. The consequences of child sexual abuse extend far beyond the immediate trauma, leaving a devastating mark on the long-term health and mental well-being of victims and survivors. Research reveals a staggering increase in self-harm, suicide attempts, and substance dependency among female child sexual abuse victims and survivors. The risk of accidental overdose-related deaths is a chilling 88 times higher for these women, highlighting the compelling need for specialised intervention and support. (Bonomi, 2019)

Mental health outcomes are equally grim, with an experience of child sexual abuse doubling the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder and significantly increasing the risk of anxiety and depression. The ripple effect of abuse reverberates throughout the lives of girls and women, leading to higher rates of smoking, binge drinking, and obesity and elevating their risk for chronic pain, cardiac conditions, gastrointestinal problems, and reproductive and sexual impairment. The consequences of child sexual abuse significantly impact women’s quality of life.

We know that girls are 2.4 times more likely to experience child sexual abuse, three times more susceptible to sexual abuse from a family member, and five times more at risk from an intimate partner compared to boys or young men. Yet girls’ stories are going untold with their wounds hidden behind closed doors.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the profound impact that child sexual abuse has, the response from our healthcare and mental health systems remains inadequate. Our recent Workforce Survey revealed that a mere 9% of the tertiary-qualified (health and mental health) workforce feel sufficiently equipped by their formal studies to respond to child sexual abuse. Even more surprising are reports that show only 22% of people who have been in contact with public mental health services had ever been asked about child sexual abuse. We cannot heal what we cannot see.

It’s time to bridge this gap and design and deliver the specialised care and support that women affected by child sexual abuse desperately need. At the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, we believe a targeted focus is needed to equip the health and mental health workforces with advanced therapeutic practices to heal, manage, and reduce the long-term physiological and psychological effects of child sexual abuse. By addressing this urgent need for trauma-responsive therapeutic care, we can pave the way for better overall mental and physical health outcomes and reduce the burden of chronic and preventable disease amongst victims and survivors.

Being involved in the National Women’s Health Summit meant I could raise my voice in solidarity with the 1 in 3 women and girls who have endured the trauma of child sexual abuse. It was an opportunity to advocate for their right to healing, support, and justice. I am speaking out to break the silence, and to help heal the hidden wounds of girls and women who have endured child sexual abuse.

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Understanding child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Response to child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
Effect of multi-agency deliberation on perceptions of risk in responses to child abuse and neglect
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Needs of victims and survivors

Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future

Prevention of child sexual abuse

Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Identification of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley