Mental health issues resulting from sexual assault

Health Watch

SEXUAL abuse does not only leave psychological scars.
It can also have long-lasting health consequences.
A person who is assaulted may sustain bruises and cuts.
They could also have more severe injuries such as knife wounds, broken bones and damaged genitals.
Some survivors experience sexual dysfunction and fertility issues.
Others may develop sexually transmitted infections.
Sexual violence against children is a tense, sensitive subject that is extremely difficult to raise without potentially causing further harm.
As such, only a minority of incidents are reported to police.
Still, cases are brought to the attention of child protection authorities and police, as well as local community leaders.
In Papua New Guinea, the family and sexual offences (Faso) office receives complaints on these offences.
The consistently poor outcomes of sexual violence cases globally have been termed “the justice gap”, which is more pronounced when the victims are children and the setting is a low-income country like PNG with seriously tattered and uneven service delivery.
Based on the available data, it is estimated that only six per cent of the complaints made to the Faso in Port Moresby ever reached the National Court.
This was due in part to a high number of withdrawals and non-appearances by victims and witnesses, contributing factors to which include out-of-court settlements or threats from the perpetrator or relatives.
In addition, there are often delays and long waiting times, especially for National Court trials.
The backlog of cases means that two to three years can elapse between the arrest date and the completion of a trial.
The Faso unit referred to the difficulties of preparing vulnerable witnesses for court proceedings, particularly young child victims, whom the unit found can be extremely shy, afraid ashamed to talk about the incident(s).
Delays lead to young victims or witnesses forgetting their evidence, witnesses are moving and losing contact with police and victims growing up, getting married and subsequently refusing to come to court.
The criminal justice data shows that there is a constant stream of cases of sexual violence against children being reported to police in PNG’s two largest urban areas.
These issues are well understood by criminal justice practitioners in PNG, and there have been sustained efforts to improve the system in recent years, including making it more child friendly through specialist units and positions, staff training and improved amenities.
While important, these improvements focus on the occasions when the victim (and their care-giver) has contact with police and the court.
More could be done to improve the immediate and longer term protection and support of the child, and their guardian, in the periods between contacts with the system.
The system could also be strengthened through faster tracking of cases, dedicated court listings, improved communication between criminal justice agencies and accessible public information.

  • Next week’s edition: Sexual assault and mental health