Author: PSAf Executive Director Lilian Kiefer, May 25 2016 - In many parts of our society, children in general and particularly girls are exposed to numerous vices that limit their opportunity to develop to their full potential. The vices that lead to this unfortunate circumstance are many, but most of them are preventable. Child sexual abuse is one such vice that ruins children’s lives, yet it can be prevented if children are protected effectively.

Children, especially girls, who suffer emotional, physical and/or mental abuse end up with very low aspirations, low self-confidence and low self-esteem which compromise their ability to unlock their own potential. Due to limited understanding and appreciation among stakeholders of the impact of abuse on children’s lives, supportive psychosocial actions for children are inadequate and most cases almost unavailable.

It is undeniable that sexual abuse has a deep impact on female development. There are some psycho-biological factors that also affect female development such as pubertal development and physiological stress. These already are adverse enough to impact on the normative development of young girls, as the hormonal, physiological and emotional changes affect their development. However, the impact of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse cause life-long consequences that undermine girls’ abilities to exploit their full potential. The impact of the trauma of abuse disrupts their development and undermines their potential.

Research has shown that sexually abused females (on average) tend to exhibit a host of biopsychosocial effects. These include earlier onsets of puberty, cognitive deficits, depression, dissociative symptoms, maladaptive sexual development, asymmetrical stress responses, high rates of obesity, more major illnesses and healthcare utilization, dropping out of high school, persistent post-traumatic stress disorder, self-mutilation, physical and sexual victimization, teen motherhood, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence among others. In some cases, the offspring born to abused mothers suffer increased risk of child maltreatment and overall maldevelopment.

The unfortunate reality is that child sexual abuse is much more prevalent than widely thought. Due to low awareness about the vice, and what needs to be done once it has occurred, and fear experienced by the abused child and their immediate relatives, a lot of cases go unreported. In most cases, child sexual abuse takes place within family circles, and is never reported or talked about. Unfortunately, little or no attention is paid to the suffering and trauma effected on the child and how it affects the development of that child over time.

In its work Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) promotes child protection by facilitating strengthening of child protection systems at community and family levels. PSAf works with different stakeholders to ensure that when abuse occurs, children receive adequate support to mitigate the impact of the trauma on their development. The starting point to making a difference has to be a common and shared belief that every girl deserves an opportunity to develop to their full potential and live a decent life.

Girls need protection by parents, guardians, teachers alike. As an individual, I have had an opportunity of interacting and supporting some girls who are deprived of supportive structures such as a stable family and caring parents. The impact of my interactions with them is immense. Visible increase in self-esteem and self-confidence, increased ambition and aspirations for the future, including desire to go to college and improved motivation for school and performance in class. This is equally a requirement in assisting children who have suffered abuse. If more of us can make an effort to support children, society will be a better place for all.

Research confirms that in general terms, when adequately supported, girls portray increased competence in terms of cognitive, social, self-esteem and locus of control. Likewise, girls who have been sexually abused improve when they receive adequate psychosocial support from professional counsellors, caring guardians and other supportive structures within their environment. When psychosocial support is received, a visible reduction in psychopathology including depression, anxiety, dissociation, and hyper-sexuality is seen. Each one of us has a responsibility to create a better environment for children. Let us play our part and unlock the potential of our girls.

Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of PSAf. For feedback, email:

Click here to access this blog on the PSaf website. Image credit: Panos London