When a child experiences severe trauma, the trauma remains trapped in the various layers of the child’s being – not just the physical body – unless it is released and prevented from hijacking the child’s body, heart, mind, or spirit again. The traumatized child may react in fear or powerlessness to harmless situations. Some hyper-vigilantly look out for danger, even when no danger is present. Simply put, the child’s sense of safety has been destroyed.
Trauma can program the intelligence of the physical body to protect and defend itself. When the child sees or hears the abuser approaching, the body begins to panic and engages in a stress response. This stress reaction can be triggered by anything that reminds the child of the abuser or anyone the child suspects will behave like their abuser. The stress reaction is triggered by even the thought or memory of the abuser.
But there’s hope. The sense of safety can be restored. Of course, the child must be removed from hostile and unsafe environments. The child also has to learn not to unwittingly create a hostile environment.
Research by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Gabor Maté, and Dr. Peter Levine reveal effective ways to restore the traumatized child’s sense of safety.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk found performing in theater plays help restore agency and power, yoga helps reconnect their consciousness back into their bodies, and that specific eye movement patterns provide relief from chronic, overwhelming emotions.
Dr. Gabor Maté delves into the impact of childhood trauma and resulting symptoms, such as addictive behaviors used to sooth and calm themselves. The addictive behaviors expand beyond just alcohol and drug abuse. He affirms the need to restore the child’s sense of self and approach the behavior with compassion and understanding.
Dr. Peter Levine guides traumatized clients to mindful awareness of their physical body’s translation of the harm experienced in the past. He presents somatic techniques to release chronic stress and reprogram the body to exist comfortably in safe environments.
With better understanding of the root causes of trauma and with the various tools and techniques shared by these trauma experts, we can seek alternative approaches of relief of childhood trauma.
For people who have been sexually abused as children, the life path to overcoming the trauma suffered is not a clear, straight line. Sometimes the path is a series of loops where the overall hope is progression towards peace of mind, peace of heart and maybe even to a joyful life.
Some of us thrive as adults. We managed to perform well academically and secure stable jobs. We start a loving family with a trustworthy partner. But we may stumble along the way. It’s important to realize when and why we’re stumbling and to be compassionate with ourselves along the way.
Some of us jump into situations that perpetuate our own victimization as we try to fill the hole of unworthiness in our being. However, some suffer continuous victimization through means beyond our control, such as through the distribution of child sexual abuse material depicting our exploitation.
We are breaking our silence and joining hands with experts who can help disrupt this distribution. Teams of humble heroes are committed to safeguarding children across the globe.
On 10 March 2023, ECPAT and PPSEAWA hosted an online event dedicated the voices of child survivors of sexual exploitation to better understand “their personal lived experiences with disclosure, their engagement with law enforcement mechanisms, the criminal justice process and with social services”. Snow White O. Smelser, who currently serves as a UNODC child safety advisor, shared the following during the event.
Warm greetings from Thailand. Thank you, ECPAT and PPSEAWA, for honoring the voices of survivors of child sexual exploitation. This platform brings hope to child survivors who don’t have the opportunity or the courage to speak for themselves … or whose voices get muted.
Sadly, some victims of sexual exploitation and abuse do not survive and thrive. To cope with the deep trauma, many fall into long-term antisocial behavior, like alcoholism and drug addiction. Some can’t cope so commit suicide.
I myself survived child sexual abuse from the ages of 6 to 9. I was a shy, angelic child, loved by all my teachers, and my parents taught me to “do as you’re told (by adults)”. I didn’t understand what my uncle was doing to me until I learned in school about abuse in its different forms. I then felt so guilty and dirty and cursed with sexiness. He threatened to kill my mother if I told anyone. It was hard to focus on maintaining good grades in school when my mind and heart were suffering. I attempted suicide when I was 9. As I waited for the fatal end to occur, I remember suddenly changing my mind. I realized that I didn’t want my mom to suffer with the heartbreak of losing me. Luckily, my suicide attempt failed – but I suffered psychologically and emotionally in fear of boys and men until my late teenage years. At 16, I decided that my abuser would no longer have power over my emotions and my life.
In the 1990s, emailing and surfing the Internet became common practice in my university. I loved technology and its benefits. I studied web design and development and began my career in the tech industry building websites for local companies. I was in Friendster and MySpace. I searched for my abuser online back then, but I didn’t find him in those online platforms. I was free from him, and I was thriving.
In 2007, I was unexpectedly hired by the Royal Thai Police’s specialist division on crimes against women and children as their in-house translator. To help me learn the necessary Thai technical language, the police introduced me to ECPAT resources in English and in Thai. (I have loved ECPAT ever since!)
I remember when the Thai police arrested the swirly-face Canadian man wanted by INTERPOL for sexually abusing children in Thailand. I sat in the room with the suspect, quietly trembling in fear as childhood memories came flooding back. I kept my adverse childhood experience a secret even when I joined the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok to work on a project specifically on transnational child sex offenders. My experience gave me a special perspective when observing the efforts made and not made to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Disclosing our traumatic experience of sexual abuse is a tremendously difficult feat. We’ve already been vulnerable, exploited, and wounded by the abusers. Are we brave enough to face the heartbreak when the people we trust enough to disclose this violation to just dismiss us with their disbelief and denial? It hurts to open up and hear, “you were just having bad dreams”, “I didn’t see him do that to you”, “you’re just making up stories”. I have heard worse reactions from untrained police officers and even the mothers as they blamed the children for inciting the abuse. We need to provide a safe space for child victims to be heard and show them our efforts of seeking appropriate help.
Now, as a UNODC advisor on child sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline, I am blessed to be working with the brilliant and passionate Ending Violence against Children team, led by Alexandra Martins in Vienna. No more keeping the secret. This time I told my new team and our lovely UK Government donor that I myself am a child survivor. I told them if my abuse had happened in this digital age and crossed-over online, I would not be alive right now. They embraced my disclosure with empathy, and we all are driven to make real-life impact in honor of child survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline. We are partnering with child-centered NGOs, including ECPAT, on something that has not been tried before. Something that may rock the online and offline worlds.
In conclusion, victims become survivors when we can overcome the impact of abuse and live without fear. With love and support, we can be like lotus flowers that start off in the mud, reach for the sky, and blossom into beautiful adults. Thank you, Dr. Raj, for encouraging me to share my story. Thank you all for providing this platform to acknowledge and share the voices of child survivors around the world. It means more to us than my words can say.
On 25 June 2022, hundreds of women business and ministerial leaders from 60 countries gathered at the Bangkok Convention Center for the closing of the 3-day Global Summit of Women. During the closing ceremony, the Vice Chairman of SafeguardKids Foundation called on women’s natural leadership ability to help keep children safe from violence online and offline.
Confronting the Global Trafficking of Children
by Khun Suriyon Sriorathaikul, Managing Director of Beauty Gems and Vice Chairman of SafeguardKids Foundation Thailand
It’s an honor to be with you this evening. Thank you in advance for your time and attention. I greatly appreciate this speaking opportunity from the organizers of the Global Summit of Women 2022.
Over the course of this summit, we have shared valuable insights and ideas on expanding business opportunities and highlighting women’s distinct role in economic development.
We looked at ways that we can utilize technology – particularly online technology like social media, cryptocurrency, and metaverses – to grow our businesses. And grow back better after the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we witnessed women leave the workforce in alarming numbers. In the US, the number of women who left the workforce was double the number of men. Much of the pressure pushing women out of the workforce was due to increased workloads alongside increased responsibilities at home.
Many families had to work and study together from home. We remained indoors with our children, staring at screens day and night. Children across the globe spent more time online during the pandemic unsupervised. Separated from their peers and restrained indoors, children reached out to people online for social interaction.
Before the pandemic, child trafficking and online child sexual exploitation were already on the radar of law enforcement agencies and child protection organizations across the globe.
Abusers do not need to be in the same room as the child victim. They can groom a child online and convince the child to share indecent photos and videos of themselves.
Some abusers hire a trafficker to find and coordinate children. For example, predators in Western countries pay traffickers in Southeast Asian countries to arrange children to perform sexual acts live on video calls.
Traffickers may be a close relative of the childor a neighborhood nanny. Ignorance to the impacts of child abuse, poverty, Internet connectivity, and English skills can be driving factors of online child sexual exploitation.
During the pandemic, the number of vulnerable children online surged. In Thailand last year, the cases of online child sexual exploitation recorded by the Royal Thai Police’s Task Force for Internet Crimes against Children involved around 400,000 child victims.
Note that many cases of online and offline abuse go unreported. Reasons include fear of retaliation, shame, as well as not knowing who to trust and how to report the abuse. Child protection organizations like SafeguardKids Foundation, Childline Foundation, and Hug Project raise awareness in Thailand about forms of exploitation and what children can do to keep themselves safe.
Online abuse has no borders.
Being aware of the transnational nature of child sex abuse, Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden, Founder of World Childhood Foundation, shared lessons learned by Sweden with numerous countries, including Thailand. At a 2010 conference by the Thai Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty Queen Silvia highlighted how laws against child sexual abuse materialwere passed in Sweden in 1996 and 2010 to better protect children from sexual crimes.
We listened. We learned. And we lobbied.
In 2015, Thailand passed legislation to criminalize the possession of child sexual abuse material.
Offenders can be imprisoned 5 years for possession, 7 years for forwarding, and 10 years for producing.
This law was passed nearly unanimously, with 193 of 196 parliamentarians voting in favor. The successful lobbying was done by a team of passionate Thai and Swedish patrons who formed SafeguardKids Foundation.
Before this law, Thai police could not detain offenders who were producing and sharing photos and videos of inappropriate interaction with children. Many offenders escaped justice and continued to sexually abuse children in Thailand. These offenders included Thai men and large numbers of foreign men who travelled across the globe for direct contact with children.
Efforts to keep children safe continue until this day. Thai legislators are currently reviewing a bill to extend protection from other forms of online harm to children. The new proposed bill criminalizes online grooming, sextortion, sexting, harassment, cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying. It also criminalizes accessing child sexual abuse material, like Western laws. So far, the draft bill has received positive support fromThai Senate and Cabinet and is under further review by our Ministry of Justice.
As I mentioned, online abuse has no borders. Child safety is a global cause. We must all take part.
As industry leaders, decision-makers and influencers from over 60 countries, what are we doing to keep children safe online and offline?
The business development technologies we discussed during this summit – from social media, cryptocurrency, and metaverses – areexploited by child abusers.
They exploit social media to find child victims and to bond with other people who share harmful interests.
These abusers exploit cryptocurrency to pay for photos, videos, and live performances of child sexual abuse. They use it to pay for access into private groups in the Darknet where they can trade their collections and give each other advice on how to evade detection and justice. (The Darknet is a special-access part of the Internet where people can anonymously interact and hide their communications.)
Now, as we explore the metaverse of virtual worlds online, we must be aware of harmful interaction between people, especially between adults and children in this realm. Harassment, sexual touch, and rape already occur between players in metaverse, and the victims are psychologically and emotionally impacted.
To ensure children’s safety, we can take advantage of women’s natural leadership skills. Women are designed to think about the collective consequences of decisions on broader society, as evidenced by studies on women in the workforce.
You here in this room have the power to influence the impact that technologies and your businesses make on society.
Stay aware of the dangers posed by innovative technologies. Integrate child safety measures into the design of your products and services, contribute to strengthening local communities, support child protection organizations, promote digital literacy and online safety education programs.
During dinner tonight, let’s connect with each other and share ideas on actions we can take to help our children stay safe in the digital world and in the real world. Thank you!
Words have power. Words can also disempower. We must mindfully choose the words and phrases used to label situations and people.
Among those who have suffered traumatic childhood experiences, the word “victim” may trap them in a victim mindset or may limit their ability to realize their full potential. Some call themselves “experiencers” to neutralize the emotional pain associated with victimization.
Many have chosen to call themselves “survivors”. What comes to mind when you hear the word “survivor”? Drowning, fires, plane crashes, car accidents, tsunamis.
The label “survivor” captures the stage of overcoming life-threatening trauma lost in the label “victim”.
“Survivor” however can sound inadequate in capturing the full journey of the person who endures lengthy waves of childhood trauma.
Would “victor” better describe the eventual achievement of being released from the physical, mental, and emotional chains of continuous victimization? “Victor” may better capture the complex journey of overcoming of adverse childhood experiences.
We at SafeguardKids want to guide those who have suffered childhood trauma from victim to survivor to victor of their life journeys. More importantly, we serve to educate children and caregivers on ways to prevent harm to children.
Let’s continue to invest in the safety and well-being of children and expand their creative potential.
Join us in supporting the next generation of innovators, creators, and caregivers.