No Fear: Vicki Bernadet Tackles the Stigma of Child Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse scandals and lawsuits have become headline news around the world, revealing that many people find it hard to even acknowledge that child sexual abuse can happen in their own country, perhaps to someone near them. Since Vicki Bernadet started a foundation under her own name in 2006 to call attention to the issue of sexual abuse of children in Spain, the Vicki Bernadet Foundation has become the most important and recognized authority for sexual abuse counseling and training in the Cataluña region in northeast Spain.
It took years of struggle for the Vicki Bernadet Foundation to bring attention to the problem by providing counseling that helps victims break their silence and seek the support they need to recover. "Many people believe that danger comes only from the outside world, and that families are immune to those types of things,” said Bernadet, noting that official statistics show otherwise.
“In Spain, one out every four girls has suffered from sexual abuse, and this statistic is true throughout Europe, the United States and Canada. Family members commit 80 percent of the sexual abuse to children. Here, no one pays attention to this issue."
Bernadet, who is an Ashoka Fellow, believes that people are afraid to get close to the problem because they think it may damage them on a personal, political, or business level. This is one of the challenges the Vicki Bernadet Foundation faces in securing private donations for its work. “Marketing departments at private companies believe that supporting us could be detrimental to their image,” she says.
Since she began working on this issue in 1997, Bernadet and her team have worked with more than 4,250 individuals and families who have experienced child sexual abuse. In 2009 alone, the Vicki Bernadet Foundation supported 600 individuals who had been victims of sexual violence.
The foundation also offers workshops and seminars for boys, girls, parents, and professionals who are interested in investigating, preventing, and fighting against child abuse. To date, more than1,245 people have participated in these classes, which strive to help individuals find better ways to processing their personal stories, ultimately enabling them to approach their environment in a less violent manner.
Among the programs the Vicki Bernadet Foundation offers is “Proteger es prevenir” (Protection is Prevention), which entered the Changemakers.com “Preventing Violence Against Women” challenge. The foundation organizes activities aimed at creating awareness about the fact that sexual abuse is a social problem.
“According to several research studies, women who have suffered from violence as a child are far more likely to end up in prison, drug addiction centers, or shelters,” Bernadet said. She has succeeded in convincing leaders of institutions like prisons, drug addiction centers, and shelters to give women with access to psychologists and psychiatrists, and to create a circle of trust where no one forces them to tell their story.
“Most of them had never talked about the abuse they suffered because they felt ashamed,” Bernadet said.This changes when women realize that none of the women in the group want to judge them—they just want to learn how to better protect their own family and friends, she noted. The fear that abused women transmit to their own children can be just as dangerous as the actual physical violence they are trying to protect them from.
Bernadet, who herself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, is not afraid of controversy. “We need to become familiar with sexual abuse," she said. "We are facing a huge problem that we have let become a big issue because we did not speak about it. The foundation has achieved changes at an institutional level, but at the social level there is a long way to go. We have to get people to see child sexual abuse as any other social problem. It is still a taboo issue.”
“If we are honest, the fact is that we have enabled children to be silent about being abused, leading them to grow up with that secret inside them. And by the time they are 40 years old, they often have an unbalanced and terrible life. But if we had detected it on time and had offered immediate assistance, the abuse would have turned into a child trauma—just as any other trauma."
Bernadet believes that denying the problem of sexual violence will only allow it to grow and become untreatable. The solution will require the types of awareness, treatment and prevention campaigns that the Vicki Bernadet Foundation conducts. “Information about sexual abuse is highly biased at a social level, and that is why there is so much work to be done to address this problem,” Bernadet said.
“Because when you are informed, you lose the fear.”
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