Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week wristbands

One in five women and one in 13 men are thought to be affected by Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA).

Childhood Sexual Abuse is a violation of fundamental human rights and its impacts have far-reaching consequences that extend to entire communities and economies. This type of violence can contribute to the persistence of poverty and gender inequality, by often affecting a survivor’s ability to pursue education and hindering their economic productivity, affecting not only the survivor but also their local network.

Moreover, the harmful effects of CSA can pass down through generations, creating a cycle of suffering and trauma.

Substantial impact on health and wellbeing

The eradication of Childhood Sexual Abuse and its negative consequences is not just confined to the criminal justice system. There has been an emerging body of evidence suggesting the impacts of CSA can be substantial on an individual’s health and wellbeing.

Globally to date compared to other risk factors on one’s health, understanding the impact of CSA on health and health system use has historically been understudied. For example, in the most recent published edition of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study (the world’s most comprehensive research effort quantifying the impact of various diseases, injuries, and risk factors on human health), CSA is associated with a subsequent increased risk of alcohol abuse disorders and depression to survivors.

For survivors and their advocates, there are countless stories of additional impacts on health which need to urgently be captured and described to inform healthcare decision-making to prioritise the right type of support for survivors.

Health conditions

In our recent study, working with experts in the GBD team and at the University of Miami as part of the Lancet Commission on Gender-Based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People, we meticulously reviewed over 4,000 research articles and found 229 studies which have enhanced our global understanding of both the health impacts of CSA and intimate partner violence.

Using a novel approach, we evaluated the strength of evidence connecting CSA to 15 health conditions (alcohol use disorders, self-harm, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, asthma, type 2 diabetes mellitus, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, maternal abortion and miscarriage, drug use disorders, conduct disorder, bulimia nervosa, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and ischemic heart disease) which met our strict inclusion criteria.

In particular, the findings with the greatest strength of evidence suggested a moderate association between CSA and an increased risk of alcohol use (45%) and self-harm (35%).

Historically, policymakers have considered that the impacts of CSA may be confined to mental ill health and substance misuse, however, this study has outlined that the physical health consequences of abuse are also substantial.

For example, leading to the subsequent development of conditions such as asthma, which we have confirmed in other recent work, where we demonstrated that patients with a record of childhood maltreatment (all types of childhood abuse and violence) were 42% more likely to develop asthma.

Despite the breadth of our review, it's crucial to acknowledge that the outcomes presented are likely an underrepresentation of the total health impacts associated with these forms of abuse. The sobering reality remains that CSA continues to be a neglected area within global health research. Despite the alarming associations we've uncovered, our study also highlights the overall dearth of evidence on CSA, particularly when compared to other risk factors like smoking and high blood pressure.

It's imperative to address this research gap and prioritise violence against children as a crucial component of global health. In response to this work, we anticipate that in a future round of the GBD study to see a greater burden of global illness attributable to CSA.

This in turn will hopefully raise the profile of CSA as a global public health issue and encourage further funding to be dedicated to this field.

Health Sector vital

While we work towards advancing the evidence base on the health impacts of CSA, it's essential to recognise that individuals experiencing these forms of violence will continue seeking health services globally. The health sector serves as a vital window of opportunity to intervene in cases of CSA. Integrating interventions to address violence against children into national health policies, with clear protocols and sufficient budget allocations, is essential for effective support and care for survivors.

For example, to mitigate these effects and truly take a public health approach to violence, adopting holistic and family-oriented programs, building resilience in survivors, and implementing evidence-based interventions are critical steps. These include gender-transformative interventions (promoting gender equality), survivor-centred movements, and multidisciplinary approaches aimed at raising awareness, changing societal norms, providing empowerment, and promoting healthy relationships and adversity-free childhoods.

As we observe the Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week, let us not only raise awareness about the issue but also commit ourselves to filling the research gaps, advocating for evidence-based interventions, putting the voice of survivors at the forefront and ultimately foster a safer and healthier future for survivors of CSA.

By Dr Joht Singh Chandan,
Clinical Associate Professor in Public Health in the Institute of Applied Health Research