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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

“People don’t talk about it”: Child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities

Research summary

The research considered three areas: barriers to disclosure; experiences of institutions; and support for victims and survivors. As context to these areas we also considered understandings of what constitutes child sexual abuse and wider attitudes to child sexual abuse among ethnic minority communities. The research findings are set out under these four headings below. In reality, we found these areas to be strongly linked together by underlying themes that we have characterised as relating to society and institutions, and to communities and culture. These reinforce each other and influence how child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities is identified, disclosed and responded to and how victims and survivors are supported. Figure 1 illustrates these links.

Figure 1: Influences on child sexual abuse disclosure, responses and support

Understanding of child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities

Participants generally agreed with the definition of child sexual abuse presented to them in the discussion. While participants identified features of child sexual exploitation that distinguish it from child sexual abuse, they questioned the need for a separate term for child sexual exploitation. Some participants referred to cultural understandings of what does or does not constitute child abuse (including sexual abuse) differing between countries and communities. Participants also described how cultural norms and practices relating to children, relationships and sex could influence how child sexual abuse is understood and responded to.

Child sexual abuse was considered to be a taboo subject in participants’ communities. The shame and stigma attached to child sexual abuse across participants’ communities further contributed to secrecy around child sexual abuse. The discussions highlighted gendered understandings of child sexual abuse and participants both challenged and reproduced the assumption that all perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male and that all victims and survivors are female.

Participants identified sex education in schools as an important way to educate children about child sexual abuse. However, participants were aware that many parents in South Asian communities in particular objected to sex education in schools and some participants in the groups had withdrawn their children from sex education lessons. The media was also identified as having a key role in raising participants’ awareness of, and shaping their understanding of and attitudes to, child sexual abuse. Participants felt that awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse in England and Wales had increased over time and between generations, driven by education in schools and increased media coverage of child sexual abuse.

“Yeah, for those who grew up here [England], I think they would find it a lot more easy to talk about it, because it’s been taught to them right from a younger age, but those of us who actually grew up wherever we came from, from Africa. I came here – I just came here a few years ago. I still find it very difficult to talk about it.”

Female focus group participant


Barriers to disclosing child sexual abuse

Participants described a wide range of barriers that victims and survivors face when disclosing child sexual abuse, many of which could be equally applicable to all communities and ethnic groups, including white ethnic groups.

Recognising when child sexual abuse has taken place can be challenging for victims and survivors who may not recognise that the behaviour they have experienced constitutes abuse or that the behaviour was wrong. Not knowing the right words to describe what is happening and uncertainty regarding what behaviours are ‘normal’ are contributing factors. Attachment to the perpetrator can also lead to children misinterpreting the behaviours as expressions of affection or love.

Victims and survivors spoke about the fear of not being believed if they disclosed child sexual abuse and in some communities there can be denial that child sexual abuse occurs at all. More commonly, child sexual abuse appeared to have the status of an open secret, where people know that it occurs but  it is not explicitly acknowledged and little or nothing is done to address the problem.

Not knowing where to go to report child sexual abuse, and fears that nothing constructive would happen if it was reported, have prevented some victims and survivors from disclosing their experiences. Responses to child sexual abuse are often inadequate or even detrimental; the victim and survivor may be blamed for the sexual abuse or concerns about the impact of disclosure on family members may be prioritised over the victim and survivor’s needs. These responses can inhibit further disclosure, or fear of such responses may prevent disclosure in the first place.

Participants described how a particular concern among some ethnic minority communities can be the impact of disclosure on the reputation of the family and community, the victim and survivor, and the perpetrator. Among some black communities, experiences of racism and stereotyping in mainstream society can create fear that disclosures of child sexual abuse will result in members of the community being stigmatised and the reputation of the community being damaged. Among some South Asian communities, child sexual abuse may not be disclosed due to the perceived dishonour it would bring on the community or family, the individual victim and survivor, particularly girls, and the perpetrator, particularly those in positions of power and influence.

"In our community, if it’s a girl, then we have to keep these things secret because if the other people knows when the girl is the age of they’re getting married, it’s going to be really hard for her.”

Female focus group participant


In some cases, victims and survivors of child sexual abuse may be ostracised from their family or community. Some victims and survivors chose to distance themselves from their communities due to unhelpful or damaging responses to their experiences of sexual abuse.

Given the concern regarding the impact of disclosures of child sexual abuse on communities, many participants expressed concerns about how disclosures might be escalated, with victims and survivors saying they feared losing control over how their information would be handled and passed on.

Experiences of institutions in relation to child sexual abuse

Overall, participants tended to hold negative perceptions of institutions, particularly the police and children’s social care, and there was a general sense of mistrust and lack of confidence relating to institutional responses to child sexual abuse. This was often underpinned by a perception, often based on direct or indirect experience, that statutory institutions and some professionals within them hold racist views and cultural stereotypes regarding ethnic minority communities:

“The social worker was white, okay, and she said to me, ‘This is not sexual abuse. This is your culture’. Even today, I’m so traumatised by this.”

Female focus group participant


There was also a perception among some participants that institutions were too ‘white’ and lacked cultural diversity. Some participants, especially victims and survivors, believed that some professionals and institutions were influenced by a fear of being perceived as racist, which was seen as leading to non-action or inappropriate action in response to child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities.

Participants recognised the police, schools, courts, children’s social care services, religious and health organisations as having a safeguarding role in responding to, and protecting children from, sexual abuse. However, there were mixed views about which institutions participants would report child sexual abuse to, and there was not one single institution that participants across all the focus groups consistently stated they would report to. Participants’ level of knowledge and understanding of safeguarding processes in the UK varied, with some being very clear about where they would report to, while others were unclear of where they should or could report to. Several participants said they would not report to statutory institutions, or would be reluctant to, and many of those participants tended to say they would go to voluntary sector organisations or their own community.

Impacts of child sexual abuse and support for victims and survivors

Victims and survivors reported a diverse range of adverse impacts as a consequence of child sexual abuse. These included emotional and mental health difficulties, problems with education and employment, relationship difficulties and drug and alcohol use. Some participants reported an impact on their identity and a sense of loss following separation from their community and culture.

Many victims and survivors did have some experience of either seeking out, or accessing support, but reported experiences of not knowing where to go and sometimes finding that support was just not available. The need to be able to share the experience of child sexual abuse with someone who understands and is not judgemental was cited by many participants as the most important support need for helping victims and survivors to recover.

Victims and survivors revealed that finding non-judgemental support was challenging, both from services and from informal family and support networks. In particular, a lack of understanding from family and community members highlighted the importance of access to appropriate statutory and voluntary support organisations.

Many victims and survivors expressed a preference for receiving support from someone similar to themselves. For some participants, this meant people with similar experiences of abuse. For other participants, this meant being from the same ethnic group or gender. Peer support was suggested as an effective means of providing support, when it is underpinned by adequate training and resources.

"She understood not only as a black woman being abused, sexually abused. She ticked all my boxes. Everything I said she got me. And I realised how important, how much I needed that. Someone that I could look at, I recognised, but understood me.”

Female focus group participant

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