The warning signs of rape/sexual abuse in a child

Child abuse

A recent report from Rape Crisis reveals that police crime statistics released in September 2015 show that in 2014/2015 there were a total of 53 617 sexual offences reported to the South African Police Services (SAPS). This translates to an average of 147 cases per day.

Although this figure is probably quite inaccurate because many incidents (especially those perpetrated against children) go unreported, it gives a fair appreciation on the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse in South Africa.

Women and children are, by far, the most affected; with a disturbing rise now occurring in incidences of infant/child/adolescent rape.

Rape is a traumatic, physically, emotionally and psychologically life-altering act. If not addressed appropriately and in a timely manner, a victim is likely to be maimed for life. It has therefore become absolutely needful for every parent to be well-informed on the matter; so as to be able to identify the warning signs and to know how to handle and help an affected child.

Rape and sexual abuse defined

According to Tears Foundation SA:

Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse, which is initiated by one or more persons against another person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority or against a person who is incapable of valid consent, such as one who is unconscious, incapacitated, or below the legal age of consent. According to Rape Crisis, rape in South Africa has emerged as a crime of extreme violence. It is a form of organised social violence comparable only to the combat of war.

Sexual abuse, also referred to as molestation, is the forcing of undesired sexual behaviour by one person upon another. When that force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault.
Sexual assault can range from inappropriate touching, to a life-threatening attack, rape or any other penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus. It’s a myth that victims of sexual assault always look battered and bruised. A sexual assault may leave no outward signs, but it’s still a crime.

Symptoms of a child who has been raped

The signs (physical, psychological and behavioural) that a child has been sexually abused may differ among children. According to RAINN  (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network –an American anti-sexual assault organisation), some children may experience many of the symptoms while others may experience a few. Some may experience these symptoms soon after the traumatic incidence, and others:weeks, months and even years after. Care should therefore be taken not to conclude that a child has been raped based on symptoms alone (except for those that are direct physical evidence). The presence of symptoms should rather probe a parent to dig deeper until the facts have been established.

Physical symptoms are those things which manifest in or upon the survivor’s body that are evident to her and under physical examination by a nurse or doctor. Some of these are only present immediately after the rape while others only appear at a later stage.

Behavioural symptoms are those things the survivor does, expresses or feels that are generally visible to others. This includes observable reactions, patterns of behaviour, lifestyle changes and changes in relationships.

Psychological symptoms are much less visible and can in fact be completely hidden to others so survivors need to offer this information or be carefully and sensitively questioned in order to elicit them. They generally refer to inner thoughts, ideas and emotions.

The table below is a summary of some of symptoms experienced in these three categories, obtained from RAINN.

Symptoms of a raped/sexually abused child
Physical Behavioural Psychological
Immediately after a rape, survivors often experience shock. They are likely to feel cold, faint, become mentally confused (disorientated), tremble, feel nauseous and sometimes vomit. Crying more than usual. Increased fear and anxiety
Pregnancy Seems distracted or distant at odd times Self-blame and guilt.
Gynaecological problems. Irregular, heavier and/or painful periods. Vaginal discharges, bladder infections. Sexually transmitted diseases. Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity, or withdrawal Humiliation and shame.
Bleeding and/or infections from tears or cuts in the vagina or rectum. Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues Helplessness and sense of intense vulnerability
A soreness of the body. There may also be bruising, grazes, cuts or other injuries. Develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places Lowering of self esteem
Throat irritations and/or soreness due to forced oral sex. Trouble swallowing Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child


Talks about a new older friend

Feeling dirty or contaminated by the rape
Tension headaches Writes, draws, plays, or dreams of sexual or frightening images Anger
Nausea and/or vomiting Suddenly has money, toys, or other gifts without reason Feeling alone and that no one understands
Pain in the lower back and/or in the stomach


Drop in school performance Constantly thinking about the rape. Having flashbacks to the rape, feeling like it is happening again.
Eating disturbances. This may be not eating or eating less or needing to eat more than usual. Increased washing or bathing Nightmares
Sleep disturbances. This may be difficulty in sleeping or feeling exhausted and needing to sleep more than usual. Not wanting to socialise or see anybody or socialising more than usual, so as to fill up every minute of the day. Depression and suicide attempts
Behaving as if the rape didn’t occur, trying to live life as it was before the rape, this is called denial.
Becoming easily upset by small things
Signs more prevalent in adolescents:

Self-injury (cutting, burning)

Inadequate personal hygiene

Drug and alcohol abuse

Sexual promiscuity

Fear of intimacy or closeness

What’s a parent to do?

Discovering that a child has been raped is very difficult for a parent. Whilst wanting to support and help their child, the parent often finds her/himself battling and struggling with a whole lot of strong and complex emotions. It is however important that a parent finds a way to help and support their child during this painful period.

Upon discovering that a child has been sexually assaulted, a parent needs to:

  • Stay steady and assuring to their child
  • Believe what they say
  • Re-establish safety for the child (Pay close attention to the child’s cues about what he or she may need to feel safe.)
  • Demonstrate willingness to uphold privacy
  • Free them of self-blame and self-guilt
  • Express your rage to appropriate people
  • Get help. In South Africa there are a number of organisations and institutions that provide support and help for rape-traumatised victims and their families.

For further elaboration on each bullet point, visit this link.

Rape is a traumatic, physically, emotionally and psychologically life-altering act. If not addressed appropriately and timeously, a victim is likely to be maimed for life. It has therefore become absolutely needful for every parent to be well-informed on the matter; so as to be able to identify the warning signs and to know how to handle and help an affected child.

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