Sexual abuse and those with an immigrant background

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Issues has sought advice from experts on how it can better reach out to people with a family history of immigration. The background to this is that significantly fewer people with an ethnic minority background register with the Inquiry than corresponds to the average taken from the population.

The twelfth workshop

The workshop format introduces new issues to the Inquiry. The Inquiry invites experts to participate in confidential discussions during these workshops. Findings from these workshops are then used as the basis for further activities to be undertaken the Inquiry. Inquiry member Silke Gahleitner began by emphasising that the low number of reports was by no means a reason for reassurance. Based on scientific studies, the Inquiry assumes that sexual violence against children and adolescents occurs at relatively the same frequency in all population groups. Rather, it is reasonable to assume that the survivors are not coming forward due to stigmatisation and having experienced discrimination. This applies to reports submitted to the Inquiry as well as those submitted to the support system, i.e. counselling centres, therapy options and health care. “How can we make ourselves more reachable to these groups? So that everyone feels invited to contact us?”, Silke Gahleitner asked. Barbara Kavemann said that the Inquiry should represent society by recognising the injustices suffered. The Inquiry is aware that those with a history of immigration are a very heterogeneous group.

How can these internal obstacles be overcome?

The first panel focussed on the question of whether survivors from immigrant families have to overcome specific obstacles in order to disclose sexual violence inflicted on them during childhood and adolescence. Elif Gencay, one of the hearing’s survivor advocates, reported that her clients of Arab and Turkish origin were often very ashamed of the issue because sexuality was never discussed in families. In one case, a family was ostracised from their community when they supported their son in lodging a criminal complaint against his perpetrator. For girls, virginity played a major role in families right up to the third generation. There was a concern that girls were being “tainted with a stigma”, was what Gencay reported from her practice.

Prof. Dr Jan Ilhan Kızılhan, Professor of Social Work and Head of the Institute for Transcultural Health Research at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, confirmed these observations from his work as an expert. Sexuality is a taboo based on patriarchal logic in many conservative religious contexts.

Sexuality is always seen as a danger, must be protected against and may only take place within a defined space.
Prof. Dr. Jan Ilhan Kızılhan

Dorothea Zimmermann, the CEO of Wildwasser Berlin e.V., spoke about her work with surviving girls and young women. Like the young men, they are also under enormous pressure because they fear that talking about sexual violence will stigmatise their community. Exclusion from their community and breaking off contact are often the result if they do talk about it. In this case, young women are not only isolated from their families, but also from their culture of origin, which is a huge burden. “Sometimes it’s hard to bear how lonely the girls feel”, said Zimmermann.

The experts all agreed that access to partially closed communities is only possible through culturally-sensitive intermediaries. If necessary, a risk analysis for the survivors as well as conscientious verifications undertaken by interpreters should also be carried out.

Konferenzraum mit mehreren Personen: Kommissionsmitgliedern und Gästen, am Tisch. Im Hintergrund Videokacheln.

Obstacles to accessing the support system

During the second panel, Aylin, a survivor, Prof. Dr Berrin Özlem Otyakmaz, psychological psychotherapist and professor of counselling sciences at the Federal Institute of Labour in Schwerin, and Ramazan Karataş, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who works at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Youth Welfare Office in Berlin, all discussed the obstacles to accessing the support system.

Aylin said that she didn’t know what had happened to her for a long time because there was no explanation and as a child she was not encouraged to disclose her own limitations. She considers information and education, including that given in different languages, to be very important. Neither internal nor external problems were ever discussed in her family.

Prof. Dr Berrin Özlem Otyakmaz cited studies such as the current report from the National Racism and Discrimination Monitor, according to which people who are described as “migrants” are clearly underrepresented when it comes to providing psychotherapy places. Many from the majority of German psychotherapists prefer working with patients from similar backgrounds. On the other hand, in mixed teams, e.g. those working in counselling centres, all clients with an immigration history are often assigned to the only specialist who also has a family history of immigration – even if another specialist clearly has greater expertise regarding a specific problem.

As there are considerably fewer psychotherapists with a family history of immigration working in private practice, waiting times for Turkish-speaking psychotherapists are two to three times longer than those for the majority of German colleagues. It is important for the survivors to be able to flexibly switch between German or the language spoken in their families during counselling or psychotherapy, as the issue might depend on this. It is also important that psychotherapists take the various facets of the survivor involved, including their experiences of exclusion due to racism, seriously and address them adequately during counselling or psychotherapy. However, the majority of counsellors and psychotherapists also often have stereotypical, culture-based ideas about the causes and manifestations of sexual abuse in families with a history of immigration, which produce an unfavourable bias during treatment or even make it impossible.

Prof. Dr Berrin Otyakmaz and child and adolescent therapist Ramazan Karataş both talked about structural racism in Germany, which is an everyday reality for people with a history of immigration. This is the main reason why fewer specialists are represented in the support system as well as in many other relevant social institutions. It should be a matter of course that experts reflecting social heterogeneity are represented in all committees, not just for addressing their clientele with a family history of immigration, but for reasons of equality. Involvement and participation at all levels of society is important. If people are underrepresented as both support seekers and consultants in the support structures and if committees such as this inquiry are not heterogeneous, then the question arises:

Why should anyone who has not previously received adequate and respectful therapy from the support system develop trust in other social institutions such as this inquiry and tell their story to them?
Prof. Dr. Berrin Otyakmaz

Ramazan Karataş suggested engaging in dialogue with mosques, event centres, political associations and community mothers. The Inquiry’s website should also be translated into different languages and made more appealing to people with a history of immigration.

Aylin wants to see better sex education in schools, especially in primary schools. Children should be informed about their rights, including the right to a life without violence. Social media is a good way to reach adolescents.

The most important thing is that children can talk about it, regardless of the way in which a boundary was crossed.

Improving public relations work

How the Inquiry’s public relations work can better address those with experience of discrimination without giving them a special role was the central question posed during the third panel with guests Ismahan El-Alaoui from the survivor advocate board at the Independent Inquiry (UBSKM), Burhan Gözüakça from the Beys marketing agency as well as Stefanie Keienburg, press and public relations officer for the “Violence against Women” helpline.
All of the guests were critical of the idea of customising campaigns to specific target groups, such as the Turkish community. Different categorisations involve social inclusion and exclusion mechanisms and they also promote the feeling of not belonging to society. “People or groups are then structured as “others”, they are assumed to deviate from the norm in relation to the dominant society and this means that social participation becomes more difficult. This is why these people don’t feel that they are being adequately addressed. This is promoting distrust, insecurity and devaluation”, warned Ismahan El-Alaoui. Burhan Gözüakça stated that the content developed in his agency often works equally well with all target groups.
“There are people who are very good at providing news to target groups. This was never our intention. It needs appreciation from the sender”, said Mr. Gözüakça
It is important to think about where you can reach people in order to convey other values. Many people of Turkish origin were ignored by traditional print media, German radio and television because their interests and the reality of their lives were not featured there. Instead, concepts of an enemy, such as that of the “dangerous Muslim man”, continue to be manifested through media portrayals. Social media, where content can be technically easy to translate, is still the most suitable platform. The agency owner suggested that the Inquiry should lower access barriers by meeting people in places where they feel comfortable. Co-operating with partners such as political associations would be very important in this regard.

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