April 19, 2016 - In the United States, elementary school students devote several afternoons each year to tornado drills and fire drills. They learn what to do if they are approached by a stranger or if a shooter enters the school building. They complete D.A.R.E., which teaches them about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Today, many of them even receive training about how to safely use the Internet or stand up to bullies.
While these all important things for young people to learn there is a problem we are failing to address.
Even though statistics show that a child is sexually assaulted every six minutes, unfortunately our students are not likely to hear anything about this, unless they live in one of the 21 states that have passed a version of Erin’s Law. This legislation requires all public schools in each state to implement a common sense, prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program that teaches:
- Students in grades from pre-K through high school age-appropriate techniques to recognize child sexual abuse and tell a trusted adult
- School personnel how to recognize, address, and prevent child sexual abuse
- Parents and guardians the warning signs of child sexual abuse as well as offering them information about what resources are available for sexually abused children and their families
Since 2009, I have been relentlessly advocating in support of the law that bears my name. Right now, there are 43 states that have either passed the law or are preparing to introduce it. But there are 7 states that still must introduce this law. For the sake of children all over the world, its families, and its communities, Erin’s Law must be adopted.
No one knows about the need for this law better than me. When I was just six years old, one of my best friend’s uncles began sexually abusing me. The abuse continued until I was 8 and a half, when my family moved.
I thought my nightmare was over, but it only got worse. From the ages of 11 to 13, one of my teenage cousins—a member of my own family—assaulted me on regular basis.
Both men told me the same things: “This is our secret. If you speak out, no one will believe you, I know where you live and I will come get you. You will destroy our family. You have no proof that I am doing this.”
I believed them, because I had received no other messages about the need to speak up about sexual abuse. I kept my secrets painfully locked away in my diary, only breaking my silence when my little sister confessed that she was also being molested by this older cousin of ours. Together, we spoke out. I had begun to find my voice.
Today, I devote all of my time to raising awareness about sexual abuse and lobbying for the passage of Erin’s Law. One out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and yet we fail to adequately educate our children, parents, and teachers about abuse prevention and treatment. A consequence of this failure is that only one in ten sexually abused children even report it to an adult, allowing many offenders to go unpunished and assault other innocent victims. Action is long overdue.
In addition to passing Erin’s Law, the United States can be a leader in ending sexual assault by bringing Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth To Power human rights curriculum to its schools. This innovative, flexible curriculum uses the stories of the world’s leading human rights defenders like Congressman John Lewis, Lech Walesa, and Bishop Desmond Tutu to teach students that they can make a difference in the world.
The curriculum’s latest lesson focuses on my experiences, using them as examples that empower students to commit themselves to helping end sexual assault. Students studying the Speak Truth To Power curriculum learn to identify as human rights defenders and abandon the role of bystander, taking an active role in making our communities safer. The program’s success at educating and motivating young people is the main reason it is being adopted in classroom across the country.
By combining legislation and education, we can make a real difference for thousands of children across the United States. We can help victims of sexual abuse find their voices, putting an end to the epidemic of silent suffering.
Erin Merryn is an activist who advocates the prevention of child sexual abuse and author of several books including Living for Today and Stolen Innocence.