As conversations about child sexual abuse are breaking through the public consciousness — from the Pope’s extraordinary summit to the buzz around the Leaving Neverland documentary that unveils Michael Jackson’s history of predation against children — I believe the time to build a movement to end child sexual abuse is now.
Child sexual abuse is a global public health pandemic that still struggles to see the light of day. This is evident by the Catholic Church which, despite a decade of exposure, action and pledges of transparency, is still fielding fresh accusations of clergy abuse today, prompting the Pope to call a historic summit.
There is still so little global data on these crimes. The statistics range wildly from one in every 4 to 9 girls or one in every 6 to 56 boys in the U.S. The data is even more sparse from other countries. The topic is still so taboo, it’s hard to measure it. And if we can’t measure it, we can’t truly understand it. We can’t mobilize the resources and political will to fight it — or the shame that surrounds it.
I am a shamebuster.
One of the most difficult challenges of my life was breaking the silence around my own experience of intrafamilial sexual abuse — incest. It’s believed that about one-third of people who sexually abuse a child are family members. For almost 40 years, I existed in various states of amnesia, denial, anger and shame. Finally, I found the words to express what happened to me, the courage to speak and write them, and a family and community that listened to me and placed me on the path to healing and dignity.
I was lucky. Most survivors never get to tell their stories or come to see that the blame and shame does not belong to them.
It is time for a global movement to help these survivors and to catalyze an end to the vicious cycle of abuse. More and more survivors can step forward and be the voice for all children who are abused each and every day. The dignity of survivors can be restored only when communities and countries face this critical issue openly and boldly, without fear or inhibition. This is a global priority, and it requires a global movement.
I am also an epidemiologist.
I believe that every country on earth should seek to measure and understand the pandemic of child sex abuse within its borders, so evidence-based interventions can be put into place. The Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the Together for Girls partnership, is an important step, but so far it is only surveying in 20 countries.
The new 40-country benchmarking index, Out of the Shadows, is another promising initiative. It is examining how countries are responding to sexual violence against children; the environments of abuse; countries’ legal frameworks for protecting children from sexual violence; the level of government commitment and capacity to respond; and the engagement of industry, civil society and media in solutions.
Armed with better data, we can get better laws, such as lengthening or lifting statutes of limitation on crimes against children. We can mobilize the resources to create a platform of services, like early recognition, intervention and psychological support. We can launch community actions like a parenting movement. We can create a culture of zero tolerance.
Child sexual abuse is a global human threat. It is creating generation after generation of family dysfunction and mental illness, and it is a fundamental driver of conflict across the world.
It is time we treated this human threat as the true global health crisis it is. If not now, when? It is time for a transformation to end child sexual abuse in our lifetime. All it takes is people like you shattering the silence.
Dr. Paul Zeitz is a physician, epidemiologist, global justice and human rights advocate, founder of Build A Movement 2020, and author of Waging Justice: A Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth & Be Bold.
 National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2011). Child sexual abuse prevention: Overview. Retrieved from http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_Child-sexual-abuse-prevention_0.pdf.