PARIS – “I was 9. ... It was my father. He raped me until I was 17.”
The French government pledged on Thursday to toughen laws on the rape of children after a massive online movement saw hundreds of victims share accounts about sexual abuse within their families.
The move comes in the wake of child abuse accusations involving a prominent French political expert.
France’s justice minister said Thursday the government will soon present new legal measures to better protect children, while a draft bill has started being debated at parliament to toughen laws on the rape of minors under 13.
The social media campaign was launched Saturday by activists of the French feminist group #NousToutes in reference to the #MeToo movement that sparked a global debate about sexual harassment and assault.
The #MeTooInceste hashtag overwhelmed French social media in just a few days. In French, the word “inceste” is widely used to refer to any sexual act between members of the same family, including abuse of children, stepchildren or younger siblings.
Hundreds of people shared appalling accounts about how they were sexually abused when they were children:
“I was between 11 and 14. It was my brother. I’m now 57 and still a victim of that past."
“I was 8. Abused by my grandfather.”
“Just one amid so many others. I was 6-7-8 year-old, I don't remember.”
Tens of thousands of people responded by sharing and commenting under the same hashtag.
Laurent Boyet, 49, was among those who tweeted. A police officer and head of the association Les Papillons ("Butterflies") fighting against child abuse, he published a book in 2017 to tell his story. He said he was raped by his brother, who was 10 years older than him, when he was between 6 and 9.
“I really hope society is going to have the courage to face the problem," he told The Associated Press. “We need to stop looking away.”
When he spoke to his mother, over 30 years after the abuse started, Boyet said she answered: “I believe you because I had doubts about it.”
"All the signals I had sent her, she got them but did nothing," he recalled.
"In 2021 we cannot keep quiet anymore, we need to take action,” he added.
Boyet's association started in September placing mailboxes in schools to allow children to express their distress through letters. Boyet said some of the written notes have led to legal action, including for alleged sexual abuse.
The feminist activist behind the #MeTooInceste campaign, Madeline Da Silva, said “we are convinced that children actually speak out and what’s a very big problem is that no one is hearing them.”
Even if children don't say the words, they still show signs that they are suffering “and no one is trained to understand them,” she regretted.
That's why, Da Silva said, the movement is not only about improving the laws but above all about introducing immediate, child-centered public policies.
“Today we know that when you’re training social workers, teachers about prevention of violence, things are changing: you’re saving lives,” she said.
Her #NousToutes group launched a petition urging the government to require systematic training of all people working with children, including teachers, social workers and officials of sports and cultural associations. It was signed Thursday by over 36,000 people, less than two days after it was put online.
The debate about France's response to child abuse within families broke out earlier this month amid accusations involving top political expert Olivier Duhamel. A book written by Duhamel’s stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, accused him of abusing her twin brother during the late 1980s, when the siblings were 13 years old.
Some children protection groups are pushing to introduce statutory rape in law, which would state a legal age below which a child cannot agree to a sexual relationship with an adult.
Under French law, sexual relations between an adult and a minor under 15 are banned. Yet the law accepts the possibility that a minor is capable of consenting to sex, leading to cases where an adult faces a lighter prison sentence for sexual assault than if prosecuted for rape, which is punishable by 20 years in prison.
Many activists are also in favor of removing the statute of limitations, because the trauma is so deep it can take decades for victims to be able to speak out and face their abuser. The law currently provides that minor victims can file complaints until they are aged 48.
The World Health Organization say international studies show that one in five women and one in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child aged under 18. Experts say sexual abuses are likely to be underestimated amid secrecy often surrounding the issue.