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The problems of child abuse and what the Purple Ribbon campaign can do

By Jan Watson - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

One of the hardest aspects of solving the problems of child abuse is ‘breaking the barrier of silence’. The publicity generated by the recent remarks of the Governor General and the disclosures by the NSW Royal Commission into paedophilia is an encouraging start to making citizens aware of the extent of child abuse but this is only a beginning.

Research shows that approximately one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused in childhood. The majority of these offences occur within family circles where intimidation, fear, and shame prevent disclosure. The perpetrators are usually known to the child and trusted by the family. In order to stop this crime against our children, we must all speak out and acknowledge the extent of child abuse, and the devastating effects it has on our population in terms of psychological damage.

The aim of the Purple Ribbon Project is to establish the month of July each year as national Purple Ribbon Month, during which people are asked to wear a small purple ribbon as a protest against the extent of child abuse in our community. The colour purple was chosen as a spiritual hue signifying compassion.


It is now accepted that 1 in 5 adults will suffer from mental illness at some time in their lives. A conservative estimate has been made that 65 per cent of inpatients and 55 per cent of outpatients of psychiatric hospitals have been abused as children and some mental health services in Australia put the figure as high as 90 per cent. Some conclusions from other research carried out in the past few years are as follows:

  • 76 per cent of women and 72 per cent of men with severe mental illness had been abused as children (Ritschler and Coursey, 1997. A survey on issues in the lives of women with severe mental illness.)
  • 70 per cent of drug addicts and 84 per cent of participants in Odyssey House programs in Australia and the US reported histories of child abuse (Anecdotal reports, Odyssey House)
  • 44 per cent of women in treatment for addiction to opiates had histories of incest (Denson Gerber, 1981)
  • 70 per cent of 500 drug abusing adolescent girls reported sexual abuse as children (Webber, 1997)
  • 50 per cent of female drug and alcohol abusers reported childhood incest (Yeary, 1982)
  • 75 per cent of prisoners have experienced child abuse (Safecare Committee, WA)
  • In 2000, 87 per cent of youths between 15-18 yrs old in Reeby House, had previously been notified to Department of Children’s Services as being abused. 63 per cent of those had been notified on more than 3 occasions. (Director General of Juvenile Justice, 2001).
  • The odds for future delinquency, adult criminality overall, and arrest for violent crime specifically, increased by about 40 per cent for people abused and neglected as children. (Widom, The cycle of violence. Child Protection Seminar Series No.5 NSW Child Protection Council, 1992)
  • The abused and neglected adolescent carries significantly greater risk factors than non-abused adults (Kaplan, et al, Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36(6), 1997)
  • Homeless youth who have been physically or sexually abused are more at risk for attempting suicide (2 to 4 times) than non-abused homeless youth. (Molnar, et al, Suicidal behaviour and sexual/physical abuse among street youth. Child Abuse and Neglect. 22 (3) 1998)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is one of the most difficult disorders to treat. Psychiatrists have been known to refuse to treat patients with BPD because of the extreme states of acting out, irrational anger and non-compliance they exhibit. And yet it is estimated that approximately 85 per cent of patients with BPD were abused as children.

Post traumatic Stress Disorder has been recognised as a common occurrence among war veterans for some time. It is only recently that health professionals have begun to recognise that people who have a history of severe child abuse, "display significantly more insomnia, sexual dysfunction, dissociation, anger, suicidality, self-mutilation, drug addiction and alcoholism than other {psychiatric} patients" (Herman, (1992) Trauma and Recovery, London: Pandora). Survivors frequently complain of chronic depression and an inner deadness, unable to experience lasting pleasure or excitement.

The Purple Ribbon Project began on the Gold Coast in 1994 and was recognised and supported by the Gold Coast City Council for several years. In 1997 Wyong Shire Council adopted the Project as an annual month-long campaign and it has been actively observed each year since. A committee made up of representatives from the Central Coast Area Health Service, Department of Community Services, Department of Public Prosecution, Wyong Shire Council staff and adult survivors of child abuse, facilitate the month’s events and organize the provision of ribbons, pins, donation boxes etc. The Council has used its staff and facilities to create signs for display in Council offices, libraries etc, and has provided financial support for the purchase of purple ribbon and pins for distribution to citizens. (The local hospital pink ladies used their spare time to cut and pin thousands of ribbons!).

Community organizations are encouraged to run or participate in events. Wyong Council conducts seminars, workshops, hypotheticals or forums throughout the Shire to this end. Information and purple ribbons are available at all shopping centres, health and community centres, libraries and schools throughout the Shire and citizens are encouraged to wear their purple ribbon throughout the month of July.


For three years, adult survivors have compiled a survivors’ book of poetry published by Wyong Council, and have prepared and updated a list of local therapists who work with adult and child survivors of child abuse. The local media publishes regular articles and information about events throughout the month. In the six years it has been running, public support has grown, and while the ribbons are free, the increasing amount of donations and feedback received each year is evidence of the concern the public feels about this long-hidden issue.

In July 2000, the Project was adopted by a number of other councils in New South Wales, among them Wollongong, Blue Mountains, Broken Hill, Auburn and Sutherland. The aim is to have the Project recognised on a national level, because only by breaking the silence on child abuse will we be able to fight and eliminate this evil in our society.

Following an approach to all federal Members of Parliament and Senators in April 2000, the Purple Ribbon Project was observed in Canberra as Purple Ribbon Day on June 28. All adjournment speeches that day concerned child abuse and six members, three Labor and three Liberal, have subsequently formed ‘Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse’ – a truly bipartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness of child abuse and working to address the issues which are of paramount importance in protecting our children, now and in the future. While acceptance of Purple Ribbon Month by many councils in New South Wales is a good start, we intend to continue to work towards the project being adopted nationally.

Purple Ribbon Month serves to raise awareness of the effects and extent of child abuse in our community. It makes possible participation at a "grass roots level", involving everyone in the community from the Mayor to the smallest children in kindergarten, as well as the mums and dads at home. The feedback we have received has always been very positive with many people stating that "this should have happened years ago"!

Please approach your local Council or form your own committee to observe Purple Ribbon Month actively in your area and let it be known that the community will no longer tolerate this crime being perpetrated on our children.

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About the Author

Jan Watson is a consultant for the Purple Ribbon campaign.

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