When Dr. Lois Engelbrecht learned that many of the children begging in the streets of Manila had been sexually abused, the social worker took action. She founded the nonprofit Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse in the Philippines in 1994 and has since spread her efforts to other countries.
For Dr. Engelbrecht, the urgency to help children in need was grounded in personal experience: She, too, was victimized as a child, at a boarding school in India. As an adult, she’s lived or worked in the Philippines, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Ghana, promoting increased awareness and responsiveness to child sexual abuse in each location.
“When people ask me what I will be doing when I’m traveling to a city, my response is always ‘I only know one thing…increasing awareness and prevention of child sex abuse,’” says Dr. Engelbrecht, who earned her PhD in Human Services in 2010 and regularly draws on the research and critical thinking skills she gained at Walden.
Her efforts on behalf of children offer lessons for other human rights advocates. Dr. Engelbrecht explains, “Advocacy through any network is possible. I collect stories, and these stories go a long way in talking to people. I am always quick to make reference to research and other resources. I think nonjudgmental listening is also helpful.”
Currently living in Ghana, Dr. Engelbrecht is helping the African Movement for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect develop an abuse prevention program in the country’s Volta Region. In partnership with the Association of International Schools in Africa, Dr. Engelbrecht and her husband received a grant from the U.S. State Department to work with the association on a comprehensive child protection program that all international schools could adopt. She’s collaborating with a Ghanaian dancer to create an educational puppet show for use in schools and institutions. She’s also using a workbook she created in the Philippines, which has been translated into several languages, to teach Ghana’s elementary school children about sexual abuse—including the abuse of boys, a new emphasis of her programs and research.
“Last March, I presented at the International Conference on Sexual Abuse in Africa. There was a lot of interest because I presented the causes of child sexual abuse with a focus on the sociocultural factors that increase a boy’s vulnerability to victimization and to becoming a sex offender,” Dr. Engelbrecht says. “I brought in my experience from Asia and what I had learned in the short time I had been in Ghana about sexuality, gender, roles, responsibilities, and education.”
In Ghana, Dr. Engelbrecht is using the approach she’s found effective elsewhere: Learn the culture, adapt programs and services to the country, and find local partners who can continue the effort to combat child sexual abuse.
“I prefer not to lead, but to support leadership,” says Dr. Engelbrecht, who points to the longevity of the center in the Philippines as her greatest success. “Starting projects is easy. Keeping them alive for so many years is the difficult part. The Philippines has incredible social workers.”
Her work there is not only alive, but also expanding. Center programs are now being revised specifically for the country’s Muslim population, with assistance from Dr. Engelbrecht’s professional contacts in Saudi Arabia. Dr. Engelbrecht says, “The whole issue of child sexual abuse, and especially how the profession of social work responds to the issue of child sexual abuse, requires a commitment to grow and learn new things as our world changes.”