opinion

Noa Pothoven's story isn't about how she died. It's about the very real horror of child abuse.

Warning: This story deals with the subject of suicide and mental health issues and may be confronting for some readers.

Noa Pothoven died this week, at 17 years old.

On Wednesday, her story made international headlines. A teenager from the Netherlands had died from legal euthanasia, after suffering rape and child sex abuse. She had lived with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.

We immediately found ourselves stuck on the first detail: A 17-year-old had access to euthanasia. It was a detail that soon turned out to be blatantly incorrect.

While world news scrambles to correct its headlines, it seems we’ve entirely missed the point.

Whether or not the state assisted her or not, Pothoven decided before her 18th birthday that life was not worth living. She is not the first person to make that decision. To our great shame, young people choose to end their lives everyday. It’s the leading cause of death of Australians between the ages of 15 and 44.

One of the most difficult things for families affected by suicide is the questions they are left with. But Pothoven provided answers. And for some reason we’re not listening to them.

Pothoven’s story is not about how she died. It’s about why she died, and the rape and sexual abuse she endured when she was living.

Dr Saartje Tack, a lecturer at Macquarie University and an expert in gender studies and self-chosen death, says the biggest issue here is the “inherently sexist culture that made the life of this young woman [perceptibly] unlivable.

“We would rather be outraged by euthanasia laws and self-chosen death than to seriously engage with a sexist society and its deadly consequences.

“This is in and of itself a major issue, but it is also quite hypocritical that, on the one hand, we culturally enable and encourage the sexual assault and rape of young girls and women that makes their lives unlivable, while at the same time arguing that they need to continue living in these conditions that they find unlivable.”

In Pothoven’s own words, “After years of battling and fighting, I am drained.

“I have not really been alive for so long, I survive, and not even that. I breathe but no longer live.”

In her autobiography Winning or Learning, Pothoven outlined how she was assaulted at a school party at 11 years old, and at another party 12 months later. At 14, she said she was raped by two men.

“I relive the fear, that pain every day. Always scared, always on my guard. And to this day my body still feels dirty,” she writes in the book.

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Speaking to Mamamia, Chair and Founder of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, said child sexual abuse can take a young person’s life and completely change its trajectory.

“It often does destroy children’s lives,” she said, “It’s almost like a murder… it can destroy them while they’re still alive and it can destroy them to the point where they don’t want to be here anymore.”

Child sexual abuse can lead to anorexia, bulimia, depression, bipolar, anxiety issues and post traumatic stress disorder, a number of which were exhibited by Pothoven.

In order to focus on solutions, we have to start by addressing the gravity of the problem.

As Johnston put it, “in every classroom and in every preschool there’s a child who has been sexually assaulted… there are more kids in a year than could fill the MCG. One in five kids will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18.”

With that said, Johnston made it clear “if a child is sexually assaulted and is properly supported, if the police investigation is properly managed, is child friendly and that child has family support, then the child has every opportunity of going on to lead a perfectly normal life.”

“We need to respect, honour and value the testimony of the victims,” she added.

Child sexual abuse is not a death sentence, and with the right support and treatment, we are able to overcome the most traumatic of circumstances.

For Pothoven, the fear and shame became debilitating. Her mother Lisette spoke publicly about the “maddening” mental health system that made it so difficult for Pothoven to get the help she needed.

Perhaps without the word ‘euthanasia’ serving as a distraction, we can look at Pothoven’s story for what it really is. A young girl who was sexually abused and raped, and was left traumatised by the actions of her perpetrators.

It is a reminder, most of all, that the abuse of children is among the worst crimes a person can commit.

You can donate to Bravehearts, Australia’s leading child protection organisation, by visiting https://bravehearts.org.au/donate/

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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