Institutional • 01 May 2024
Educational games prevent sexual abuse in childhood

Educational games prevent sexual abuse in childhood

Joana Alexandre e Rita Agulhas


Professor Iscte Social and Human Sciences
Researcher CIS-Iscte


Professor Iscte Social and Human Sciences

Two psychologists have been researching ways to empower children to identify potential risk situations for sexual abuse and what to do about them. They have produced psycho-educational materials, and their action research has already spread to Cape Verde.

How did Iscte start working on the issue of child and adolescent abuse?

Rute Agulhas (RA) In 2011, I was invited to collaborate on some Curricular Units (CU) as part of the master’s programme in Community Psychology and the Protection of Children and Young People at Risk. One was on Sexual Abuse - Assessment and Intervention, as I have been working in this area as a forensic expert for 25 years. Then, there was a student who expressed an interest in delving deeper into the issues of primary prevention of sexual abuse, something that had not been studied in a more systematic way before 2013-14, and that’s how Joana and I met. We began to supervise this student’s thesis, Nicole Figueiredo, and in 2016, we published “Vamos Prevenir! As Aventuras de Búzio e Coral”, the first game for children aged 6 to 10. In Portugal, child sexual abuse is most prevalent in the 8-13 age group. We then created another game with different activities for another age group (3-6 years old). The educational kit “Picos e Avelã à descoberta da Floresta do Tesouro” is designed for preschool children.

We are currently finalising the “Vila Segura” card game, which aims at young people between 11 and 14 years of age, intending to increase their knowledge and develop their skills on sexual abuse, maltreatment, and bullying/cyberbullying.


Did the need to create educational products arise during your research and approach to this abuse problem?

Joana Alexandre (JA) Rute had experience in conducting expert assessments of victims and wanted to steer me towards a line of action research, a more applied component. There was a “marriage” of interests. From then on, we continued the process of always involving students from the Masters in Community Psychology and Protection of Children and Young People at Risk, both in developing new materials and in assessing them. It was essential to find out whether these games would increase the children’s knowledge or whether we could, for example, use a game designed for preschool children with slightly older children.
In this line of applied research, we first consider what professionals in Portugal need and evaluate the effectiveness of the materials developed.

RA The then President of the National Commission for the Promotion of the Rights and Protection of Children and Adolescents (CPCJ), Dr Armando Leandro, decided to offer the game “Búzio e Coral” to all the CPCJs that we had trained so that they could carry out primary prevention initiatives using the game. At the same time, the CPCJs collaborated on a first evaluation study of the game with children. It was a synergy. Today, the game is a resource for the whole community, and there has been incredibly positive feedback.

Are there no lines of funded research in Portugal aimed at action research on abuse and violence against children and young people?

JA As far as research funding is concerned, we must look for it. But we also do advocacy work on children’s rights - how they should be heard in court, for example - and we have started a collaboration with Cape Verde. We have also been involved in child-friendly justice projects. In this context, we have developed a website - Project 12 - for children of different ages and the professionals who listen to them. It brings together a range of materials for children from preschool age onwards and was created as part of a funding line applied for by the National Commission for the Promotion of the Rights and Protection of Children and Young People, with Logframe (who carried out an initial need assessment) and Iscte (through both of us) as partners.
We were also invited to Greece by the Aproximar Cooperative to present our materials in an Eramus+ project, and we found a lot of interest in them. Networking always brings opportunities.

Is this area of interest to the master’s students?

JA Absolutely! Every year, students are interested in doing a Masters in this field.

Do you see a lack of training in the bodies that operationalise the reporting of abuse?

RA Our system has some kinks that need to be ironed out. In the first line of intervention, it is essential to rethink the actions of schools and health centres, for example. Then, at a second level, there are the CPCJs, which must have train, supervision, and standardised procedures. Finally, we have the courts, the judicial police, and the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, which also need improvement.
At the Centre for Judicial Studies, we train court auditors and magistrates to listen to children in court. Together, we want to improve the intervention of the courts. The Judicial Police (PJ) also plays a key role in sensitising the CPCJ and schools so that they are called at once when there is suspicion of sexual abuse. Some schools still call the PSP when there is a suspicion of sexual abuse, but it is the PJ that should be called.

JA When many organisations are working towards the same goal, the big challenge is to work as a network but to work well. It has been a gradual process, and the procedures are more transparent. However, continuous training and dialogue between the different agencies are needed. For example, suppose a child is a victim of domestic violence or witnesses a murder. In that case, you must act at once, in cooperation with the school, the CPCJ and the police, in the best interest of the child victim.
In this context, Iscte is already responsible for monitoring the networking initiated by a pilot project (EEA Grants) called “A teu Lado”, which is taking place in Amadora, Loures, Seixal, Almada, Loulé and Faro. The action is quite different from one area to another. We will tell you how to make the network more effective.
In Cape Verde, where we worked most recently, the opportunities and weaknesses of networking are the same. There are gaps and challenges everywhere.

Primary prevention with playful and attractive materials aimed at children, should be a systematic effort developed over time.

Is the reality of sexual abuse in Cape Verde similar to that in Portugal?

RA There are similarities and differences. Sexual abuse happens more often in the context of the child’s family network, whether by relatives or neighbours, like what happens in our country. However, since 2020, with the pandemic, sexual offences against children have increased online.
In Cape Verde, there is another reality that the different organisations are still struggling to come to terms with child sex tourism on the islands of Sal and Boavista. We have quite different information about this phenomenon: some services claim it is a disguised reality, while others deny its existence. Let us not forget that many of Cape Verde’s GDP comes from these more touristy islands.
We have data from the public prosecutor’s office, the police and ICCA - the Cape Verdean Institute for Children and Adolescents. But there is still no integrated annual report. Without data, the problem stays more muted; that cannot happen.

When did you start working in Cape Verde, and who are your local partners?

RA An online event organised by ACRIDES - the Association of Disadvantaged Children of Cape Verde - started a reflection on child-friendly justice. They asked the CEJ for support, and the CEJ put my name forward, which is how this bridge with Cape Verde came about.
ACRIDES wants to set up a children’s listening room on each island, and they already exist on four islands (Santiago, Sal, Boavista and São Vicente). The listening rooms are based on the North American model and are a space with several rooms where child victims of sexual abuse are assessed and interviewed. They also have a medical observation room. These listening rooms have an audio-visual recording system, and the different professionals watch their interviews in another room. It allows the child to be interviewed fewer times and facilitates a more integrated and holistic approach.
They then asked us to provide training to equip better the professionals who will be using these rooms. We were in Cape Verde in November last year and, more recently, in March, training multidisciplinary groups of judges, police, teachers, psychologists, doctors, etc.

JA We have also developed a procedural guide specifically designed for this reality. In Portugal, in partnership with the Lisbon Regional Council of the Portuguese Bar Association, we started by publishing a Handbook of Good Practices for the Hearing of Children, which includes stories for children who will be heard in court, as an e-book: “O Dia que a Mariana não queria + João vai a tribunal”. These materials are completely free of charge. More recently, as part of Project 12, we have produced a Good Practices Guide for Professionals on “Audição da Criança” on the website. It is imperative to train professionals, not only in terms of training but also to provide resources. We have also produced a checklist to help professionals review and self-evaluate how they have listened to a child to improve their practice over time. It is always possible to improve, considering that the aim is to reduce the risk of the child being re-victimised.

It is essential to address these topics in school curricula, involving children in order to increase their knowledge and develop their skills.

Joana Alexandre e Rita Agulhas


And how did you create a game specifically for Cape Verde?

RA We took the games we had already developed in Portugal to Cape Verde and wondered if it wouldn’t be better to create a new game that was adapted to the specificities of the local reality, namely the family dynamics (childcare is mainly provided by the mother, and in many situations, the father is even unknown) or the enormous fragility in terms of health care and education. We thought that Cape Verde comprises nine islands, hence we could create nine themes. We kept the most cross-cutting ones that the literature suggests are particularly relevant and added three others: gender-based violence, children’s rights, and social and emotional skills. This game was developed for ACRIDES in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice of Cape Verde and with the support of the Embassy of the United States of America. And so “Picos e Avelã à Descoberta das Ilhas do Tesouro” was born, a “giant” game for children between the ages of 7 and 12.

JA ACRIDES has set up a national network to protect children and young people from sexual violence, and each island has a local network. Networking is also a legacy of the founder of ACRIDES, Lourença Tavares. One of her aims is for this network to be sustainable over time and positively impact communities.

Joana Alexandre e Rute Agulhas

You have said that the problem of child sexual abuse is a severe public health issue...

We are not alone in saying that! It is related to its high prevalence and the fact that it is a global problem and not a reality in developed countries. There is a strong negative impact in the short, medium, and long term, not only on the victims but also on their families, siblings, classmates, and the community in general. This impact is systemic. It is the high prevalence and global nature of the phenomenon that makes it possible to classify child sexual abuse as a public health problem.
In Portugal, there is a sensitivity to approach against bullying, domestic violence and dating violence, which are addressed in a more transversal way in the school context. It is essential to address these issues in school curricula, involving children from an early age - we suggest from the age of three - to increase their knowledge and develop their skills. In our country, the approach to child sexual abuse in schools still depends on the interest of teachers and educators, as there is no superior guidance in this regard.
Working on primary prevention with playful and attractive materials aimed at children should happen systematically over time. It does not mean putting the onus of protection and prevention on the child. Protection is the duty of adults, of all of us as a community.

Joana Alexandre e Rita Agulhas

Psychologists join the church commission on sexual abuse

Rute Agulhas, who was already a member of the Lisbon diocesan commission, has since the beginning of this month been coordinating the VITA group, set up by the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference to look after victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Portugal. In addition to psychological counselling, the group will also provide social and legal support.

In addition to receiving new complaints, this victim support organisation will also draw up a “prevention manual”. As of 22 May, it has activated contact platforms: by mobile phone at 915 090 000 or by e-mail at The call centre will be open from Monday to Friday, between 9am and 7pm, and will be manned by one of VITA’s board members. The work is also articulated with INEM for cases of greater fragility.

In addition to psychologist Rute Agulhas, the VITA group is made up of other psychologists with different specialisations: Alexandra Anciães, Joana Alexandre and Ricardo Barroso, as well as social worker Jorge Neo Costa and psychiatrist Márcia Mota.

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