The number of child abuse cases coming to light seem to be increasing at an alarming rate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every hour, 4 children in India suffer from abuse. Often, in the same day’s newspaper, more than one child abuse incident is reported. Moreover, these cases are not restricted to a particular gender or economic class. In fact, contrary to popular perception, young boys are at a higher risk of sexual abuse than girls.
No parent feels secure today. Many parents are worried when they leave their child alone even in safe or secure places. I have an eight year old son, and whenever he goes down to play in our apartment complex, one part of me is always worried. This is despite the fact that I live in a gated community, where strangers are not allowed in without permission and small children are not allowed to go out on their own. This is in such stark contrast to our own childhoods, where we played outside our homes fearlessly and our parents were assured of our safe return.
Living in such times, the FIRST THING that we as parents should know is WHAT CONSTITUTES CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE. Most people erroneously believe it be only physical abuse. Inappropriate gestures or sounds with sexual intent, making a child watch objectionable content, all come under the category of abuse. It involves mental, physical and emotional abuse of a child through overt and covert sexual acts.
The NEXT most important thing is to MAKE YOUR CHILD AWARE OF ABUSE. Even a small child can understand the difference between private parts of the body and good and bad touch. I attended a workshop on sexuality during my college days, where during a session on child abuse, someone shared a very interesting anecdote. One of her friends had taught their young child about private parts and told her that if anyone other than her own parents touched her there, she should just yell, “Don’t touch my booboo”!!! Admittedly, it led to some fun and embarrassing moments, but the parents were at least secure in the knowledge that their child could scream out if required. Next, tell your child not to keep any secrets from mommy and daddy. This is important because typically, the perpetrator convinces the child that this is a secret between the two of them. Finally, parents should always keep channels of communication very strong between them and their children. It is only then that children will feel secure sharing their fears or negative experiences and emotions. For slightly older children – preteens and teens, it is important that parents start discussing sensitive issues such as attraction, crushes, relationships, sex and abuse. Children need to know that they have a right to say no when they are not comfortable in any situation. And also to not give in to peer pressure.
THIRDLY, be able to recognize any signs of sexual abuse in your child. I think it is important to be aware of any cues the child may be giving – any change in behavior, refusal to go to any particular place or meet a certain person, any kind of pain or any bruises on the body should not be ignored. Other symptoms could include insomnia, bed wetting, a clingier than normal child, or a child who is withdrawn. Guilt and shame or confusion are very common feelings a child might go through. A parent, sensitive to the child’s subtle changes will be able to recognize such feelings more easily.
It is also important to be aware that the ‘abuser’ can be lurking anywhere – in our homes, in our housing complexes, in schools or in public places – in the form of friendly uncles, household help, guards, conductors, even friends or older peers – you name it. It is well known that most cases of sexual abuse happen with people whom the child knows.
In this scenario schools and day care centres become very important in partners in children’s safety and security. A child spends more time at these institutions than at home. It is natural for parents to want to ensure that the safety measures being taken are sufficient. There are a number of things that schools can do safeguard their students against child abuse.
The first and foremost and also the easiest is to put in place physical infrastructure that can prevent abuse. Simple measures such as CCTV cameras in various parts of the school can be an obvious deterrent. Ensuring that support staff such as drivers, conductors, administrative department etc. are not allowed access to the school wing and have facilities that are separate from those of the students can also go a long way in enhancing security. Ideally there should also be a separation between senior students and the younger ones. Many young teenagers can also become perpetrators. School buses can also have CCTV cameras and any change in bus staff should be duly informed to the parents. A lot of the newer schools already have many of these facilities in place. Many day care centres allow parents access to live footage of the babies. Moreover, schools should have a no tolerance policy in cases of child abuse.
Secondly, it is important to educate both teachers and students about sexual abuse. This should be taught in all classes and children should be encouraged to reach out to an elder in times of difficulty. There should be anonymous helplines in place as well as counsellors in school. Schools should also put posters across the school, so that the issue of child sexual abuse does not become taboo to talk about. Teachers should also be trained about recognizing potential perpetrators as well as how to respond if a child approaches them or they observe a case of child abuse.
Finally, as a society, it is important that we act in a concerted manner against the menace of child abuse – be gentle and responsive parents, alert citizens and responsible educators and care givers. It is important to break the silence around the issue and mainstream the discussion so that more and more parents and therefore their children become aware of child abuse and prevent such cases. As a society we should be able to raise confident and secure children, children who live in safety and are free to reach their true potential.
This article was first published in April 2018 issue of The Education Insights