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Last Updated Monday November 20 2017 11:11 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Empower your child against sexual abuse

Nirmala Ferrao
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Abuse, sexual abuse, rape (Representative image)

As a caring parent, you know that the safety of your child is primary. So you tell him not to fly his kite near a power line, and you tell her to cross the road only when the light is green, and you tell them not to play with fire. Have you also told them that their body is their own, have you told your daughter that she should say “No!” – loudly – if the helper in the school bus tries to lift her on to his lap, have you told your son that he should never allow anyone – not even his best friend at play – to fondle his private parts?

If you haven’t armored your child against the risks of sexual abuse, you fall neatly into the ranks of the overwhelming majority of Indian parents.

For a long, long time, Indians have cocooned themselves in the smug belief that child sexual abuse is something that happens only in the “decadent West”. A nationwide survey by the government of India in partnership with UNICEF severely jolted that belief. It found that over 53 percent of the Indian children surveyed had been sexually abused. That is more than one of every two children. India has the world’s largest number of sexually abused children. Seems that child sexual abuse has been one of India’s best-kept secrets.

Unfortunately, most parents have remained out of the information loop, unaware of the findings of this survey, the largest in-country study of its kind in the world. When “Satyamev Jayate” telecast a programme on Child Sexual Abuse, host Aamir Khan asked parents in the audience to give him their estimates of the extent of such abuse in India. The answers ranged from “2 percent” to “about 10 to 12 percent”. Nobody thought it went higher than that. These were urban, middle-class, educated parents.

Read: Heal Thy Self | How to comfort a grieving person

The responsibility for empowering your child against sexual abuse must begin with you, as the primary caregivers. Unfortunately, for several reasons – including the veil of timorous embarrassment that still envelopes the subject of sexuality in India – most parents have a mental block that prevents them from being proactive in protecting their children against this form of abuse. It’s like allowing your child to walk a minefield, while hoping and praying that a mine doesn’t explode.

That’s not good enough. Whether or not you believe your child is currently at risk, it is imperative to take pre-emptive steps to minimize the likelihood of it happening at all.

Educate yourself. This point cannot be stressed enough. There is far too much misinformation about child sexual abuse and sexual predators running rampant. Before you can impart adequate safety information to your child, you need to ensure you have a sound knowledge base yourself. For instance, you should know that:

In the vast majority of cases, the offender is a known and trusted person.

Read: Heal Thy Self | The art and importance of forgiveness

(The term, “abuse”, always implies an existing relationship. So, virtually by definition, “sexual abuse” is different from “sexual assault” which means being attacked by a stranger, and which would be handled solely by the police and the criminal courts).

The government survey found that, in an overwhelming number of cases, the abusers were known to the child or were in a position of trust and responsibility (relatives, neighbours, teachers, school authorities, private tutors, baby-sitters, day care providers).

Within the family (and extended family), studies in India show, “uncle” and “cousin” are the most frequent offenders. But “father” and “brother” also weigh in at 4 percent each. Outside the home, neighbors and “as if” family members rank as frequent offenders.

» You may believe your child is safe because s(he) has never mentioned any untoward occurrence to you. The survey showed that most sexually abused children don’t tell anyone.

» It is not only the girl child who is at risk. In fact, contrary to the general perception, the survey found that the majority of victims – fully 57 percent – were boys.

Read: Heal Thy Self | Here's how to deal with a control freak

The research that exists on boys shows that boys tend to report differently, more readily choosing to deny their abuse or to act like they enjoyed it.

» Though men are the perpetrators in most cases, women too are offenders in about 3 percent of cases.

» Of vital importance is that the survey found that 2 percent of the children had been abused below the age of 4, a period when they would, in all probability, have been under maximum care and protection.

» There is no prototypical victim of child sexual abuse. Any child may be victimized. That said, predators more often target children with obvious vulnerabilities. A child who feels unloved and unpopular will soak up adult attention like a sponge. Children with family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem, are all likely targets. Successful predators find and fill the voids in a child’s life.

» Another widely prevalent myth is that children with disability are not at risk of sexual abuse because predators do not find them attractive or because they feel sorry for them. In fact, the statistics show that children with disability are 2-3 times more likely to be abused.

Read: Heal Thy Self | How to ensure your unborn baby’s mental health

The “good-touch, bad-touch” rule may not go far enough. Teaching our children the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch” has been advocated for quite some time as a means of protecting them from sexual abuse. It sounds like a good catch phrase, and makes sense to parents. What constitutes “good touch” and “bad touch” has been variously defined. In the “Satyamev Jayate” programme, as also by various professionals in the field, “bad touch” is defined as the touching of three body areas: the chest, the buttocks and the area between the legs. Other professionals add a fourth area – the mouth. So, at the level of specifics, “good touch” would include shaking hands, patting the back, ruffling the hair. “Bad touch” would include fondling the private areas, kissing the lips, and penetration.

Child torture (Representative image)

But this definition is both, incomplete and misleading. What about the older cousin who persuades your son to take off his clothes, “so that I can take a nice picture of you”? What about the brother-in-law who says to your daughter: “See, my belly button is an ‘outie’, it pops out, let’s see if yours is an ‘outie’ or an ‘innie”

There’s a whole range of behaviours that do not involve touching a child in those three or four areas labelled as taboo, but which still constitute child abuse. For instance: persuading or forcing a child to perform oral sex on the abuser; rubbing one’s genitals against a child’s shoulder; tickling, ear-licking, stroking or kissing non-sensuous body parts.

The predator’s first physical contact with a child is often non-sexual touching designed to test the waters and to increase the child’s acceptance of touch. It could be an “accidental” touch, an arm around the shoulder, a ruffling of the hair.

There are also other acts that do not involve touch at all but, once again, are clearly acts of sexual abuse.

Examples:

» Exposing one’s private body parts to a child (exhibitionism)

» Forcing a child to watch the abuser masturbate

» Playing sexual (“pants down”) games

» Encouraging or forcing a child to read/watch pornography

» Looking at a child in a sexual way

» Making suggestive comments to a child that are sexual in nature

» Undressing in front of the child

» Watching a child in a state of nudity, such as while undressing or while using the bathroom, with or without the child’s knowledge (voyeurism)

» Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts

Each of these behaviors is sexual in nature, yet none of them matches the profile that good touch, bad touch covers. So, instead:

Teach your children that their body is their own. Between spankings at home, corporal punishments at school, being forced to hug or kiss uncles and aunties when they don’t want to, and having the neighborhood bully wrestle them to the ground or pull their hair to the roots, children can very easily get the message that other people (and not they) are in control of their bodies and can impose their will. This skews the pitch in favor of the abuser.

Child abuse (Representative image)

Instead, by instilling in your children the conviction that their bodies are their own, and that no one has the right to make them feel uncomfortable or touch them against their will, you give them a valuable life skill, not just a skill to be used in highly-charged situations that may involve abuse. Every child needs to have this message hard-wired into his psyche: “I have a body that is my own and no one else’s. And I want it that way. I can choose who touches it.” And then, by extension: “I feel good when nana gets me into her lap and tells me a story. But I did not feel good when 'uncle X' blindfolded me and said, ‘Now, I’m going to spin you around. Come closer so I can reach you’ – so, I told him I didn’t want to play that game, and I pulled the blindfold off. My body is mine. I can say, ‘No, don’t touch me’.”

Teach your child to recognize “grooming” behavior. This is the process by which the predator increases access to his potential victim, and decreases the likelihood of discovery. He’ll use emotional seduction as the most effective way to manipulate children. He may spend time playing games with them, offer them lifts to school, or buy them treats and gifts as tokens of friendship. And he will often offer a sympathetic ear. ‘Other kids make fun of you? I know what that’s like - it was the same way for me when I was your age. Your parents don’t understand and trust you? Oh, I know what that’s like - your parents never really want you to grow up. But I trust you. I respect you. And I’m here for you – you know that, don’t you?’

At some point during the grooming process, a predator will usually introduce secrecy, a gambit to bind the victim to him. “Your parents don’t like you to eat golas? Come, I’ll buy you one, but let it remain our secret.” Later on, secrecy joins hands with threats: "If you tell your mother what happened, you’ll pay for it.”

Teach your child the correct vocabulary of sex. While imparting knowledge about sexuality should be age-appropriate, as a parent you need to work at getting over your own inhibitions so that you get comfortable about talking to your children regularly about their bodies.

Making sure your children know the correct names for their body parts is especially important. If your son knows that he has a penis and suddenly starts referring to it with strange pet names, you need to calmly bring up the question about where those names came about. Most predators don’t use the words “vagina” and “penis” during abuse. So, if your daughter comes to you and says, “Uncle hurt my vagina”, what occurred is more clear than if she says she has a pain in her stomach (which is what small girls who have been abused commonly say if they do not know the word, “vagina”).

Dump the doctrine of unquestioning obedience to authority. This is one of the dictums that Indian parents often inculcate in their children: to unquestioningly obey any and every authority figure. In effect, that includes anyone older than the child. But this fallacious teaching – that respect means unquestioning obedience to authority – can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse by those older to him.

Know the only warning sign you may ever get. Child molesters are not, by and large, social misfits. They don’t come announcing their presence with a leer. They don’t, on the outside, appear in any way different from other people. Many of them impress others as dedicated, responsible family persons and are good providers.

Perhaps the only overt warning sign that could put you on alert is that the person seems to be spending too much time or showering too much attention on your child. Is there a relative or neighbor who:

» Constantly maneuvers to get time alone with your child?

» Insists on hugging, touching, tickling, kissing, wrestling with or holding your child even if the child does not seem to want this affection?

» Buys your child expensive gifts or gives him or her money for no apparent reason?

» Is overly interested in the sexual development of a child (Example - talks repeatedly about how fast her body is growing)?

» Spends most of his / her spare time with children and shows little or no interest in spending time with people his own age?

» Frequently intrudes on a child’s privacy, for instance walks in on a child in the bathroom?

These are red flags. Don’t ignore them.

Create a bonding with your child based on unconditional love and acceptance. The safest child is the one who can talk about anything to his / her parents without fear of rebuke or punishment. If your child knows that she can tell you that her hobby-class teacher put his arm around her shoulder today and didn’t seem to want to let go, you can get an inkling of what that teacher might be up to, and you can nip his overtures in the bud.

If your child tells you something of this kind, do listen to your child and trust him / her. Children have their own instincts and those feelings should be respected. Speak up, take action when these warning signs are brought to your notice. Don’t hesitate even if it’s a close friend or relative.

Your message to your child should be unequivocal: “I love you unconditionally and am always here to listen to you without judgment or blame.”

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist.)

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