Child Sexual Abuse –
the Invisible Demon around Us
When Jaya Menon*’s daughter, then 12, ran around their apartment complexes in Hyderabad with the various gangs of children, Jaya made it a point to call out to her from the windows every half an hour. Her daughter was told to stick to the group and come home for her mother’s permission before entering any flat. Even if it was only to drink water or collect a friend, Jaya’s daughter was to stand outside in the hallway. Now an adult, Jaya’s daughter doesn’t have very clear memories of these strict rules but she does remember that her mother or some trusted adult was never more than a shout away. Unobtrusive, but always present.
What Jaya feared was what many mothers fear – Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). She had been abused herself by a male family member when she was nine, and didn’t get much support when she tried to tell her mother about it. The memories had lingered and coloured her outlook on life. As her daughter grew, she tried to balance her desire to allow her child the independence she wanted with the protection that Jaya knew she needed. Other adults found Jaya’s behaviour overprotective but her husband Amit* who knew her story, supported and encouraged her.
Last May, when Aamir Khan featured CSA on Satyameva Jayate, the episode proved to be a vindication of sorts for Jaya and many other survivors like her. Shut up as a child, she saw on national television a renowned celebrity acknowledge and discuss what she went through. The show began with a nation-wide study by the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India, that concluded that 53% of study’s 12447 respondents, aged 5-24 years, had faced some form of sexual abuse. Jaya was nowhere close to being alone.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Broadly speaking, child sexual abuse is recognized as emotional, psychological and/or sexual exploitation of a child by an adult. It comes in many forms, from forcing a child to perform sexual acts under duress to exposing a child to pornography. It can emotionally and physically scar children for life, compromise their mental and physical wellbeing as adults and in severe cases, impede them from leading well-adjusted lives as responsible members of society.
As concerned parents let us separate fact from fiction in some common misconceptions about child sexual abuse:
CSA only occurs in lower class, uneducated or broken households.
Studies the world over show that CSA can occur in any kind of a home. A child from a single parent family is not necessarily more at risk than a child in a joint household filled with adults. A child who is taught rules of basic safety and whose guardians are obviously and openly keeping a close eye on his/her well-being, is likely to be safer than more neglected children. Abusers prey on children they can bribe or browbeat into keeping quiet about abuse.
Our children can only be harmed or abused by strangers.
An unsettling half of the abused children studied by the Ministry of Women & Child Development reported that their abusers were people they knew, usually a close family member but also often a trusted outsider such as a family friend, household help, tuition teacher etc. The devastation of this abuse of power can be incalculable. Sheela Malkani*, 36, a successful work-from-home professional, not only went through years of therapy (with full family support) to help her cope with the after effects of her sexual abuse as a child, but continues to regress into deep depression when forced to be in contact with her abuser at family occasions.
CSA only happens to girls.
Child sexual abuse is called so because it can happen to a child of either sex. In fact, the study by the Ministry of Women & Child Development noted that approximately 53% of the boys interviewed reported sexual abuse, shattering the myth that only girls are susceptible to abuse and should be protected. Lending open support to this understanding is Harish Iyer, an Equal Rights Activist and vocal supporter of child rights, who has often spoken about the sexual abuse he faced as a seven year-old. His story became inspiration for a character in director Onir’s landmark 2011 film I Am that talked about CSA.
Children don’t need to know about sex.
Shuktara Lal, a drama therapy professional who has worked with survivors of abuse, begs to differ. She emphasises that “It’s only when we start sex education that we can help our children understand what sex is all about. And it’s only then that we can honestly explain sexual abuse to them and tell them what they need to be careful about and, if they do experience something abusive, who they should go to immediately.” Sex education can be as basic as teaching a toddler to correctly identify and name body parts or as detailed as explaining pregnancy and intercourse to older children. There is no set age to have this conversation but it is best to discuss this with your child before they acquire incorrect information from elsewhere – such as an abuser.
Signs of CSA
Writing about her own abuse in the New York Times this April, Indian journalist and author Nilanjana S Roy noted that “the chief violation [is that] abusers did not ask us for permission to use our bodies as they pleased.” This sense of defilement runs deep in abused children, as adult survivors such as Harish Iyer and Cindrella Prakash know only too well. Like Iyer, Prakash has also appeared on radio and TV shows (including Satyameva Jayate), online chats and interviews to talk about the importance of recognizing, understanding and addressing child sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse is usually (though not always) indicated by inexplicable injuries, rashes and infections in a child – in the genital regions or elsewhere.
Other signs of possible abuse are overly sexual behaviour by young children, moods swings or depression, sudden terror of familiar faces or strangers, alcohol or drug abuse, problems at school etc.
A Mother’s Role
CSA is the invisible demon that sits on many a mother’s shoulder. Fears of CSA have otherwise indulgent mothers refuse permission for class trips, sleepovers, even birthday parties and play dates. It is the unnamed fear that pervades parenting.
Even mothers who claim not to know or care about CSA, because “it doesn’t happen in decent, educated families like ours” nevertheless follow the ‘rules’ of protection – insisting that a child be home before dark, that children stick together in groups etc. It is a subject that is widely considered taboo or indecent in India but… truth be told, we have all had our share of such ‘uncles’ – the ones who kiss young girls when drunk, or insist on the children sitting on their laps though the child is clearly uncomfortable.
Rohini*, blogger and mother of an 8 year old boy and a 4 year old girl, knows that she cannot protect her children from every danger there is, but she believes in arming herself and them as best she can. Although her mother finds her worries “paranoid” Rohini takes pains to educate herself on possible abusive situations, sifting through mainly online information, and has discussed safety and possible reactions with both her son and daughter. The way she sees it, safety education is vital “so they know right from wrong and are equipped to say no, call for help and confide in their parents if something were to happen to them. I think suffering abuse in a shameful silence can be far more harmful to a kid's psyche and self-esteem than the actual abuse.”
It is important that parents start teaching their children as early as possible where they should and should not be touched, that if they feel uncomfortable they are allowed to say “no”, loudly and repeatedly, that if a child comes to complain of any kind of uncomfortable incident, whether abusive or not, he/she will receive trust and support. We often urge our children to make physical contact such as handshakes or kisses but a friendly “Namaste” or “Hi” or even a smile is perfectly acceptable too. A forced physical gesture confuses a child’s innate sense of boundary. Younger children, especially ones who aren’t yet talking, should be bathed, cleaned or changed by you at least once every day, no matter how trusted your support system. Older children must be made to understand that internet usage is a privilege and comes with safety rules. Teach yourself and your children about online predators. Gowri Shetty* does not allow her teenaged sons to pass on personal information (phone numbers, addresses etc.) except in person and checks their Facebook accounts regularly.
Lastly, it is important that parents retain a sense of perspective. Discussing danger with children is far more important than refusing them permission to engage with the world, whether online or off. Since we cannot guard over our children all their lives, the best gift we can make them to is to teach themselves to keep themselves safe.
IN A NUTSHELL
How to keep your children safe:
- Discuss safe touch/unsafe touch.
- Listen to your children.
- Teach your child to protest.
- Do not insist on physical contact.
- Check your child.
- Reassure your child.
- Monitor internet usage.
- Draw information boundaries.
- Spend time online with your child.
- Don’t be paranoid.
This article of mine appeared in Mother's World magazine last September. I'm re-posting it here as a part of CSAAM 2014.