Shattered Silence

Imagine a world where abusers are actually meted out the punishment they deserve. Where rapists are castrated, chemically or otherwise, where pedophiles are jailed, where physical abuse in any form on anyone is not tolerated and the law does take action. Where the police officers do not harass the victim or encourage them to relive sordid details, where the stigma of being a rape victim simply does not exist or where victims are encouraged to seek professional help for their undeniable pain. While all of the above are comforting thoughts, more often than not abusers hardly face repercussions for their despicable actions. Even though there can never be any comparison between abusers, child molesters/ rapists/ pedophiles are quite simply understood to be the scourge of our planet.
As adults in an increasingly volatile world, we are bombarded with an influx of information on how to deal with abuse, but hardly ever have meaningful conversations with our children on the dangers of the same. Before we aim to reach out to kids, we must understand the many facets of child abuse.
What is child abuse?
Simply defined, child abuse would comprise of any physical, mental, emotional and sexual maltreatment/ neglect of a child that either results in injury, lifelong emotional harm or in the absolute worst case – death. Caregivers and or parents are primarily the ones to be held responsible for any of the above actions.
The Economist Intelligence Unit(EIU) research programme conducted a research comprising of 40 countries and evaluated how they have responded to sexual violence against children. India was placed 13 out of these 40 countries. While on the surface that does not seem too bad, India has a huge lack of collecting data and several reports of abuse, molestation, rape are not filed to begin with.
Protecting our children :
For a majority of Indian parents, protection equates holding them back. Girls should not venture after dusk, should not wear shorts/ sleeveless/ skirts, should be accompanied by another male, the list goes on. What many of them fail to understand is girls are not the only ones being targeted, young boys are too. However similar rules are never applicable to them. Therefore identifying how best to protect both girls and boys is one of the fundamental things to do.
Often the easiest but hard way to inform children on potential abusers/ abuse is by having a open discussion with them about the ever present dangers. While its a rarity in Indian households to even speak to children about sex education, abuse/ rape are far more taboo to our minds. Unfortunately, adults need to push aside their own inertia on broaching these subjects and instead only have their child’s wellbeing in mind.
Identifying predators:
If all child molesters had some sort of giveaway it would make life so much easier. However, anyone can fit the bill. The nice old man who offers to babysit, your kid’s regular school bus driver, the aunty upstairs, what’s worse even your own family member. While the situations may not be as dire as you read it to be, knowing or having an understanding of who comprises a predator may go a long way in getting children to understand how to protect themselves.
Every child in every household has some vague understanding of “stranger danger”, but most of the abuse tends to happen through persons known to the children. While stranger danger should be stressed, children should also be equipped with handling the unwanted advances of known people. What we think of as harmless could mean a whole other thing to children. Pinching someone’s cheeks may look very playful from the outside, but honestly how many children enjoy being touched that way? If we watch carefully, they definitely try to squirm away, it is a natural response.
Beginning the conversation:
The first step in engaging children in conversation about abuse must begin at home. Parents cannot afford to be lackadaisical in thinking that “sex education” is the school’s responsibility. While schools do their own thing, the primary talk should begin at home.
Children, even young ones need to know about their bodies. That’s exactly what it should be – theirs and no one else’s.
How to talk “the talk”?
Every parent thinks it’s stressful to bring up the subject of abuse/ sexual assault/ rape when talking to children. It needn’t be that way. Having conversations with young children makes a world of difference when they eventually become teens. It is easier to broach the subject in detail then and teach them about their own changing bodies at a time when it is highly essential.
Children look up to their parents/ caregivers for pretty much everything when they are young. They don’t have to be scared or scarred, no matter how unpleasant the talk may be.
My body is mine:
While every household comes up with cute nicknames for body parts, their rightful names should be taught and children made to understand that some parts are definitely private. We have seen several kids walking around naked at home and while it is a example of their carefree spirit, it is not right or responsible as parents to allow them to parade in front of others in the same manner. It could be in front of aunts/ uncles/ cousins, anyone. Do not force children to undress in front of people (even relatives) if they are uncomfortable. Just because everyone in the room is a woman doesn’t mean your daughter can change her clothes in front of them.
Touch and tell:
Teach young kids about touch. It has been said that children begin to learn about sex right from birth. They learn to distinguish between females and males and are constantly exposed to touch, caresses and cuddles as infants. They pick up cues from parents and/or adults about their own bodies and explore as they grow. As kids it may be extremely difficult for them to identify good from bad touch. Teach them in layman terms which is which. Encourage them to report any uncomfortable situations, no matter how trivial they may seem to you. Remember playing “Doctor” or “Mummy Daddy”? While it is almost a rite of passage for young kids to grow up playing this, set clear boundaries. It is never right to ask a child to remove his/her clothes and also never right for your child to encourage another to do so. Equip yourself with the knowledge of healthy sexual behaviours that children have. Young boys and girls may find it interesting to look at their different bodies and while stumbling upon such a scenario may be shocking, always clarify boundaries. Parents should take the responsibility to instill the rights and wrongs about getting naked – either being asked or asking someone else to.
Watch it!
Oftentimes when kids are abused or maltreated, they tend to retreat within themselves – partly out of guilt and partly out of fear. The one rule all households should follow is to encourage kids to approach parents/ adults in the house without fear and talk about their issues. Look out for minute signs as children are capable of camouflaging their real emotions and may withdraw without being very obvious. Children also tend to “act out” and this may be mistaken for a severe case of “disrespect” in our Indian mindset. Not all acting out is disrespect.
Small children can easily be bribed with the prospect of having an extra piece of candy or watching their favorite shows. They could even be threatened with violence, either to themselves or to people/ things they love. While it’s impossible to make guesses, it bodes well when a child’s development and changes are closely monitored, so when changes do happen it is easier to pick on cues.
Be approachable:
Probably the most important part of having any conversation with kids is to allow them to trust you. Children, while they come across as very astute when it comes to playthings or play time, their trust building skills are very much in the developmental stage. They need reassurance and above all, trust they can see, touch and feel. If they do share secrets (no matter how childish they may seem), hold onto it. Enable them to open up by opening the discussion, set a time for everyday talk (or every week if you are busy) but make sure you check in with them. Make sure you are aware of who they hang out with, who their friends (and friends parents) are.
While Indian movies have long perpetrated the saying “ kids never lie”,in a scenario where abuse is concerned, it is always better to acknowledge the issue at hand before jumping into conclusions. Never dismiss when a child approaches you with stories of abuse. While every single accusation of abuse may not be true, it helps if it is investigated immediately. Children are very vulnerable and fall into deep despair when their words are not taken seriously. When the accusation is abuse, it becomes extra hard for them to approach someone else when the one person they thought could be trusted doesn’t believe them. Chances are when you simply make time for them, they may feel encouraged to talk more. Give them a chance to speak.
The most important lesson for both yourself and your child in the event of abuse is to understand that the real victim is your child. It is NEVER the perpetrator. He/she will forever be known as the abuser. Kids have a tendency to think they are guilty (maybe they didn’t share their toys with other kids, maybe they hid their candy away from others and they are being punished for their actions). As an adult, these thoughts may seem baseless but for children they could be coerced into believing they “deserve” the punishment for their behaviour. Reassuring them that they won’t get into trouble if they talk about the abuse is very important.
Children in all their innocence believe they are at fault. Remind them it is not their fault and they did nothing to beget their pain. Even if they did something wrong, remember it is never okay for anyone to hurt them.
Pass down wisdom, not wounds:
We were all kids once and we may have our own stories (or heard from others) about abuse. During our time, we may have never had the opportunity to discuss it with our parents or other adults at home, but thankfully the scenario (even though slow) it is changing in our country.
Remember to approach any event of abuse in your child (or child you know) from their perspective. It is very easy to say things like : Don’t play outside after 5 pm or don’t wear those clothes but it is not feasible in today’s world to live in such a sheltered manner nor is it advisable. While your experiences may have shaped you into what you are today, your experiences need not shape that of your children too. All kids must be taught “fun comes with responsibility”. Tell them why it is not advisable to play with unknown people, tell them why they should say no if someone asks them to remove their clothes, tell them why they should report to trusted elders if someone behaves inappropriately with them. Mere directions will only constitute for an authoritarian regime. Prevention of abuse is the best weapon.. But not at the cost of their freedom. Simply holding them back by not allowing them to experience life to the fullest will rob them of developmental milestones. Instead teach them right and wrong by modeling it and being more open.
Professional help:
Child abuse in any form is a serious setback. It often marks a make or break situation in the child’s life. Their feelings of trust, idea of relationships, choosing future partners all will be a direct result of how this is handled. While as parents, we can give them all the love and care, children will require professional psychological help to cross this. Do not hesitate to approach a professional and never equate this to a “dignity diminishing situation”. This has nothing to do with your or your family’s dignity. Professionals are equipped to deal with difficult situations and your child and your family will need all the psychological help you can receive. Abuse doesn’t have to ruin anyone’s life or stop anyone from enjoying their life, but unless the healing begins, moving past it may be difficult. Acknowledge yours and your child’s emotions and remember to seek help to channel it positively.
Like all parents across the world, we like to believe abuse happens to other kids. Not ours. While it’s comforting to live in a false sense of security, it is definitely not the right thing to do. You don’t have to look at everything with suspicion but there is such a thing called “healthy suspicion”. In a world like ours, it is impossible to keep tabs on everything. If it is not the next door neighbor, then it’s the 58 year old pedophile your daughter is talking to over on the internet. If it’s not the pedophile, it is probably his uncle who is taking advantage. The list goes on and on. Remember to look for physical, psychological and behavioural signs from your children. The only effective way you can be on top of things is to be in constant touch with them. Not by way of being in the same house, but by being their closest confidante. Child abuse is very much preventable and more importantly can be healed.
Talk now.