By Lesley D Biswas
For a child, there are few comforts greater than the warm cuddle of parents or elders whom they trust and the cosy lap of a caring grandparent. Some of our best memories are forged during childhood from experiences like listening to grandparents’ stories, and fun had at family gatherings with uncles, aunts and cousins.
While no child should be denied these childhood pleasure that are vital for their emotional development apart from being hugely pleasurable at their age, the recent news of a six-year-old girl from Lucknow being sexually assaulted and murdered by a colleague of her father is a gruesome reminder that our children are living among their biggest perpetrators, people whom they know and trust.
Recently, the debate over parenting expert Jane Evans’ suggestion that adults should seek a child’s permission before showing them affection met with mixed reactions. But, in a country where statistics show as many as 98 per cent rapes were committed by persons whom the child knew, and where parents often urge children to use terms like uncle, aunt or bhaiya [brother] for neighbours, shopkeepers or colleagues, experts warn of the downside of forced affection and the many connotations.
Vidya Reddy of Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based NGO, agrees that when elders encourage children to address employees and acquaintances by uncle, aunt or bhaiya it gives the person unbridled access to their child besides making it more difficult for small children to speak up against these persons in case one of them sexually abuses them as the boundaries are blurred.
According to Aarti C. Rajaratnam, a psychologist who specialises in childhood and adolescent mental health and co-author of the book Parenting: Innocence to InnerSense, “Children learn basic social etiquette and values like respect by modelling the adults around them. It’s therefore very important for parents to set the boundaries so that children are not confuse when sexual predators even if they are elders they trust, violate the touch rules.”
Children have a very strong opinion and demonstrate it all the time. They express their views in likes and dislikes be it choice of food, or refusing to kiss an elder who makes them uncomfortable. Vidya says, “Parents and caregivers must allow children to have their opinion and the freedom to express and exercise it.”
Small children must be further empowered by giving them complete right over their own bodies. Aarti explains a simple method how you can do this using a drawing of a boy and girl in swimwear. “Let children first identify parts of the picture like a ball or other things they fancy. Then speak to the child about what they are wearing, pointing out that the parts covered by the swimwear or undergarments are private parts and that they belong only to me. If someone wants to touch, see, talk about, film or photograph any of these parts I can say no, run away from there and tell someone I trust.”
Speaking about ‘good and bad touch’ rules, Aarti adds, “The simplest rule to follow is to let children know that when they do not like being touched or talked about in ways that make them uncomfortable, they have the right to say NO and get away from the situation or person.”
In a country where children are most unsafe at home, Vidya insists that a child’s safety should be the responsibility of parents and caregivers, and asks, “Why burden children with the pressure to stay safe and protect themselves? Parents and caregivers must ensure a safe environment for children.”
It’s easier for grownups to spot a suspect, since in most cases of child sexual abuse the perpetrator grooms their prospective victims over a period of time. Sometimes parents are a part of the grooming process, which begins with gaining the child’s and elders’ trust leading to unquestioned access to the child, especially when the child is alone. This makes it easy for them to operate and almost impossible for children to report when they are sexually abused.
Red Flags and Distress Signs
“People preferring to spend too much time with the child especially when there is no adult around is the most obvious red flag,” says Aarti. Unexplained gifts, special favours, favouritism towards one child, and adults who show undue interest in children are all equally unnatural behaviour and should raise suspicion in parents.
Signs like sudden dislike for someone, reluctance to be left alone at home or in the care of a particular person, withdrawal from friends and family are some indicators which shouldn’t be dismissed as a child’s moodiness, but are signs of your child’s distress.
Safety at School
Do you feel helpless the moment your child enters the school gate? Besides electronic surveillance and background checks of school personnel, you as a parent or guardian can ensure your child is safe through direct and indirect supervision.
Perpetrators are on the constant lookout for children who are vulnerable. They target lonely, depressed or children whose parents are too busy to listen to them because such children are less likely to disclose abuse.
Interacting with school authorities and personnel on a regular basis makes it difficult for the perpetrator to succeed. Parents and guardians who speak to teachers and are involved in their child’s school lives not only get to know about their ward’s day at school, this acts as a deterrent for teachers and school staff who may be inclined to abuse children.
Since students will not tell on teachers, you need to spot the indicators yourself, like when a teacher becomes overtly involved in a student’s life after the school hours or shows favouritism.
Emotional and regressive behaviour, fear of a certain teacher or school phobia are some indicators of a child’s discomfort and need to be investigated.
Lesley D Biswas is a Kolkata-based children’s author and freelance writer
Lead image: Pexels from Pixabay (for representative purpose only). Syndicated to CNBCTV18