Child sexual abuse (CSA) is any act directed at a child by an adult or older person for the sexual gratification of the said adult or older person. It could include fondling or sexual touching, rape or attempted rape, exhibitionism, pornography and sexually explicit talk.
A recent survey conducted revealed that 53% of children in India have been sexually abused and 50% of sexual offenders were known to the victim or were in positions of trust like a family member, close relative, friend or neighbour. Boys are equally at risk as girls, with the onset of abuse as early as 5 years of age! Children of all socio-economic groups were found to be equally vulnerable. Although most abusers are male, females could well be abusers too.
CSA can have long term negative effects on the child such as social withdrawal, low self esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, inappropriate sexual behaviour and even relationship issues as adults. Unfortunately, children who are abused often keep quiet and refrain from talking about it. As parents, the responsibility is on us to protect our children and empower them with age appropriate knowledge about protecting themselves. We can prevent CSA by being aware and engaged with our children.
Some of the physical and behavioural indicators of CSA are:
* Difficulty in walking or sitting.
* Discomfort in urinating or defecating.
* Recurrent urinary infections (especially in girls).
* Anxiety related disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
* Bruising and other injury especially in the private parts.
* Sudden fall in academic grades, poor memory or inability to focus.
* Social withdrawal - the child becomes very quiet, tries to avoid interacting with family or friends.
* Regression to behaviour like thumb sucking, talking in baby language or bed wetting.
* Tendency to cling.
* Complaints of headaches, stomach pains or nausea without a physiological cause.
* Difficulty in sleeping and fatigue.
* Poor self-care.
* Wearing provocative clothing or wearing layers of clothing either to hide injuries or appear unattractive.
* Inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviour.
* Self injurious behaviour like body mutilation, suicide attempts, alcohol or drug abuse.
(Note: While these physical and behavioural changes may be indicative of sexual abuse, they are not necessarily evident of sexual abuse as there could be other factors too which cause these changes.)
Talking to a child about sexual abuse is not easy but not talking about it is not an option either. Much as we equip them with personal safety skills like what to do in the event of a fire or safe road crossing, protecting their bodies is also an essential skill with which we have to equip them.
Here are some things you can do to empower your child:
Teach them the Right Vocabulary
It is important to equip children with the right vocabulary of private body parts. Often they are unable to talk about inappropriate touching because they don't have the words at their command. Just like we talk to them about their eyes, elbows or nose, we have to talk about their vagina or penis, as omission of these parts from their vocabulary may result in the child feeling guilty about these parts. In India we often give such parts a different name because we are ourselves embarrassed about it. This further confuses the child.
Teach them about Safe and Unsafe Touch
Explain to them that things like holding hands with friends or getting a warm hug from parents or being examined by the doctor are examples of a safe touch that make them feel good, happy and safe. Anything that makes them feel uneasy, unsafe or confused like the inappropriate touching of their private parts is termed an unsafe touch. They also need to know that it is never appropriate if they are told to keep a touch secret.
Emphasise the importance of saying 'NO' to any touch or action that makes them uncomfortable or confused. They should be taught to say 'No' loudly and get away at once from the person. Do make sure that they are not pressurised to accept or give hugs to anybody who makes them feel uneasy. Also respect your child's sentiments if he/she expresses reluctance to touch or hug someone.
The 3 Important Rules for Personal Safety
Teach your child the 3 most important rules for personal safety:
The first rule is that it is never all right for someone to touch, look or talk about one's private parts except to keep them clean and healthy (for example it is ok for the mother or caregiver to bathe them). It is also never alright for an older person to ask the child to touch, look or talk about the adult's private parts.
The second rule is that if someone breaks this rule, the child has to say 'No' as loudly as possible and run away from the person.
The third rule is to teach them to confide in someone they trust and keep reiterating until they get the help they need. In short - 'NO', 'RUN' and 'TELL'.
Guidelines for Age Appropriate Topics
Do give all relevant information in an age appropriate manner.
3 to 5 years: teach your child about proper names for body parts and how to say no to advances.
5 to 8 years: discuss safe and unsafe touch and how to keep safe when away from home.
8 to 12 years: emphasise personal safety and rules of sexual conduct.
13 to 18 years: discuss rape, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
While these are broad guidelines, do use your discretion as per your child's maturity and understanding.
Pay Attention to Their Feelings
Do let your child know that his feelings are important to you. Convey to him that you will protect him at all costs and take his word if he feels uncomfortable about a person or situation. Keep communication lines open and assure your child of your unconditional support. Building the child's self-esteem is very important and this can be done by validating his feelings and spending time with him. Encourage them to talk about any topic so that they are well informed.
Keep an Eye on Your Child's Whereabouts
Get to know where your child spends his playtime and keep an eye on the adults who frequent the place. Pay particular attention if you find any adult keen to engage with the child than with other adults. Often perpetrators use tactics called 'grooming' to draw the child into a relationship, like offering treats or gifts to the child, singling out a particular child for special attention or offering special favours. Also make unannounced visits to the place where your child is being cared for - home, day care centre, nursery or school
Build Support Systems for Your Child
As parents you are the first line of support for your child but in the event that you are not available, have your child write down the names of people that they trust with their phone numbers, so that they have a back-up support system in place for an emergency. Emergencies could even mean a fire, getting hurt or being lost. Younger children can draw pictures and given other instructions. They should also be taught never to give personal information to strangers or to people who make them feel uncomfortable.
Use Teachable Moments
As your children grow up, create a conducive atmosphere at home to discuss sexual topics so that they do not get information from their friends that may not be reliable. Use news items, articles in the newspaper/magazines or relevant films to start discussions on sexual safety.
When Both Parents Work Outside the Home
It is particularly important to set up checks and balances to ensure your child's safety. Since the abuse is likely to happen when you are away, let your children know that it is ok for them to call you at work if something happens to distress them. You may also need to be more watchful for signs and ask leading questions.
On the other hand, the presence of a stay-at-home parent is no guarantee that sexual abuse will not happen, so ALL parents need to be vigilant.
Sexual abuse of children is preventable if we follow these simple steps. As the primary care givers of our children, we have to provide a safety net for them to protect themselves. CSA will not stop unless adults take effective action on behalf of the child to protect her. And this includes empowering children to participate in their own protection.