Despite shocking cases of child sexual abuse making the headlines frequently, many parents and schools are still reluctant to confront the issue with the seriousness that it demands.
The sexual assault on a 3 year old child in a popular and posh Bengaluru playschool has acted as a trigger for more complaints. After the news broke out, other parents interrogated their children who go to the same playschool and have filed complaints that they too had been assaulted by the alleged offender.
Speaking to The News Minute, Vidya Reddy of Tulir, a Chennai-based NGO which has been fighting CSA for the past several years, calls this a "knee-jerk reaction."
"Subjecting all the children to some kind of Spanish Inquisition about what happened in the school, passing on the paranoia and fear to them doesn't achieve anything. I believe many of them have also been sent for a medical examination. As any doctor worth their salt will tell you, only 33% of CSA cases have any medical evidence, even in cases of gang sexual assault," says Vidya.
Vidya acknowledges that the concern parents have about other incidents of sexual abuse is valid but believes there should be a clear-cut protocol in place to deal with school abuse which does not cause "undue distress" to the children.
"Bad intervention is worse than the primary abuse," she asserts. "According to what I've read, the child has been questioned by the teachers, the principal...what is the point? Children are not walkie-talkie toys that you wind to make them say the same thing again and again."
Going by reports, the school has been grossly negligent - the young children were sent to the male staff to be "disciplined" when they were being "naughty". Their clothes were changed in his presence and he was permitted to take the children to the washroom.
Worse, when some children mentioned their discomfort to a teacher, it was brushed aside. The school's director has been defending the accused as a "loyal member" of the staff, someone who has worked with them for a period of 8 years.
While the school's response is disconcerting, it is very much along the lines of other cases we've seen, particularly the horrific incident at VIBGYOR International in the same city. However, what is even more worrisome is how late the issue has come to light, given that this was not an isolated incident and there are allegedly other victims involved.
Why didn't the parents realise what was happening earlier?
"I believe the parents have abdicated their responsibility by not putting enough safeguards in. Many of them have a laissez faire attitude which suits their convenience," Vidya points out.
Admittedly, these are very small children we're talking about and not all of them are equipped to communicate clearly about what happens at school with their parents. Some don't tell them about anything that happens, even the good stuff.
"Obviously, the child will not tell," says Vidya. "Even if you have a very congenial home, the child may not speak about what has happened...it depends on the grooming that the abuser has done. There are many children who may not talk about it because parents are so judgmental and caught up in their own lives."
Grooming can range from giving the child "special attention", to bestowing money, gifts and other privileges. Abusers are often manipulative, coaxing the child not to reveal the abuse to parents because they will not believe the child, or may even be disgusted by the child. Threats, too, can happen.
There are several behavioural changes associated with victims of CSA. However, according to child development specialists, these changes can occur when children face any kind of stressful experience in their lives and not necessarily sexual abuse.
But even though Vidya says there's no foolproof method to identify abuse, what a parent can do is to create an atmosphere at home where children are not shamed for sharing their views or experiences.
"If a child comes and tells a parent that such and such thing happened to a friend, and the parent's reaction is 'Chiii...how bad of your friend to talk like this!', that's it, the shutters will come down. The child is not going to tell you more," says Vidya. "Even if it's not your child, you should show some amount of concern and response about what's happening. You can't ignore it."
Vidya says there should be no room for second guessing abuse and that when a child shares such an experience, an adult shouldn't try to "rationalise" it in any way - by dismissing the child's story as a "fairytale" or that the whole thing was "misunderstood".
"There's a whole list of things people do and tell themselves, because they don't want to believe what the child is saying," says Vidya, stating that the first thing parents should do is rid themselves of this bystander mentality. "Even just showing interest in what's happening can act as a deterrent if someone has something sinister in intent."
The other problem is the unwillingness shown by many parents to talk about the body, or anything to do with physicality, let alone abuse.
"It's not easy to be a parent. You sometimes have to swallow your discomfort and muddle through it," Vidya notes. She recalls an instance when a parent had taught their child the euphemism "flower" for her genitals and the child later told the parent that someone had hurt her "flower". The parent, however, had forgotten all about the euphemism and ended up saying, "Oh then just pluck another one."
"There is an abdication of responsibility by adults, we're letting down children by passing on the responsibility of preventing child sexual abuse to them," avers Vidya.
Given that CSA is widely prevalent, cutting across social classes, how should a school respond when such an allegation is made?
"Once an instance of abuse has come to light, a school should call for a parent meeting, however uncomfortable it is," says Vidya. "You need to address the parent body."
Acknowledging that abuse can happen anywhere and to any child is absolutely necessary.
"A safe school is a school which accepts the possibility of any child being abused. Either at school or at home. And is willing to put safeguards in place to address that concern. An unsafe school is one which says oh children in our school don't come from such background, we know everything about people who work in our school...so therefore, no abuse can happen. We've worked very rarely with such safe schools - ones that address the parents, file police cases, ones where intervention happens with the child in mind," says Vidya.
Child sexual abuse is a complex issue but the first step to prevent or stop it is simple: accept that it happens. Listen to the child when she or he trusts you to believe their words. And as a grown-up, don't turn the other way and ignore the elephant in the room.