Chennai city is reeling in shock after news broke out about the sexual assault of a 11-year-old girl in an apartment complex over a period of seven months. Details about the case are still emerging. The police, meanwhile, has arrested 17 men who stand accused of the crime. While some of them allegedly sexually assaulted the child, others are said to have watched visuals of the crime and conspired to keep it a secret.
Whenever such incidents make it to the headlines, there is an outpouring of anger and subsequent paranoia. There are calls to subject the accused to immediate vigilante justice - as if that will resolve the crisis that we find ourselves in. The single most important question that we must ask is, what can we do as parents, caregivers and as a community to prevent such incidents?
The victim in this case is also hearing impaired. Studies have shown that children with disabilities are nearly 4 times more likely to be vulnerable to sexual violence than others. Given this, the parents should have been more vigilant about their child and her activities, especially when the case details suggest that she often returned home with visible marks on her body as well as exhibited behavioural changes.
Experts say that two-thirds of child sexual abuse victims do not have physical injuries, making it all the more difficult for parents and other adults to detect the crime. However, in the Chennai case, this isn't true. The complaint copy that TNM has accessed reads like an unending list of horrors. It's necessary, therefore, to ask uncomfortable questions about why it took so long for the incident to come to light. Even if the crime could not have been prevented, could the child's family have known it earlier had there been better communication?
Those who have worked closely in child sexual abuse cases concur that the onus of CSA prevention must also lie with the community, the family and not just law enforcement bodies.
What can parents do?
To all parents, safety of their children is paramount. However, parents should not believe that their job is done with a talk on safe touch and unsafe touch or stranger danger. It isn't. The talk can only be a part of a larger conversation towards establishing trust and creating an enabling environment where the child can confide in the parents about what is going on in his/her life.
a. Believe your child
Abusers, especially ones who abuse a child over a period of time, groom the victim into maintaining silence about what is happening. This may be in the form of threats or rewards; it can also be by conditioning the child that nobody would believe him/her if they spoke about this. Given that an overwhelming majority of abusers are people who are known to the victim - mostly family and friends - children find it all the more difficult to break out of the guilt and shame that they are subjected to by the abuser.
The parents' job then, is to instill in the child the belief that s/he will never be discounted and nothing is outside the realm of believability. It can be the other parent, a grandparent, relative, teacher, friend or whoever else. Your response to what the child is saying cannot be dependent on who the abuser is - this is extremely difficult but unless you come to terms with it yourself, you cannot blame the child for not speaking up earlier.
This means that you unconditionally respect your child's autonomy over his/her body - and whether it's "harmless" tickling from an uncle or something worse, you don't ignore it and look the other way because it's inconvenient to speak up.
b. Speak about sexuality
As the child grows, it's important to talk to him/her about sexuality. About their changing bodies, mind and emotions. The fact that this is nothing to be ashamed of and is very much a normal part of growing up. This cannot be an overnight discussion because the child does not grow up overnight. It has to be a gradual process initiated and sustained by the parent.
This not only makes the child open up to the parent more, it also empowers them with a vocabulary to articulate when something goes wrong.
c. Make them understand what consent means
Consent, in the context of sexual activity, means agreeing to participate in sexual acts. According to law, only an adult can give consent. It is illegal for an adult to engage in sexual acts with a minor, even if the minor has "agreed" to it.
However, while discussing consent, parents must also be cognizant of the fact that children explore their sexuality as they grow up and may participate in acts like peer touching among themselves. Just as it's important to tell them about sexual abuse by adults, it's equally relevant to talk to them about staying safe and respecting a peer's wishes.
d. Respond with a sense of proportion
If your response to anything confidential that your child tells you is panic and paranoia, you can be sure that the child will stop telling you things. While it is important to act, do it with a sense of proportion and in a way that it doesn't end up stripping your child of their privileges. For instance, if your teenager says someone flashed her when she was on her way to the supermarket, stopping her from going anywhere by herself is not the solution.
Children, as they grow up, crave more independence. They want to do things by themselves, be by themselves. Restricting their freedom in order to protect them may make them more secretive and less willing to open up about what's happening.
e. Be alert
In general, it's good to ask your child about what s/he did during the day - whom they spoke to, who they played with, who said what. This should not be done like a Spanish inquisition but in a conversational way where you are genuinely interested in knowing who they are shaping up to be as people. Not just checking for signs of abuse.
Many victims of abuse exhibit changes in behaviour and personality. Some do not. There is no one size fits all. But the more keyed in you are about what's going on in your child's life, the more likely it is that you'll spot something off right at the beginning.
What can the community do?
All said and done, it's near impossible for a parent to watch their child 24X7. It's the duty of the community to step up, too.
It's important to be more observant of adult-child interactions in our immediate vicinity and inform the child's guardians if you notice anything suspicious. This isn't limited to people we "other" easily like security guards or liftmen but also "people like us". Is an adult exhibiting extra interest in a child? Hanging out by the play area without reason? Taking pictures of children randomly? Assuming "responsibility" for the child without the guardian's knowledge (like walking them from the school bus)?
It's easy to keep quiet and believe you shouldn't poke your nose into other people's business. However, child sexual abuse isn't other people's business, it's everybody's business. It does not happen in a vacuum; it happens in a culture where there is resounding silence about it and perpetrators are confident that they will get away with their crime.
Chennai's horror story can happen anywhere. Your job as an adult is not to be a passive bystander, but to actively engage if the situation warrants any interference.
Note: TNM has run these suggestions by CSA experts and included their inputs.