TNM contacted three Bengaluru schools for children with intellectual disabilities to find out how they impart personal safety education.

Educating children with special needs on sexual abuse How schools do it
news Child safety Thursday, November 29, 2018 - 17:38

Child sexual abuse is traumatic and distressing for anyone who experiences, and the emotional scars often last a lifetime. And while all children are vulnerable, those with intellectual disabilities find themselves at a bigger disadvantage due to their disabilities and/or difficulty in communication, which also makes abusers target them more.

In India, 1.67% of the population between 0-19 has some form of disability. And 35.29% of all people with disabilities are children. Other estimates claim that 12 million children in India are living with disabilities.

Women and girls with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more vulnerable because of their lack of knowledge that non-consensual sexual acts are a crime. And a number of reports have already shown that while justice is hard to come by for survivors of sexual violence, persons with disabilities find it even more difficult every step of the way – from filing a police report to navigating the court system to getting compensation.

There has been a lot of conversation around personal safety education and its importance for children. And this becomes even more crucial for children with intellectual and/or physical disabilities due to their increased vulnerability. TNM spoke to three schools for special needs children and Enfold, an NGO that works to prevent and fight child sexual abuse, to find out how children with disabilities can be sensitised about personal safety.

Interactive methods and visual aid

To address the issue of sexual abuse, Enfold designed a toolkit called Suvidha to help children with intellectual disabilities, visual or auditory impairments, learn personal safety and sexuality etiquette. When neuronormative children are taught about issues concerning sexuality, it involves discussion, textual material and role play. For children with disabilities, especially intellectual and developmental disabilities, visual teaching, learning tools and aids are essential for better comprehension and retention, explained Renu Singh, a special educator, and Project Suvidha consultant at Enfold.

The kit uses flashcards, puzzles, puppets, visual sequences, file folder activities and other visual materials designed on the principles of structured teaching. The kit also includes 34 social scripts with relatable, detailed narratives and drawings on

  • bodily changes such as masturbation, menstruation, erection, wet dreams
  • understanding and managing emotional states like anger, anxiety, sadness
  • touches and permissions, personal safety rules
  • health and hygiene, among other concepts to teach various life skills effectively.

“These children need visual material that is structured, concrete, interactive and functional. For children with visual impairments, we are developing audio books along with tactile and embossed images. For those with auditory impairments, the visual materials can be used. Interpreters can use sign language to facilitate learning.” Renu said.

The kit also teaches children to manage themselves in social settings and seek help in times of trouble. “Understanding and recognizing safe and unsafe touches hold the key for the children to be able to resist (to the extent possible) and report any kind of sexual abuse. We teach children to approach their ‘safe adult’ when they face danger. A ‘safe adult’ may not necessarily be their parents or teachers as sometimes, caregivers are themselves the abusers. We don’t suggest who a ‘safe adult’ is, it is for the child to decide based on how the person behaves with them,” she added.

While creating awareness among children with disabilities, the information has to be delivered in a straightforward manner with no room for ambiguity.

“The key to teaching these children is consistency and repetition. The same information has to be given over and over. The rules have to be black and white,” said Dr Sangeeta Saksena Co-Founder, Enfold Proactive Health Trust.

Safe and unsafe touch

The special needs schools confirmed to regularly conducting sessions on safe touch and unsafe touch, using dolls and diagrams for students of all classes, right from nursery.

“We start with body awareness classes where we teach the students about private body parts through role play. For example, we give the children a situation where they could be in a cab. We then tell them that if the cab driver keeps turning back to look at them, or touch them, it is inappropriate,” said Rita James, the Principal of Asha Kiran Special Needs School.

Perpetrators of abuse are often people within a child’s close circle, such as relatives or neighbours. “During the awareness sessions, we are very straightforward with the students and tell them that an abuser can be anybody, including family members,” she added.

Keep Distance

Apart from role play and age-appropriate videos, children are also sensitised about child sexual abuse through stories and art-based therapies such as music, drama and dance. Students are taught to maintain one-arm distance from others and scream, “No, don’t touch!” when confronted with danger, said Usha Madan, psychotherapist and counsellor at Deepika School.

Individual attention

Rajini Padmanaban, the coordinator of Brindavan Education Trust, said that the school conducts individual sessions with parents of those children who may need help understanding issues of abuse and bodily agency.

“To some children with intellectual disabilities, it difficult to explain the idea of violation. It is hard to tell them that you cannot be hugged by everyone. In such cases, we involve the parents”, she added.

Anecdotal learning

The educators also encourage some students, who may have experienced discomfort in the form of, say, being stared at inappropriately, to share their experience with the class of eight to 10 students, if they feel comfortable.  

“When students see their fellow classmates discuss issues, they are able to relate to it. This makes them realise that they, too, have experienced, or can be, in similar situations,” Rajini said.

Role of parents

In many cases, parents feel that just because their child’s intellectual growth is limited, even their physical growth may be affected. So, parents continue to treat their teenage children as toddlers.

“Physical development occurs irrespective of intellectual growth. But parents fail to understand this. Parents need to stop sleeping along with their children, washing them, giving them a bath and undressing them if they do not need it. We tell parents to maintain optimal physical contact with their child because otherwise, such children cannot discriminate between safe and unsafe touch; nor can they understand if a physical gesture is an act of affection or an assault,” said Usha Madan.

Sexual abuse goes unnoticed when one does not understand bodily autonomy and privacy. Thus, an effort must be made by parents to make their children independent and self-aware, she adds. 

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