The stories of child sexual abuse in prominent Chennai schools that have been coming out on social media have led to a flurry of questions on the responsibility of educational institutions. Many of the schools mentioned in these allegations have gone on the defensive, denying that they had any knowledge about what was going on. Understandably, parents and alumni of these schools are upset, demanding greater accountability and swift action. But while schools must certainly be proactive in preventing child sexual abuse and put in mechanisms for dealing with complaints effectively, it's also important to have conversations about CSA at home. Many parents either bury their head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich or believe that a primer on safe and unsafe touch is enough.
But here's the thing â€” CSA awareness is only one part of personal safety and sexuality education. For a child to recognise an unsafe touch and report it, they need to understand a lot more about their bodies, how to interpret an adult's attention and what to do about it. When grown-ups themselves are often unsure about figuring out someone's body language, gestures and intentions, it is not surprising that children have trouble identifying abuse when it happens to them. Especially when the abuse is not violent. The child's body may even react pleasurably to it or they may enjoy the 'special' attention bestowed on them. It is important to understand that the scenario of abuse that we imagine in our heads â€” involving grievous injuries â€” may not be how it's happening in reality. In fact, many abusers work on winning the trust of the child slowly, with gifts and other signals of affection, before they push the boundaries one by one, leaving the child confused and conflicted about what's happening.
It is therefore necessary for parents to educate themselves and normalise conversations around sexuality at home. Communicating with your child and being aware of what's going on in their lives is the best way to prevent such incidents or at the very least be informed when something amiss happens. As a parent and children's author who has written on gender, sex and sexuality, I'm putting down my suggestions for parents on how they can initiate these discussions at home.
Understand CSA from a child's perspective
As an adult, you recognise that CSA is horrifying and criminal. However, your child may not give it as much importance as you do. In their world, an adult kissing their hand, ruffling their hair or giving them a present â€” even if it strikes them as strange â€” may not acquire the same meaning as it does in your mind. They may be more interested in playing, chatting with their friends and may even forget that it happened. This behaviour by the abuser, called grooming, is how they slowly get close to the child, gain and then breach their trust. This is why periodically chatting with your child about who they met, where they went and what they did, is so important. Such conversations should happen as mutual sharing rather than an interrogation where the child feels cornered and assumes that they have done something wrong.
Talk about your day, what happened at your workplace, and the people you met. Encourage your child to do the same, and probe gently if something beeps in your radar. For instance, if your child says that a friend's father joined them for games at a birthday party, there's no need to jump to the conclusion that the man is an abuser. However, you can ask what the game was on, if the 'uncle' spoke to your child, who won the game, which flavour was the birthday cake, who took them to the toilet when they needed to go and so on. There's no need to reveal to your child what the beep in the radar was unless necessary. The point is not to make your child paranoid and second guess themselves but to ensure that you are aware about what's going on.
Talk to your child about sex and sexuality
Children don't turn into adults overnight the day they turn 18. Their bodies and minds are constantly evolving, and they have opinions and questions about all of this. From a young age, teach them about their body, including their genitals. Use proper terms while doing so instead of nicknames and euphemisms that may confuse the child or instill a sense of shame in them. Answer their questions honestly and with as much information as you feel they may understand at that age. For example, if a three-year-old asks where babies come from, it's enough to say that the baby comes from the mother's uterus. If a six-year-old asks the same question, you can add some more detail and say that the baby is made of an egg from the mother and sperm from the father. You can use child-friendly resources to explain further if they have more questions. For instance, Sophie Blackall's The Baby Tree is an excellent picture book that talks about conception and pregnancy in an easily understandable and fun way for children.
It's also important to understand that children experience pleasure through their bodies, even if they may not recognise it to be sexual. Many young children know that touching their genitals gives them a sense of gratification though they don't know why. Don't shame them if you see them doing it. Nothing needs to be done to 'correct' this behaviour unless they're obsessed with it. Keeping an open atmosphere where discussions on the body and their feelings about it can happen without judgment will go a long way in helping them identify abuse and approach you if it happens.
You can also buy them books that they can read by themselves. There are several children's books in the market that deal with taboo subjects in a child friendly and accessible manner. Buying these books will encourage them to look for the right information and process it by themselves.
Equip your child with vocabulary
Even when a child recognises abuse, she or he may struggle to articulate what's happening. They may get the feeling that something is not 'right', but they may be unable to put it in words. Many adults teach children that an 'unsafe touch' is when someone touches the child in his or her private parts. But as explained earlier, this isn't necessarily the case. It can also subconsciously make them feel guilty for having sexual thoughts or initiating a sexual relationship as an adult. To put it in a nutshell, conversations on CSA should not fixate on genitals. Speak instead about bodily autonomy, and consent. All this may seem like too much jargon but it can be broken down to simple explanations and demonstrations. For instance, I chose not to pierce my daughter's ears when she was a baby and waited until she told me that she wanted to get it done; I also explained to her why I had waited â€” I wanted her to decide for herself because nobody, not even her mother, had rights to make a decision over her body and what she should do with it. Piercing ears has nothing to do with abuse but it was my way of instilling in her the idea of bodily autonomy. Similarly, I have never forced her to wear clothes that she doesn't want to or 'corrected' how she sits or walks because I don't believe I have the right to do so. Such reiterations need to happen consistently and not only in the context of CSA. It's how the child develops a strong sense of ownership over their body and learns to recognise it when there's a breach.
You can also introduce terms like grooming and how it happens as your child grows older. Again, this is not to make your child anxious but to make them feel empowered. When such discussions are normalised, they look forward to learning more and talking about it further with their peers.
Respect boundaries always
The cold truth about CSA that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals is that the abuser is most likely to be in the child's close circle. It is likely to be someone in the family or social circle of the child, including the school. This is why there should be no compromise on respecting boundaries. While parents are wary about their child interacting with a stranger, they're less likely to be on the alert when it is a grandparent, uncle or someone the family is close to. Changing the rules depending on the adult in question can be confusing for your child. For instance, you may take it seriously if your child says that the school bus driver tickled her and she didn't like it. But if she says the same about her grandfather, you may be dismissive about it. This mixed signalling can lead to a situation where the child is conflicted about approaching you when something goes wrong.
Understand that this is not about how you feel but about how your child feels. Before you do anything else, acknowledge that what your child did was the right thing to have done. Appreciate him or her for coming to you and tell them that you're proud of them. Next, go to the adult in question and have a frank conversation with them about what happened. Their intention is not of primacy here and in any case, it's difficult for you to judge what it was. Tell them politely that the child did not like what they did and to desist from it in future. An adult who genuinely cares for your child will understand where you're coming from. If the person indeed had malintentions, they probably will back off, knowing that you have been alerted. It's important for your child to know that you believe them and that you will act upon their word.
Some abusers may threaten children with dire consequences if they reveal the truth. They may threaten to kill a loved one, leak photographs of the child and so on. Be vocal about your unconditional support when you have discussions on CSA with your child. Tell them that you will always be on their side and that you will handle the issue if it is brought to your notice.
Despite all your best efforts, your child may still face abuse. In such a scenario, reiterate that what happened was not their fault, however guilty they may feel about it. Tell them that you will take care of them and ensure that it does not happen again. Think about the options open to you, depending on where the abuse happened and to what extent. Keep your child's interests in mind and make an informed decision about how to proceed further.
Also read: How to make schools safer for children: Interview with Tulir's Vidya Reddy
Sowmya Rajendran has published over 25 books for children and young adults. She's the co-author of the award winning coming-of-age Mayil series and Big Hero, Size Zero: Gender Talk. Sowmya is Features Editor with The News Minute and writes on gender, culture and cinema.