Talking Gender
We need to tell children about the consequences of their actions. Tell them about hormones and curiosity.
PTI

When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.

Shrishti's* mother was caught off-guard when she got a telephone call informing her that her daughter had been hospitalised. 

But before she could reach the hospital, to her shock, her daughter had given birth to a child.

Shrishti, a Class 9 student living in Bengaluru, had carried a full-term pregnancy without the knowledge of her parents. 

Enfold India, an NGO working for the prevention of child sexual abuse says Shrishti was one among three cases of minor girls getting pregnant that they came across in Bengaluru in 2015.  

The boy she was involved with was studying in Class 10 and they had both been sexually active for some time. He was later sent to an observation home. 

"The girl said she had no clue that she could get pregnant," Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold says adding that these cases are prevalent across economic classes. 

But Kushi points out, "There's ignorance among both children and adults. In this case, the mother was a smart woman who cared about her children and yet she did not notice her daughter being pregnant."

She adds, "We need someone to tell them (children) the consequences of their actions. Tell them about hormones and curiosity and also that it is not their time now. And that it is illegal for them to engage in sexual activity and they can jail to jail for it."

Such cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Years of silence around the subject of “sex” and the culture of shame associated with it has exacerbated the problem of misinformation.

Sexuality education, also referred to as personal safety or life skills education, is often confused with sex education.

"They think it teaches children how to have sex. But sexuality is so much more than just the physical act of having sex. It includes gender, identity, body image, consent, abuse, roles, relationships, values, and attitude," says Prabha Nagaraja, Executive Director of Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), a not-for-profit working on issue of sexuality.

With children having unrestricted access to information, including false and half-baked ones, on the internet, and rising cases of child sexual abuse, sexuality education has never been deemed more important that it is now.

Prabha says the need of the hour is age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education. "Young people should be given accurate information in a non-fear based way, and skills that will help them negotiate and take decisions."

Sexuality education should start when children are younger by naming body parts with no sense of shame attached to it.  "Why is it that small children who do not know what sex is know that there is shame attached to body parts and genitals?" asks Kushi. 

While it is normal for children to be curious, Prabha observes that answers that are simple and given in a matter-of-fact way can satisfy a child's immediate curiosity. "But it is the adults who feel discomfort. They think 'what if the child asks more questions?'"

A sense of trust should also be inculcated in adults so that children feel confident enough to approach them and share their fears and problems. 

At the school level, teachers can be more aware of gender roles and make sure they do not perpetuate stereotypes. 

During a teacher training session conducted by TARSHI, Prabha recounts a teacher narrating to her a conversation she had with a student.

"The teacher asked the student "what did your mother give in your tiffin today?". She later realised how she had assumed that only the mother, and not the father, would have packed lunch for her."

Vidya Reddy of Tulir, an organisation that works on the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse in India, feels that boys and young men need to be involved in the process of bringing about change.

"For long the emphasis has been on women- women empowerment, women education. And women have come far is several spheres. The men, however, are in the same place, sitting with feudal mindsets. They don't know how to deal with the change,” she states.

Vidya believes that the news provides us ample opportunities to open up conversations with our children. But we hardly use them. "When Nirbhaya happened, even if you were sitting in the boondocks you couldn't have missed it. But how many of us discussed rape or molestation with our children? We are missing out on teaching moments that are being served to us on a platter." 

The attitude of shame attached to sex and victims of sexual abuse is so ingrained that parents of sexually abused male children have often told her "Oh thank god he is a boy! He at least won’t get pregnant."

The younger generations too have been conditioned to a certain extent.

In 2014, Vidya was speaking at a Chennai college when she asked the students, all girls, if they thought clothes mattered when it came to women's safety. 

To her shock- and something that left her speechless- one student replied, "Ma'am it's not about clothes, we are the weaker sex."

Sangeeta Saksena, co-founder, Enfold, states that while parents are deeply concerned about what their child eats and what goes inside their body, they don’t pay enough attention to what goes into their brains. 

“Sexuality education is important because if parents and teachers don't provide information to children, the latter will get it from elsewhere,” she says.

And not knowing how to approach the subject with their kids is not a good enough excuse. 

Sangeetha points out, “Many parents today were born at a time when there were no computers or mobile phones. But they have learnt to use technology. Why can’t they learn to talk to their child about sexuality? It is for their children's safety. When 53% of children face child sexual abuse, it is not a joke.”

She suggests that changes also need to be made at a policy level by introducing such topics in B.Ed , MBBS and academia curriculum. “We consult so many lawyers, teachers and doctors who do not know how to deal with child sexual abuse,” she observes. 

*Name changed

Also read: Culture of entitlement: If boys will be boys, there's not much hope for the girls

The Good Girl’s Dress Code: How schools police girls’ bodies in the name of modesty