Child Safety
A panel discussion in Chennai on child sexual abuse and women's safety saw activists and experts break down the stigma associated with it.

A recent panel discussion on child sexual abuse (CSA) and women’s safety in Chennai spoke about several topics that are the need of the hour – from good and bad touch, to provisions of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, to the question of capital punishment for rape crimes. Moderated by author Shvetha Jaishankar the panel comprised of activist Shehla Rashid, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) activist Kanya Babu and Founder of The Kindness Project Mahima Poddar.

The panel discussion, organized by All India Professional Congress on Sunday comes at a crucial time. A chargesheet has been filed against 17 people who allegedly sexually abused an 11-year-old hearing impaired girl living in a gated community in Chennai’s Ayanavaram. The shocking case had rattled the city when it came to light in July this year and has urged many parents into initiate sexuality education among their children - the turnout on Sunday, with many parents walking in with their children, seemed to indicate that too. 

Experts pointed out, however, that sexuality education should not stop with teaching kids about good touch and bad touch. “It is important for parents to extend this dialogue to non-contact abuse as well. It does not stop with just good touch and bad touch,” activist Mahima said. She added that we must not also educate children about aspects of abuse such as someone flashing them, or showing them pornography or child sexual abuse material (also referred to as child pornography).

She also emphasized the need for parents to teach their children the correct names of their body parts instead of using euphemisms. “By giving private parts nicknames we further enforce the stigma around them. It should be easy for children to name their body parts out loud,” she added. 

The topic also veered towards how it is always considered the mother’s purview to take care of her child. “The Ayanavaram incident happened in the residential apartment. Why did no one pause to observe what was happening? It is our collective responsibility to make sure the spaces are safe for our children,” said activist Kanya. 

Pointing to the statistic that 53% of all children will face sexual abuse before turning 18, Kanya said that the number was quite inadequate - 98% of the time, parents refrain from raising a complaint on CSA fearing shame and stigma, she said.

“Parents should understand that not reporting in itself is a crime,” said Kanya. Under section 19 of the POCSO Act, anyone who has the knowledge of such an incident against a child, or the likelihood of such an incident being committed against the child, is mandated to report it to the necessary authorities.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor too corroborated her point adding that while in most cases the perpetrator is known to the family, the social conditioning has people living in denial most of the times. “The traditional culture is denial. Families are more prone to hush it up,” he said.

Activist Shehla Rashid was of the opinion that making CSA gender neutral would make the movement to tackle CSA more inclusive. “Everyone is a parent and by keeping this movement gender neutral, we can gain more support. CSA is not restricted to only girl children,” she pointed out.  

The discussion also emphasised that while imparting sexuality education to children may not have immediate results, it was important nonetheless. For instance, Shashi Tharoor recounted that back in his time at school, smoking was more widespread. When schools started advocating and discussing the repercussions of smoking, it took almost a generation for the change to happen. Similarly by tweaking the education system to openly discuss sexuality education is schools, the awareness towards such instances can be sharpened. 

Sharing that the knowledge amongst parents about POCSO Act was very weak, she listed some important points, urging once again that it was paramount for parents to raise complaints instead of brushing it aside fearing shame. "At least make a scene in front of the family and shame the perpetrator," Kanya urged.

The panel also discussed women’s safety and the importance of the current MeToo movement. The discussion also touched upon the implications of awarding capital punishment for rape and how it may not solve the problem. “In most cases, sexual abuse happens inside families by known persons. Capital punishment for rape will hinder people from coming forward with their complaints against their own family members,” argued Mahima.

The afternoon also saw several questions being raised on what needs to be done when the perpetrator is a known and a trusted person like a teacher, and how parents should discuss CSA and child safety with their children. Kanya suggested that keeping track of their child’s activities on a daily basis will help is establishing a better idea on their lives. “You can be a cool parent and at the same time get involved in your child’s day-to-day activities,” added Mahima.