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How talking about sexuality protects kids

columns Updated: May 26, 2013 00:56 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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A little eight-year-old went through months of sexual assault at her upscale school in Gurgaon before her parents noticed she had become acutely withdrawn and started touching herself. The parents asked her what was wrong, and the child said a woman worker at school made her do it. The parents called her teacher, who shrugged it off and blamed television. When the school refused to act, her parents went to the cops and the skeletons came tumbling out — the little girl and others like her had been assaulted over months at school by two women, who have since then been arrested.

Sexual assault in any form is horrible, but when it happens to little children, most of us start raging and fretting about increasingly depravity in urban India. Some blame “cultural rootlessness and Westernisation”, others blame marginalisation and migration, still others blame porn.

Yet doctors at India’s premier hospital, The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, say sexual crimes on young children has not seen an upwards spike in the past few years. Of the 20-30 rape victims brought to the hospital each month, a third are young children. What has changed is the degree of violence, with the victim often being battered senseless. But, say doctors, this is also because victims are brought to them by the police. If the crime involves family, which it often does, parents do not seek medical treatment.

Why children end up as victims is not tough to understand. They are trusting, can be easily overpowered physically, and later threatened to keep them from complaining. In many cases, they go into shock and do not register what’s happening to them, and when they do, they don’t know how to put the trauma into words.

For me, what the brutal December 16 gang-rape changed for all of us was that it ended the shame associated with being sexually assaulted. Here was a victim who was a hero, who fought back and even from her hospital bed, spoke out to ensure those who assaulted her were arrested. If more cases of sexual assault and rape have been reported in the past six months, it’s because the “victimhood” associated with rape ended in that evening.

Most perpetuators get away because rapes are reported to the police. Families often choose misplaced honour over their child’s sanity, asking their children to block out the memory and get on with life.

Like Delhi’s Braveheart, you have to talk about assault that happens to you or someone you love, and as a parent, you have to encourage your child to talk to you.

No age is too young to educate your child about sexuality, you cannot postpone the moment in the hope that they will learn on their own. They don’t. Teachers skim through biology chapters on physiology, and their peers speak volumes on the subject they know little about. Easy access to lay literature makes most children think they know it all, but most of their perceptions about sex and sexuality is warped because they get it from magazines, the internet or gossip with their equally misinformed friends.

For a start, give your child age-appropriate information as soon as they start spending time away from you, be it at playschool or with nannies at home. Telling them about “good touch, bad touch” (touch that they don’t like) , ask them to tell you about any uncomfortable conversation or situation with friends, family, teachers and domestic help etc - is as important for a healthy childhood as the food they eat. While parents have a role, so do schools. Discussing sexual and gender issues at school takes away the taboo and opens up the issue for discussion, in class and outside it.

Children need someone to turn to when they are in trouble, and you have to be there for them. Discussing sexuality with them is not the same as encouraging them to have sex. For if they can talk about it, they are less likely be victimised by depraved adults.