One of the biggest lessons for me, in the process of researching for the issue of child sexual abuse, came when I asked our expert Dr Anuja Gupta that when children are sexually abused, why do they find it difficult to tell their parents about it. Her reply was, “Are we listening to our children? Are we even capable of listening to them?”
And that indeed is the big question.
What is my relationship with my child? Am I listening to my child? What do I know of what is going on in my child’s head? Do I know his/her fears, dreams and hopes? Am I even interested? Am I friends with my child?
Though my generation is perhaps more communicative with our children than that of our parents — at least, that is what we would like to believe — still, how many of us are really solidly connected with our children? How many of us really have the time and bandwidth that it takes for a healthy friendship? The truth is that only if there is healthy communication, trust and friendship will your child be comfortable and fearless to share everything with you. Obviously, we pray that no child has to ever face the trauma of sexual abuse; but if that does happen, the child should feel empowered to communicate this.
It is only through conversations and communication we can build the ability to share our joys and fears. When these communication lines open up between parents and children, it becomes the starting point to sort out many issues. Then if something does happen with your child, he/she will feel free to immediately come and tell you about it and you will be able to address the problem then and there. The cornerstone of open communication is also trust. Our children observe us closely. They have an innate sense of being able to gauge our responses. If we want them to speak up, we should also ensure that we let them know that they will be believed. Yes, not just heard, but believed. Children are intelligent and intuitive, and we have to instill the confidence in the child that we are sincere about listening, and that we trust the child.
The other big learning came from Padma Iyer, who is Harish’s mother. If a child does report sexual abuse, very often our first thought is — how can I take action against my own family member? Family ki izzat, hamari izzat mitti mein mil jaayegi, log kya kahenge, mere bachche ke saath aisa hua, toh is baat ko chhupao. Like Padma, first we refuse to admit the possibility of it happening, and then we try to hide it. And because we have hidden it, we are unable to take action on it. Through all of this, we are thinking of others, of society. But we forget to think about our child. That child who is perhaps four, five or six years old… who has been through something most traumatic… who is reaching out to us because we are the parent… and the child can only reach out to us… what about that child?
Our child has to be our primary concern, everything else must be secondary. At such a time we should only be thinking of what our child is going through, and what we need to do for the sake of our child. That’s it. At the end of this process of healing, the child has to come out stronger and healed. And we have to do everything in our power to make that happen.
Also, we have to start looking at child sexual abuse as a crime, because that’s what it is. When there is a theft in your home, don’t you kick up a ruckus and say, “Hey! Somebody came into my house and stole jewellery! What’s happening? What is the security doing?” But if abuse happens in your home, we hush it up. Why are you hushing it up? Has the child done something wrong? No. So why are you hushing it up? You should shout, “How dare somebody come to my house and do this to my child.” Kick up a ruckus! That person should be behind bars. Even the law enforcers need to really take this seriously. And above all… the child needs to know how much his/her safety and security means to you.
I have already mentioned on the show that the Indian Parliament is working on a Bill regarding child sexual abuse and we look forward to a strong, effective, and well-implemented law for the protection of our children against sexual abuse. And we hope it happens soon.
I’d like to leave you with a thought: perhaps the more closed or narrow minded we are about sexuality, the more repressed it gets, and then it manifests itself in ugly ways. I’m hoping that as a society in time we will reach a stage where we are not frightened of our sexuality. Rather, we learn to deal with it in a dignified, open, responsible and healthy manner.
Aamir Khan's column will appear every Monday
The views expressed by the author are personal