The second episode of Aamir Khan's TV show 'Satyamev Jayate' on May 13 successfully brought people's attention to child sexual abuse (CSA). The Rajya Sabha had already passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2012 on May 10 and the Lok Sabha did so too on Tuesday. Those who have been following the process of drafting the Bill felt that it needed not so much a hasty passage as a review. However, the issue demands that we look beyond the law because legal interventions are about abuse and penalty. The larger question is: how do we prevent CSA?
A child's first encounter with sexuality should not be with abuse or fear-based messages. Simply telling children about 'danger zones' on their body, as was done on the show, albeit well-intentioned, gives children cause to fear their own bodies. Sexuality is an intrinsic part of being human; a part of us to be affirmed and valued. We need to provide children with comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in a positive manner so that they can understand and gain control of their own bodies and enjoy overall well-being, which includes safety from abuse. Parents need to begin talking with children about their bodies at an early age without treating certain parts of the body with awkwardness or shame. If they feel shame, children will not articulate discomfort, pain or fear.
Discussions of CSE tend to elicit parental anxiety because many feel it is about teaching children to have sex. This is a misinformed understanding of CSE which is really about imparting accurate information regarding safety, decision-making skills and values. That is why it is called comprehensive sexuality education and not sexuality information. It gives children the language to talk about what is happening to them. It helps them discern when they are uncomfortable with a certain touch or situation and helps them articulate the same to a trusted adult. All sexual abuse does not involve penetration but may manifest itself as the leery 'uncle' or 'aunty' (yes, women can also be abusers) whose touch lasts a tad too long. A four- or five-year-old is capable of differentiating between what feels comfortable and what feels 'not okay'.
Answering children's questions about sexuality in an age-appropriate and matter-of-fact manner, providing facts without fear, teaching them to be careful around strangers and learning to trust their instincts around familiar people helps prevent CSA. Our actions need to be consistent with our words because what we do has a stronger impact on children than what we say. If we insist on our kids kissing every 'uncle' or 'aunty' when they do not want to, or ignore a child's discomfort when he or she has to endure unwelcome hugs, we are giving them the wrong messages. It may convey to them that the desires of adults are more important than theirs and that their bodies are not their own.
Parents, teachers and older siblings can prevent child sexual abuse and recognise and respond to it if and when it occurs. However, it is important that adults educate themselves about how to handle it by accessing groups and counselors working on the issue and reading relevant literature on the subject.
Any child can be vulnerable to CSA - it cuts across gender and social status. Parents cannot be with their children all the time as their protectors and sometimes may even be the perpetrators. Children deserve to learn how best to protect themselves. But they cannot do this alone. Teaching children how to be safe does not absolve adults of their responsibility. But not teaching children skills to protect themselves and being in denial of abuse is sheer negligence. CSA occurs in secret, with silence as its ally. The way to prevent CSA is to break the silence and talk to children about sexuality in a positive, self-affirming manner at home as well as in school. We owe it to our kids.
Radhika Chandiramani is a clinical psychologist and executive director, Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI). The views expressed by the author are personal.