I was in college when I first came face-to-face with the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA). I had gone to watch Monsoon Wedding with a friend. After the movie, she become very quiet and I couldn't put my finger on the reason. I asked her if I had said anything to upset her. She didn't respond and we walked in silence. After a few minutes she started to cry, slowly at first, and then uncontrollably. I was taken aback, but her crying had seemed so cathartic that I didn't try and stop her-I let her sob her heart out.
I learnt that day that she had been sexually abused as a child. For those who haven't seen Monsoon Wedding, there is a disturbing undertone in the film of sexual abuse. One of the characters in the film is a young woman who, as is later revealed, was sexually abused by her uncle. The film had brought on memories that my friend had somehow pushed into the dark recesses of her mind. I was speechless. I could not imagine how it could have happened and I had the classic it-does-not-happen-in-our-kind-of-homes moment. I could not have been more wrong. I learned that it happens around us more often than we like to accept.
Fast-forward 15 years to the present. I'm sitting at home, having given up full-time work to watch, like a hawk, over my 3 girls. And this is not simply because of the experience of one friend many years ago (though it was an eye-opener). It's because as one grows up, one realises how disturbingly common CSA is-more than 53% of children in India face some form of child sexual abuse. That's more than half of the children in the country. And while we may like to believe that this is something that happens only to unattended children from lower-income groups, the reality is quite different.
Personally, I don't trust anyone when it comes to my babies. I grew up with my mother instilling in me, time and again, that I was never, ever, to trust anyone with my body, even if the person was known to me "not any cousin, not any uncle, no one" she would repeat, ad nauseam. She knew, probably too well, that most often than not the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts. At family weddings, for instance, she never made us share rooms, not even with first cousins. What seemed like party-pooper behaviour then actually taught us the concept of respecting personal space and physical boundaries-our own as well as others. I want my girls to know it too.
Sometimes when I tell them not to trust anyone, they ask me about some of the men in their lives-their father, their uncles, some close friends' fathers, and others. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, because actively teaching a child to not trust your own brothers is not a pleasant idea, but I believe that kids need firm direction because they are too innocent to judge and make a distinction by themselves. So, I've made it a blanket rule. I've told my daughters that no one (except those who bathe them, like didi) should ever see them naked; and no one should touch them in the places that I've told them about. The only man my daughters have been taught to trust is their father.
Fortunately, my family understands and accepts why it's important to do what I'm doing. I've found that frank conversations with the family help in 2 ways:
- Those who genuinely care about my kids and their safety will be more than happy to help in keeping them safe and,
- Any potential predators will know that I'm watching like a hawk and my girls have been taught about safety-so they're not going to be easy prey.
When it comes to strangers, I use the Red Riding Hood approach a lot. If ever someone is offering them candy or toys and asks them to follow them, think of him like the wolf. Wolves will coax, threaten and lie, but I've taught my girls to be careful. Here's how:
- If someone tells them that their parents are hurt or are calling them, they should ask for the code (my mother taught us a code when we were young, I do the same); it's a "girlie secret", our code.
- I've also given my girls the confidence to come and tell me anything even if they find it "yucky" (as my daughter's friend put it).
- Moreover, I've said that they should never be scared of me, even if they think they have done something wrong. So they should never be scared of anyone who threatens to complain to me about them. In fact, they should come and tell me about that person immediately.
- Last, but not the least, I've taught them to scream on the top of their lungs and run away from anyone who ever tries to touch them or makes them feel uncomfortable. "Wolves never look like wolves. They look like nice people," were my mother's words that kept me safe. I have now passed them on to my little girls.
I've taught my girls to not trust easily; and yes, while I know that this goes against all that we want to teach our kids about love and compassion, I can't ignore the fact that we live in a society where even 1-month-old babies are raped. Wishing away the ugly fact isn't going to change anything, and inaction will only make more kids vulnerable. Plus, I don't think it has to be an either-or situation. Even while I'm teaching my girls to not be blind to the bad people around them, I tell them enough stories of goodness in the world.
I have never forgotten the look in my friend's eyes-her abuser was someone very close to the family. She carries the trauma to this date. Do what you can to keep your children safe, because usually, the wolf isn't somewhere in the jungle, he's lying low at home.