If there is any form of sexual crime that is worse than rape, I believe, it is Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). This is not just because the victim is a child, but also because its impact is that much more damaging. In cases of rape or one time sexual assault, the violence is no doubt brutal and traumatic, but the victim is often very clear that it was not her fault. This makes recovery possible. Whereas, in CSA, the victim often feels guilty and responsible for making it happen, and in the absence of appropriate support, the victim continues to remain a victim for the rest of their life – guilty, shameful and unable to speak about it.
If statistics are anything to go by, every second person from India reading this has experienced sexual abuse as a child, in some form or the other. Often, the memories come in flashes and we wonder if we are thinking it up or if there is anything real to it. These memories are buried so deep inside that we have been unaware when its odor infused into our veins and showed itself in our personality and thinking. While some of us react by readily allowing others to walk all over us, others react by refusing to trust anyone again. Some of us have completely lost our natural response and we freeze when someone attempts to molest us, while some of us have lost all respect for our body that we no longer resist when others use and toss us around. We may question every friendly hug and yet welcome the one hug that would be damaging because we are comfortable being damaged. We, the children of abuse, welcome the odor of abuse long over and stay comfortable in the familiarity of it all for a long, long, long time.
The most important role for prevention of CSA lies in the hands of parents. If parents can wake up to what child sexual abuse is and become aware of how to protect their little ones, much damage can be avoided. But the first step is to accept that it is indeed a reality that 53% of children in India, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, have been abused and much of this abuse happens at home. The sooner we come to terms with this reality, the sooner will we be able to move towards prevention.
Normal Sexual Development in Children
Most parents think that children will suddenly learn everything about sexuality on their own once they hit puberty. So imagine the surprise of a mother of a nine year old whose son demands to know what the difference between boys and girls are? Or the shocked expression of parents of a seven year old who is happily playing with his genitals in public! Parents are surprised, shocked and under stress wondering if this is normal behavior or is it something to be concerned about.
It is important for parents to get a better understanding of what to expect as normal sexual development in children. Just as other parts of the body, the sexual organs too are present since birth. During the early years of Infancy (0 to 2 years) and early childhood (3 to 5 years), it is not unusual to see children touching their genitals and finding it pleasurable. It is a feeling that comforts and relaxes them, rather than a sexual pleasure in the typical sense. As children get older, they begin to discover various functions and feelings associated with their body, and this includes their genitals. The only thing that changes is that as the mind develops, we learn to condition it and draw distinctions between what is socially acceptable and what is not. Therefore, children being curious about gender differences or touching themselves is no reason for parents to panic. Instead, it is an indication to parents that their children have questions and it is time to help them learn. Avoiding the question or scolding children makes it worse. The problem as in most cases is with the parents’ inability to communicate with their children, rather than with the child’s behavior which is nothing but a result of their upbringing.
Problematic sexual behavior in children
While it is normal for children of the same age group to explore themselves and play games such as “house-house” or “doctor”, there are some instances which parents need to watch out for. Children of the same age group learning together is normal, but if a child’s playmate is an older child, it could be a cause for concern. When older children are unable to find proper avenues to learn and express their sexuality, they might look for younger children to experiment with. It could even be that the older child is trying to imitate what they have seen their parents do. Therefore, indications like a child acting beyond his/her age or imitating adult sexual behaviour is something that parents need to take notice of and step in to help the child/children.
Parents often underestimate the power of a simple honest conversation with their children. Children live in their own little world and once they retreat into it, it will become very difficult for adults to enter and intervene. Always make sure that you keep communication channels open. Always allow your child to ask you any question under the sun. If you feel the need to prepare before answering, do not hesitate to honestly say that to your child. Most parents take the easy route and scold or dismiss the child’s questions and some pretend that they never even heard it! I can assure you that the unanswered questions will come right back to you in a worse form later on.
Grooming in child sexual abuse
Perhaps the least understood aspect of Child Sexual Abuse is the Grooming phase, inspite of the key role it plays in obtaining the child’s willing participation in abuse. Grooming is the process during which the abuser develops a special bond with the child, gains the child’s (and that of the family’s) trust and breaks the child’s natural defenses. Some of the essential bits in the grooming process which parents need to understand include:
What happens each time you say NO to your child: The abuser usually selects a child who is emotionally vulnerable, so that there is a gap which he/she can fill in the child’s life. This gap is usually the absence of a loving parent in the child’s life. Very often, parents assume the role of a decision maker in the child’s life, and the reason stated for refusing anything is simply “I am your mother/father, therefore I am right”. There is rarely an attempt to sit down and help the child understand the reason for refusal, so that the decision is a mutuallly agreeable one. When you refuse your child and fail to communicate why, it leaves him/her at the potential risk of abuse. You make yourself an enemy of the child and this is used by the abuser to gain the child’s trust. It does not take much for an abuser to be kinder than the parent and fulfil the child’s wishes, thereby being more trustworthy than the parent in the child’s eyes.
Your child’s kindness becomes the abuser’s tool: Children, in their naivity and innocence often reach out and help those in need. Abusers could use emotional blackmail to make themselves seem alone and pitiable, thereby making children play the role of a comforter. The abuser makes the child feel that they have a “Special Bond” which no one else can understand. This further distances the child from parents and slowly the child enters the closed trap of the abuser. Parents need to watch out for special relationships that their children share with adults and ensure that nothing is secretive.
Rituals: Sometimes, the abuser designs certain rituals or pattern of events which occur on a regular basis and seem innocent. For instance, everytime the abuser “uncle” comes home, we all know that the child goes out for a walk with him and uncle buys her chocolates. After a while, parents stop questioning these rituals and it becomes a natural part of life. These rituals are opportunities for an abuser to find time alone with the child and initiate sexual abuse.
Abuse need not be violent: Unlike rape, sexual abuse of children is not always an act of violence. During the grooming phase, sexual abuse may not take place and the child may not see any reason to dislike or distrust the abuser. The entire focus of the grooming phase is to get the child to willingly engage in sexual acts with the abuser. So when the abuser asks the child to sleep on his chest when he is depressed, or if the abuser in the name of teaching the child about the body slowly begins to initiate sexual acts, it is very difficult for the child to refuse. When the touch turns into groping and the lessons turn into sexual games, it is too late for the child to say NO. The child may have even enjoyed the initial touches, much to the advantage of the abuser. When the child fails to say NO the first time, the child is held responsible for making it happen and enjoying the act. The blame, the guilt and the utter confusion of not being able to trust a known adult, builds a wall of silence around the child.
Symptoms of abuse in children
It is sometimes difficult to know if a child is being sexually abused, as the signs could be either extreme, especially with teenagers. They might fall into a trap of self-hatred, suicidal tendencies, poor personal hygiene (because they feel they are dirty) OR the guilt they feel could drive them to really excel in studies!
In younger children who are still under the care of parents, it may be easier to detect physical signs of abuse such as fear being undressed, frequent bed-wetting or sucking the thumb though they should be past that age, imitating adult sexual behavior, sexual hyperactivism and experimenting with objects and toys, etc.
Despite the ambiguity, for a parent who is closely involved in his/her child’s life, detecting a change in behavior should not be difficult.
Dealing with child sexual abuse
The underlying reason for putting a child at risk to sexual abuse is lack of supportive and loving relationships at home. At no point, should the child feel that his/her parents are not accessible or that they do not care for the child. At no point, should a child feel the need to keep secrets from their parents or that parents will not believe what they say. How to make this happen is up to each parent reading this.
If your child tells you about an instance of abuse, here is what you need to keep in mind:
Believe your child. Children do not lie about abuse and it is very difficult for them to come out of the trap and speak about it. If you do not trust them, you further push them into the fire.
Immediately separate the child from the abuser. Regardless of whether the abuser is a relative, a family friend or even a parent, it is essential to immediately stop the abuse from happening. You can also take the assistance of helplines such as Childline 1098 or Makkala Sahaya Vani 10924 to initiate action against the abuse.
Stress that the child is not responsible for the abuse, regardless of the circumstances and actions of the child. Guilt can be extremely damaging and no child should have to live with the guilt of abuse.
Help the child trust their intuition. A damaging aspect about abuse is that the victim loses a sense of what is normal, since the abuser is often a trusted person and the lines of sexual abuse have been blurred in the child’s mind. They find it difficult to realize what type of behavior constitutes abuse, and begin to question their intuitive abilities to determine an unsafe situation. As a result, most victims fall prey to more than one abuser. Teaching children to trust their intuition about an individual or a situation and learning to say NO is important.
Help your child protect himself/herself from future abuse. Talking to the child about what type of touch is Not OK is very important. Helping the child realize that only they have a right over their body and they can say NO to unsafe touch is a crucial part of preventing abuse.
Links for further reading:
Age appropriate information for preventing sexual abuse – http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/sexualdevelopmentandbehavior.pdf
Healthy Childhood Sexual Development – http://nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/saam_2013_an-overview-of-healthy-childhood-sexual-development.pdf
Prevention of Child Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO) – http://wcd.nic.in/childact/childprotection31072012.pdf