Sitting in a coffee shop, I watched a young mother and her eight-year-old son enjoying ice-cream when, out of the blue, he asked her, “Mom, what is rape?” Flabbergasted, the mother shut him up hastily. “Beta, it is something horrible that happens to women. Let’s not talk about it.”

This got me thinking…

What would you do? Brush it under the carpet or give him an honest reply, no matter how ugly? How does one begin to explain rape to a child who has not yet been sexualised!

As parents, there are some conversations that are necessary, but ones we have come to dread. Years of societal conditioning are hard to undo in a moment. Sexual assault falls into this category, and the issue is further complicated if you haven’t equipped your child with the fundamentals required to comprehend the issue. If you haven’t had a chat about the birds and the bees, it’s time. At eight or younger, it probably doesn’t have to include everything, but given the sexually charged media around us and the limited control parents have over what children are exposed to, it is safe to assume that they are old enough to appreciate the basic concept of sexuality. Be brief and to the point but talk to them about the more intimate aspects of their bodies and gender differences, and use that to introduce the important concepts of ownership and violation.

Let’s deconstruct the mother’s response and build it up into what it could (and possibly should) have been.

What is rape, and what does an eight-year-old need to know?

That rape is a wrong and violent act that has nothing to do with misguided affection or punishment. Only the aggressor is to blame. A victim does nothing to invite or deserve it.

That it’s a physical violation, one extreme of a spectrum of sexual offences that can be committed against you. None of which should be tolerated. If you are made to feel uncomfortable by someone’s behaviour, irrespective of how it actually plays out, if it’s without your consent, you have every right to object to it.

That rape is not just about women. It happens to men, much older people and even children. The perpetrators, like the victims, can be male or female, known or unknown.

“But what actually happens, mama?” is a follow-up question we may have to face. We want to protect our young from the cynicism that goes hand in hand with acknowledging the depravity around us. You may decide he’s too young to fathom why some people give in to the evil inside. But his youth also gives you a unique opportunity to help fix what’s at the heart of this problem.

The storm raging around us has a female victim at its epicentre. Society is acknowledging that because norms, rules and lived circumstances are not equal, sexual assault has become a symbol of deep-seated violence against the marginalised. To really do away with rape we need to instil in children from the very start that men and women were created equal. That maintaining this equality is what gives us a sense of respect, pride and achievement. That every time a girl is discriminated against she is also violated to some degree, and that chips away at our collective worth as a society. Besides empowering and entitling your daughters, this equality will bring up your son to both expect and demand this fairness because its absence invalidates his very potency as a young man.

To change the world he’s growing up in, start at home. Take a hard look at your own lives and make sure that under the guise of societal and cultural expectations you are not perpetuating the very thinking that can grow into the ugly reality you’ve just tried to explain away.

Your approach

* It is best to be as matter-of-fact as possible.

* Find out what exactly the child wants to know.

* Ask a couple of questions to determine his level of understanding.

* Be aware of the words you choose. Using the wrong phrases can actually scare children.

* No matter what your child questions, do not evade answers or try to steer the question elsewhere.

* The best answers are short and uncomplicated.

rajfarida@gmail.com

(The writer is a Remedial Educator)