While it is important to equip kids with information about sexual abuse, it is equally necessary for parents to listen to their children, and do so without prejudice or fear, says Lakshmi Krupa.

In a passionate note, following the recent public spat between director Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (the latter has accused Allen of abusing her sexually as a child, which Allen has publicly denied), Andrea Grimes, who was sexually abused as a child, wrote on the website http://rhrealitycheck.org, spoke about her own story and concluded: “I’m not asking you to decide, today, whether Woody Allen is a child abuser, or to preach fire and brimstone the next time someone picks up a copy of Manhattan. I am asking you to do something more powerful, more long-lasting, more revolutionary: listen to survivors. Understand that our stories are not sad addenda, but part of our whole being, part of the people you love or hate or see in the elevator sometimes at lunch. See us not as victims, or characters, or some unidentifiable, sad and tragic “other,” but as the whole people we are, moving in and out of your lives. Listen to us, so that we can listen to ourselves.”

Indeed, at this point of time, our only productive take away from the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen ‘episode’ has to be to ask ourselves, “How do we, as a society, as parents, artists, writers, citizens, and just readers of news react to someone’s story of abuse? And what is our responsibility towards the abused?”

“Children just don’t disclose abuse. Period,” Vidya Reddy, Tulir, Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, begins. “Children are not sexually abused once and then let go. That’s assault. When someone wants to abuse a child, they ‘groom’ them and ensure that it will remain a secret. (See box on grooming). So abuse is a well-planned thing.” Children do not reveal abuse for a whole host of reasons, including fear of losing someone they are in awe of besides the fear of being blamed and shamed. Research shows that only 12 per cent of children reveal their abuse and often it is accidental. However, experts ascertain that allegations are rarely false in such cases, even though there are a few exceptions.

Parental support

Children may often not even understand what has happened to them. By reacting in a way that can shock them or instil in them fear or feelings of shame you will not be helping them. “When your daughter or son comes to you with a complaint about abuse do what you can to gain your children’s confidence,” says Vidya. Many victims whose parents have failed to listen to them often grow up with immense resentment. More so against their mothers/parents than the abusers. “And boys too are being abused. Just as much as girls,” Vidya clarifies and adds, “The only thing that as parents you can do for them is to be non-judgmental. Pay attention and these are trying times for every family. You must be there for them.”

Many a time, post-abuse parents only focus on things like ‘Is the child eating well or doing well in school’ and do not consider the trauma the child goes through in the process of the abuse. “The sexual subtext and the intentions escape parent’s attention because they think nothing ‘really’ happened. But something did. And that needs to be paid attention to.” Your child may need therapy, so consider taking him/her to a professional. Parents must also do all they can to protect their children from abusers and ensure they do not have to face them again.

“If someone has been abused as a child and they are now young adults who want to deal with it and haven’t done so till now, my advice to them is to seek professional help,” says Vidya. You may find yourself healing a lot better with the help of a neutral outsider, a counsellor than by talking about it to those around you.

Informative sessions

Anitha Rajarajan, founder president of Soroptimist International (SI), Madurai, an organisation for women that works to transform the lives of girls and women, was in town recently for a programme “No, Go, Tell” for children at the Rani Meyammai School in Chennai. She says, “We undertake local, national and international projects that educate, enable and empower women and girls to reach their full potential. This year, 15 clubs have been focussing on doing programmes on gender sensitisation as we feel that this is a very relevant issue. We have done this programme successfully in several schools in Madurai and Karur and it has been appreciated. Apart from a power point presentation on ‘No, Go, Tell’ and teaching them a few self-defense techniques with the help of someone trained at the Police Academy, New York, we also performed a small mime to highlight safe and unsafe touches.” For parents who wonder if its ever too early for them to have the talk about unsafe touch with their children, and for those of us who worry if we are taking away from the innocence of children or inducing paranoia, Anitha says, “We must give children of today more credit than that. They are very smart.” And Vidya adds, “It is better to err on the side of caution if that’s what parents are worried about. It is our responsibility to have this conversation because we all occupy the space between the abusers and the abused every day. They are walking amongst us.”

Mangayarkarasi, Principal, Rani Meyyamai School says, “Our Correspondent Kumararani Muthaiah wanted this session to be held in our school because the girls who come to our school hail from the economically weaker sections of society. Often, they don’t have someone in their family to educate them on safety. Most of our students’ parents aren’t educated. We had this session because they are innocent and are vulnerable to abuse from those around them. The girls also wanted to know how to react to situations that they encounter in buses, and other public spaces. We had one successful session for girls from class nine and while they were initially very shy, they soon overcame that and asked many relevant questions. Soon we are going to have one more session for our students in class eight.” Indeed, such sessions for children, both boys and girls, from poorer sections of the society are of great importance and here’s hoping more organisations will come forward to host them.

The tricky trap

- Child sexual abuse is always well-planned by the abuser.

- Abusers ‘groom’ children and that is the crux of the problem.

- They prepare a child for secrecy and silence.

- Abusers do this by finding the child’s Achilles’ heel.

- For example, if a child is not doing well in swimming class, and her coach happens to be an abuser, he would tell her that he will spend extra time to teach her. But she cannot tell anyone about it, because then the other kids will also want to spend extra time. By doing so, the coach ensures the child comes in early and spends time alone with him and also ensures that it remains a secret.

- Children don’t reveal abuse because of the fear that this grooming brings to them.

- They may be afraid of losing the affection of the abuser, who is often known to them well, or they may have been blackmailed by their abuser into silence with a seemingly scary outcome.