In the wake of the brutal gang-rape of a girl in New Delhi, Aparna Karthikeyan says it’s time we brought about attitudinal change, beginning with kids at home

Instead of waiting for things to change, let’s make change happen; and let’s start with our homes, our children…

We’ve just seen social history being made — a barbaric crime in Delhi has awakened a nation. But, once the protests die down, once the news channels take their cameras and mikes elsewhere, what then? Do we sit back and wait for judicial and police reforms? Could we not — until the big picture changes — contribute in our own small ways, and hope that, collectively, it will make a huge difference?

Start with our homes

“We live in a sexualised world, and we need to help kids process (the information) they are bombarded with,” says Vidya Reddy of Tulir, Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. Talking about the recent incident, she takes the example of a child who’s likely to have heard the word ‘rape’ over and over again. “If the child goes to the parent and asks about rape, and is told 'don't talk about it', or 'it is a horrible thing', without further explanation, we are not helping. We need to create a space where the child can ask these questions and an atmosphere where the parents can answer them accurately. Otherwise, kids will learn from their peers — who might not know any better than themselves — or the Internet.”

“Parents are not willing to discuss non-academic things with children,” says Dr. S.Yamuna, Consultant Paediatrician and Adolescent Physician. “‘Don’t waste your time, go study’ is their usual response; but mindsets have to change,” she says. For instance, when a mother has a first-born boy, why does she push him out of the room when she nurses an infant?

Our conversations with children have to be about sexuality and not just about sex, says Vidya. “Sex is just reproductive biology. And many biology teachers avoid teaching even that, asking the children to read about it at home. Why do we have problems (answering) when a child asks questions about his/her body parts, which have a perfectly valid biological function,” she asks.

Also, no campaign to prevent sexual assaults will be successful, if it merely runs circles around the girl child, stymieing her freedom, especially if nothing is done to sensitise boys. “We tell girls to come home early, dress this way or that — why don't we talk to boys and young men about attitudes to relationships,” asks Vidya. Besides, popular wisdom which routinely blames women for ‘attracting’ unwanted attention is inherently flawed, says D. Nagasaila, advocate, active in Peoples Union for Civil Liberties. “Because, how do you then explain offences committed against infants? You can’t accuse a three-year-old of attracting a man!” she argues.

The focus, Nagasaila says, has to shift from harping about victims to talking about the aggressors. “It’s very important to bring up boys to respect women,” she says. “When boys grow up around abusive fathers, they become their role models; they think to be a man, they have to be abusive and, moreover, they have a licence to do so.” And the problem worsens when mothers too, because of social conditioning, don’t think it’s necessary to correct them.

“When boys don’t look at women with respect, as a person who can love/show affection, they only see their physical aspect. This then builds up in their head, and they want to experience it,” says Dr. Yamuna. The result is men making contact with a woman’s body in public all the way to outrageous, heinous acts. “Boys and girls must witness the troubles and travails of the opposite gender; if not, the opposite sex becomes the stuff of lopsided fantasies,” she cautions.

It is, therefore, very important to build acceptance and tolerance in children, says Bhuvana Shankar, principal, Chennai Public School. “We need to reinforce moral values in youngsters, and the onus is on us to educate them.” But, she laments, in many schools, in the midst of preparing kids for competitive exams, moral science classes either get the axe or are used by other subject teachers to complete portions.

“It’s vital to change the mindset of children, as they’re the ones who will go back and influence their families,” says Nagasaila. She suggests we don’t teach boys that they are ‘protectors’, because that only feeds into their macho image. “Stress on equality; teach them that women are equally entitled to make decisions. Tell them you cannot make up a woman’s mind for her,” she says. And, please, please, teach them that when a woman says no, she means NO.

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