Besides the threat posed by strangers, children are at risk of being sexually abused by people they and their parents know well and trust implicitly. Hema Vijay alerts us to the danger

Recent reports of gruesome child rape have left us horrified. Of course, we need to safeguard our kids from such attacks. But not all child sexual abusers attack explicitly as had happened in the Delhi gang-rape incident; neither are they strangers to us and our kids. The bitter reality is our children are at far greater risk of being sexually abused by people we and they know and trust — family, friends, colleagues, relatives, teachers, care-givers, and long-serving domestic servants. The World Health Organisation reports that worldwide, one in ten children are sexually abused, and that many of the abusers are persons known and trusted by the child and its family.

Various Indian surveys, like those by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bangalore-based Samvada, Delhi-based Sakshi, and Chennai-based Tulir-CPHCSA too show that a majority of child sexual abusers happen to be persons trusted by the child and the family. And then, rape is just the tip of the iceberg. Children get sexually abused to varying degrees, depending on situational opportunities the abusers get or create.

Fortunately, the abuser's attempts to lure a child can be foiled. “The key to this lies in the adults around the child waking up to reality and putting safeguards in place. Also, kids should be armed with knowledge, because uninformed kids are an easy prey for child sexual abusers,” says Vidya Reddy, Tulir — Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse.

Watch out for ‘grooming’

Many a time, child sexual abusers prepare the ground for sexual abuse by building a relationship of trust with the child and its family, so that the parents are comfortable about leaving the child with the abuser. “They desensitise the child to touch, step-by-step. First, they might touch the child seemingly innocently, or show suggestive pictures or words. If the child were to complain, they would shrug it away as an accident. But if the child seems confused or doesn’t react, or if the adults dismiss the complaint, the abusers move to more intrusive abuse,” informs Vidya. They might pass off sexual abuse as a game, or convince the child it is ‘their special secret’. They might beguile the child with rewards ranging from chocolates to mobile phones, or claim that great strength/beauty would be achieved if they did what the abuser wanted. Abusers might lure the child by offering to take it to the parent/teacher or even to see an interesting cartoon; they may blackmail kids into accepting abuse by saying, ‘good children do what adults tell them to do’. “Kids should also be taught to be assertive and say ‘no’ to adults, when required,” says Dr. Lakshmi Vijaykumar, psychiatrist, who has worked with CSA victims.

Considering our society’s discomfort when it comes to talking about sexuality, children may hesitate to disclose sexual abuse. Though they feel distraught over what has happened to them, very young children may not even recognise it as abuse, unless they have been educated that nobody has a right to touch his or her private parts or ask him/her to touch theirs. For instance, a few months ago, a man in Orissa made scores of children perform oral sex on him by promising that ‘they would become strong like Salman Khan if they did so’. Points out Dr. Lakshmi, “Had these kids been informed, they might have resisted or reported it.”

Advises Nancy Thomas, Tulir-CPHCSA, “Right from the time kids understand the parts of the body such as the nose or eye, they should be educated about their private body parts and boundaries of touch/verbal/non-verbal behaviour in an age-appropriate manner. This safety education has to be enlarged upon as the child grows older.”