It is the ultimate betrayal for a child — when the protector turns predator, when refuge turns into hell

One of the biggest lumps under society’s collective carpet is child sexual abuse (CSA). According to the report, Study on Child Abuse, India 2007, Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, 53 per cent of India’s children have experienced some form of child sexual abuse. But stigma and a misplaced sense of shame prevent both the victim and the family from treating it like any other crime.

“It is culturally tougher for a male child to report abuse or acknowledge it even as an adult, for it is associated with weakness,” says Shaibya Saldanha, founder of Enfold Proactive Health Trust, an organisation working for child welfare.

“The first step towards raising a child aware of sexuality is to name the body parts so that the child is free to talk about it when someone hurts any part of the body,” Dr. Saldanha says.

Speaking out

“Be the boss of your own body,” says Evan Hastings, a visual artist, who works with school and college children on projects of the theme, “Speak out loud”.

“I do not know if that is the best thing to do, but groups I work with have put up plays and performances based on their childhood experiences of abuse. Sometimes, that is the first time children communicate their experience to their parents, who are almost always proud of how brave their children have been,” he says. “Adolescents tend to trivialise childhood abuse by joking about it. What they need is to be able to speak about it — straight and unashamed — when they are ready to,” he adds.

In the plays, the experience is enacted in a shared form, where no one knows which is whose personal experience. “The responsibility is shared and there is peer support,” Mr. Hastings says.

Collective responsibility

“It is society’s collective responsibility to develop an attitude of fairness and respect for children, and not the child’s to protect himself,” says Nagasimha G. Rao of Child Rights Trust. According to him, when a child reports misbehaviour by someone, parents advise him to avoid that person or not go to a certain place.

“Restricting the victim is not the answer. Parents also need to face up to the perpetrator and take action. From the age of five, a child can be spoken to about sexuality and its possible abuse. Before that, the child needs to be simply protected,” he says.

Mr. Hastings works with primary school children, getting them to express through clay and other such material of touch.

“That is one way of making them comfortable with their body as well as getting them to communicate about it,” he says.

“In such an environment, it is possible to talk to the child about certain acts on the body being abusive and not okay,” Dr. Saldanha says.

“A child enjoys touch and a sexual touch stimulates a basic sensual pleasure. It is when he grows up and learns about sexuality that the trauma of his childhood abuse sets in. So, when perpetrators defend themselves saying that they were only making the child happy, they are taking advantage of their position of power vis-à-vis the child,” Dr. Saldanha adds.

Shekhar P. Seshadri, psychiatrist with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), describes child sexual abuse as a gender, social and power issue.

The power of the adult

“Adults run children’s lives and children are brought up to believe that an adult could do no wrong; and if one felt any wrongdoing, it must be the child’s fault,” says Radha Sameer, a facilitator at Enfold.

“It is a cultural issue, which leads to abused children growing up with a sense of guilt. Abusers — usually trusted family members or friends — take advantage of this and groom children into complying with their act,” she says.

“When a parent is the abuser, the child still loves the parent, but feels betrayed, angry and sad,” Dr. Saldanha says. She is also wary of the media reporting instances of child sexual abuse as “horrific or shocking”; for, the media archives are going to be online for years, and when the abused child accesses those records, it erodes his or her self-esteem.

“It is important to use sensitive and toned down language in reportage,” she says.

Sensitive reportage

“Yes, child sexual abuse needs to be reported, given that it is usually a domestic issue that doesn’t get as much media coverage, but as a reported crime and not as a fact,” according to Sevanti Ninan, a columnist on media affairs.

“Graphic descriptions do not seem to serve a public purpose, though,” she adds.

“The most important thing for the parents to do for an abused child is to say that they love him very much and what has happened to him has not made him any lesser,” Dr. Saldanha says.

“That would complete the healing process; whereas a child who cannot confide in his parents goes on to find other avenues of liberation — sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive.”

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