One of the biggest learnings for me in the process of researching for the issue of child sexual abuse came when I asked our expert, Dr. Anuja Gupta, why children who are sexually abused find it difficult to tell their parents about it. Her reply was, “Are we listening to our children? Are we even capable of listening to them?”
And that indeed is the big question.
What is my relationship with my child? Am I listening to my child? Really listening? What do I know of what is going on in my child's head? Do I know his/her fears, dreams, hopes? Am I even interested? Am I friends with my child?
Though my generation is perhaps more communicative with our children than that of our parents… or, at least that is what we would like to believe… still, how many of us are really solidly connected with our kids? How many of us really have the time and bandwidth that it takes for a healthy friendship? The fact is that only if there is healthy communication, trust, and friendship will your child feel comfortable and fearless to share everything with you. Obviously we pray that no child need ever face the trauma of sexual abuse; but if this does happen, the child should feel empowered to communicate this.
Through conversations and communication we build the ability to share our joys and fears. When these communication lines open up between parents and children, they become the start point for many issues to get sorted. Then if something does happen with your child, he/she will feel free to immediately come and tell you… and you will be able to address the problem then and there, head on.
The cornerstone of open communication is also trust. Our children observe us closely. They have an innate sense of being able to gauge our responses. If we want them to speak up, we should also ensure that we let them know that they will be believed. Yes, not just heard, but believed. Children are intelligent and intuitive, and we have to instil the confidence in the child that we are sincere about listening, and that we trust the child.
The other big learning came from Padma Iyer, who is Harish's mother. If a child does report sexual abuse, very often our first thought is — “how can I take action against my own family member? Family ki izzat, humaari izzat, mitti mein mil jaayegi, log kya kahenge, mere bachcheke saath aisa hua to hiss baat ko chhupao.” Like Padma, first we refuse to admit the possibility of it happening, and then we try to hide it. And because we have hidden it, we are unable to take action on it. Through all of this, we are thinking of others, of society. But we forget to think about our child. That child who is perhaps four, five or six years old… who has been through something most traumatic… who is reaching out to us because we are the parent… and the child can only reach out to us… what about that child?
Our child has to be our primary concern, everything else secondary. At such a time, we should only be thinking of what our child is going through, and what we need to do for the sake of our child. That's it. At the end of this process of healing, the child has to come out stronger and healed. And we have to do everything in our power to make that happen.
Also, we have to start looking at child sexual abuse as a crime, because that's what it is. When there is a theft in your home, don't you kick up a ruckus and say, “Hey! Somebody came to my house and stole some jewellery! What's happening? What is the security doing?” But if abuse happens in your home, we hush it up. Why are you hushing it up? Has the child done something wrong? No. So why are you hushing it up? You should shout, “How dare somebody come to my house and do this to my child.” Kick up a ruckus! That person should be behind bars! Even the law enforcers need to really take this seriously. And above all… the child needs to know how much his/her safety and security means to you.
I have already mentioned on the show that the present Parliament is working on a Bill regarding child sexual abuse and we look forward to a strong, effective, and well-implemented law for the protection of our children against sexual abuse. And we hope it happens soon.
In closing I'd like to leave you with a thought… perhaps the more closed or narrow minded we are about sexuality, the more repressed it gets, and then it manifests itself in ugly ways. I'm hoping that as a society in time we will reach a stage where we are not frightened of our sexuality. Rather, we learn to deal with it in a dignified, open, responsible and healthy manner.
(The author is an actor. From next week, his column will be published in The Hindu every Monday).