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Betrayal of trust

How can one help a victim of sexual abuse without inflicting further trauma? ANITA LAZARUS looks at this sensitive issue.

EXCERPTS from an actual conversation between 14-year-old Sunanda (S), and her friend (F).

S: The school is OK, but...

F: But what?

S: Nothing

F: Please tell me. We've never kept secrets from each other before.

S: (Hesitantly) It's not the school. It's after school...

F: Go on tell me.

S: By the time I get home from tuition, it is dark. There are these men who hang around on the path between the bus stop and my house. At first I tried to avoid them but....

F: Did they say something that upset you?

S: No, they did something.

F: What?

S: They stopped me and ... When they saw I couldn't do anything, they pushed me down, pulled up my kameez, pushed down my salwar and ...(dissolves into tears)

F: My goodness! Why didn't you scream?

S: I was scared. They were strong. It isn't only once. It keeps happening.

F: Tell your parents.

S: I'm so ashamed! Here, look at the marks under my sleeves.

F: You must speak to someone.

S: No, please. No one must know. What would I do if they knew?

Eventually, Sunanda is persuaded to talk to the school counsellor and the story unravels. Her story draws attention to her distress without shattering her known world. She is being molested by her father, not unknown strangers. Exposure will bring pain and disgrace to her parents and threaten their survival as a family, so she has silently borne the pain for over two months.

"If I were an adult within reach, what could I do?" This is a question that haunts many who encounter such stories. What can I do when I suspect that something has changed a child's environment from safe, trustworthy, kind and predictable into one that threatens healthy mental, physical and emotional growth? I could side with ignorant naive careless adults, blind to the possible presence of predators and perverts in our every-day world, or I could find ways to step in and help.

What can I do?

  • Quick intervention begins with keen sensitivity and sharp observation. Close-at-hand adults, alert to unexplained behavioural changes in children are the first to notice. An alert mother could have noticed the marks on Sunanda's arms. Other symptoms may include new and persistent pain, nightmares, loss of appetite, inert or aggressive behaviour, overt sexual behaviour, withdrawal from activities and relationships, unexplained fear of individuals or places.

  • Gently engage the child in conversation or activities that draw out and reconstruct what happened. A down -to-earth matter-of-fact approach devoid of judgment is best, no matter how horrific the details. As a survival mechanism the child will minimise, avoid or deny what is happening, but with patience and persistence one can pick up enough clues.

  • Be prepared if you are a first-line helper. Other family members, teachers, social workers, neighbours, pastors and NGOs are often first-line helpers because of their proximity to the child. A first-line helper needs skills to help the child pick up the emotional, physical and psychological pieces. Such training is available with existing organisations dealing with sexual abuse. A caring heart and training in skills goes a longer way than the expert professional help that limited time and money can buy.

  • Break the silence carefully choosing whom to involve. Sexual abuse has already left the child feeling betrayed, ashamed and guilty; involving the wrong person could result in the child's refusal to engage in the process altogether. Proceed to report your concern to other responsible adults who are second-line helpers. Such helpers may include police, heads of institutions, doctors, psychiatrists and other professionals.

    Pinki Virani's Bitter Chocolate lists professionals to whom referrals can be made. Report your concern without being judgmental.

  • Build a prevention system that goes beyond punishing, blaming and denying. Have a place where they feel safe to talk about what bothers them. Build trust by listening to and believing what they say.

  • Familiarise them with the children's help line number available in all metros. It is 1098. Harness local organisations like Rotary club, Lions Club, Doctor's associations, the civic administration, schools, churches and other social service minded organisations to put in place programmes that increase awareness to such issues.

    The writer can be contacted at:

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