Sifting through the glossy flash cards that have drawings of two children in their underclothes, one can easily conjure an image of a classroom: children listen to their teacher intently as she holds up the cards and speaks to them as if this is a storytelling session. But this is not some fairytale being related; it is an important lesson in life.
The teacher points out on the flash card, “These are our private parts. We keep them covered at all times.”
She moves on: a caretaker is bathing the child. And in the next: a doctor is doing a physical examination with his shirt pulled up. All good touches, she tells them.
But then, in the following flashcard, a man in a classroom appears to slide his hands into a boy’s shirt. And in another one, a mustached man in a shalwar kameez — the archetypical ‘uncle’ — places his hand on a visibly uncomfortable girl’s knee. “If anyone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, sad or hurt, that is a bad touch. You should immediately tell a grown-up. Even if they tell you to keep it a secret,” are the teacher’s instructions.
The flashcards are part of a toolkit handed out to schoolteachers by Aahung, an NGO working to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights in Pakistan. “Adults can link certain behaviour with sex, but children cannot,” explains Sheena Hadi, director of Aahung. “Even if a child is running around naked in the house, it has no sexual connotations for them at all. For an adult, they see nudity and they associate that with a number of things in their adult mind,” she says.
Children of ages between seven and 11 are considered most susceptible to sexual abuse — they are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives for molesters to make advances because they seem to have come out of the ‘baby’ phase and are maturing. If older than that, there are chances they can fight back or speak out, endangering the attacker. Adolescents are also physically bigger and hence harder to control.
Hadi says that the perception that girls are more prone to abuse is one of the biggest myths. And so is the idea that children from higher income backgrounds are less susceptible since they do not venture out of their homes by themselves.
In reality, boys can be accessible in madrassas or schools, and children from affluent backgrounds have much bigger houses where abuse can go on undetected.
For a parent, this is a frightening prospect. Perhaps this is the reason why they like to brush it under the carpet. “Parents dread such a conversation with their children. ‘What if we scare the child?’ is what they feel,” says Hadi.
Hence, it is imperative that you prepare your child, so that he or she is empowered enough to escape or preempt a possible situation. The Express Tribune Magazine sat down with the Aahung team and discussed how to protect a child from sexual abuse and what to do in case the unthinkable happens.
How to protect your child from sexual abuse?
This is one of those situations where a little parental paranoia can be a good thing. Here are a few things all parents need to know:
As a rule of thumb, be vigilant and don’t leave the child unsupervised for a long period of time with an adult, be it the tutor, the maulvi sahib teaching the Quran, a trusted domestic servant or even an aunt or uncle. Child sexual abuse is known to be carried out not just by strangers, but also by close family members and acquaintances that enjoy the trust of parents and have easy access to the child.
Pay attention to your child’s mood changes. Aggression or depression, eating or sleeping disorders, loss of interest in daily affairs or academics, fear of or aversion towards certain persons or places may be telltale signs.
Develop a close and friendly relationship with your child that gives him/her the confidence to talk to you even about intimidating things.
If children do not like how they are handled by a relative or refuse to be kissed or hugged by them, don’t be angry. They may lose the ability to refuse a molester too.
Some age-specific measures you can take to avert child sexual abuse:
Ages 3-5: identifying private body parts and giving ownership
At the age of three you may feel a child is too young to understand these things, or you may feel it’s too early to expose a young soul to the perversion of the world just yet. But Hadi rightly says that your child “has a very deep intuition about what is right and wrong”. This is why the earlier you start making your child more aware, the better. The key element of course is “how”.
You may have taught the child about the “eyes” and “nose” but don’t shy away from identifying and naming their private parts too, even if you give them your own names. They should know that private parts can only be touched by trusted adults while changing or giving a bath, or perhaps a doctor.
“Don’t use words of shame to describe their body,” adds Aisha Ijaz. “Don’t spank their hand if they touch their bodies because children internalise these feelings and are too embarrassed to report incidents of abuse involving these parts.”
4 Onwards: developing decision-making skills
You want the child to be able to say “no” if inappropriate advances are made. Give him the confidence to make decisions and take action by himself, starting from everyday matters. For this your parenting ‘command and control’ will sometimes have to take a backseat. Don’t simply instruct them or make choices for them all the time; explain how they may get hurt if they are going to do something potentially harmful: “If you don’t wear something you might get cold” or “you can cut yourself if you handle the knife,” rather than forbidding them from it. A naïve, pushover kid will be more susceptible to instructions of the abuser.
Age 5-9: differentiating the good from the bad touch
Once a child knows how to differentiate between public and private body parts, he or she can graduate to learning how a bad touch can be told apart from a good one. No demonstrations needed; mention stuff to them casually and privately while they play, bathe, or do their usual stuff, so that they don’t get overwhelmed. Tell them that good touches are those which make you feel happy, loved, or comforted, such as a parent’s hug or a teacher’s pat on the back. Bad touches are those that evoke feelings of fear, discomfort and pain. Or even any touch that is new or unusual.
You can even use stories to illustrate good and bad touches that you can refer to later: “Remember what happened in the story about..?” Role plays depicting a possible situation of abuse prepare the child for an eventuality too: Ask them questions like: “If a person tells you not to tell anyone what they are doing, what should you do?”
What to do if your child becomes a victim?
Ask the child to explain in his own words what happened, but don’t push him into giving details if he does not want to. They may want to talk at a different time. In fact, they may reveal details in stages. They could begin relating a story and then say they forgot the details. Then they might start the story again some other time, but say it happened to someone else or change the details.
Remain calm and do not overreact because the child may become scared.
Do not outrightly question or doubt the child’s story by saying “Are you sure that is what happened?” or “are you really telling me the truth?” Trust your child’s instinct.
Hug him or her and give him the confidence that it’s not his fault. And reassure the child that he did the right thing by telling you.
Show your child to a medical practitioner if there are signs of injury, and a psychologist if the child has trouble relating the incident. Therapy is carried out through art and play.
Refrain from saying negative things about the abuser. Often it is someone the child is close to and the child may feel terrible about implicating the molestor. In fact many molesters are very loving and playful with their victims.