What is child sexual abuse (CSA)? CSA can be defined as contact or interactions between a child and an older child or adult where the child is being used as an object of gratification for the older child's or adult's sexual needs.
CSA may have a profound impact on how the child as a victim, and later as an adult survivor, experiences his/her world. When a child’s physical and sexual boundaries are violated by somebody he/she trusts, he/she grows up with confused messages about the relationship between sex, love, intimacy and trust. The impact of CSA is far-reaching: survivors' lives are characterised by frequent crises for example, job disappointments, frequent relocations, failed relationships and financial setbacks. The reasons are complex, but for many survivors, ongoing chaos prevents the establishment of regularity, predictability and consistency. They function in ''crisis mode.''
As a parent, what are the five main things to look out for?
First, engage and make time for your child. If you have promised him or her that you would be available when you said you would be, then please keep that promise. And then when you sit down with him/her, listen, really listen, to your child.
Second, talk about "safe touch" frequently, weaving this into bath times and when you need to change their clothes. Children find it hard to talk about a subject like this - the touch can be tingly, it can make them feel good, but teach them that the swimsuit area is one that is off limits except to those who are helping them change or get clean. And even then, they can always choose to say "no" to that person if they feel that something is not right. The questions you ask are also important - keep it general to encourage an open conversation. Instead of asking, "Has Uncle so-and-so ever touched you?", keep it general viz "Has anyone ever touched you?"
Third, it is never too young to teach the correct names of the private parts to your child. There have been cases such as when a child as young as three wanted to say that she had been raped, but instead kept saying that she had a tummy ache. Her puzzled parents brought her to the doctor where her abuse was discovered.
Fourth, what do you do if your child tells you that he or she has been abused sexually? Despite your shock, try to remain calm. Do tell him/her that he/she has done the right thing by disclosing the abuse; do not blame him/her. Emphasise to your child that what had happened was not his/her fault and that you still stand by him/her. Please do not chide your child for not having told you earlier or saying things like "I told you so. You shouldn't have been playing there." Children do not have the power to prevent adults from abusing them. Do reassure your child that you will take appropriate action. I have listened to many stories of CSA from adult survivors. One of the most difficult things for them to accept is when they had initially disclosed their abuse to someone they had trusted, but yet no action was taken. They felt guilty growing up, feeling that they were somehow to blame for what had happened and feeling "dirty", with low self-worth.
Fifth, take action. Try to keep the child safe from further abuse. While the child is learning to re-establish appropriate boundaries for himself/herself, it is important that you, as the parent, continue to set appropriate limits for your child aimed at protecting him/her. Also, be consistent and dependable. Do give your child a clear message that they do not need to protect you from their feelings and that you will get your support from elsewhere.
Sadly, not many children are able to disclose their sexual abuse, either lacking the vocabulary for it, or simply due to fear of the repercussions: that their family might not believe them and/or the fear of splitting up the family. The perpetrators would have spent time "grooming" the child - usually one picked for being quiet and a loner, and would have bribed and/or threatened the child into silence.
But those involved in this work have told me, and research has also shown, that the younger their age when they disclose their abuse, the greater these children's chances are of healing and bouncing back.
We all can do our part to maintain our homes, schools and gyms as safe havens for our children.
Eirliani volunteers at the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and is Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.