Even as I was reading the blog post I could feel myself trying to latch onto denial, to try and calm the nausea that came with every subsequent word. But it was true.
A doctor working at the One-Stop Crisis Centre or OCC in Dhaka Medical College Hospital shared her gruesome experience of treating a 10-year-old girl who was carrying a child, the result of continuous sexual abuse. Simi (not her real name) was abused for more than a year by her mother’s secret lover who frequently visited their home in the absence of her father, who works abroad.
The case evoked the memories of days when I was working as a children’s rights activist. I had the ‘misfortune’ of working with children on the staff of Save the Children, one of the leading children’s rights organisations across the globe.
I have seen cases where children were sexually abused at schools, in their neighbourhood, and, most horrifically, in their homes. The list of sexual predators ranged from school teachers, neighbours, grandparents to biological fathers.
My intention of writing this article is not to gesture towards a data point or research report. I believe we have become immune to such reports in the media and skip them, limiting our reactions. What we tend to ignore is the possibility that our own children may become victims of sexual abuse. There is no completely safe place, and no measure that people can take to protect a child from sexual abuse, regardless of gender.
Therefore, the best measure to protect children from sexual abuse is to make them aware of the issue. Although sexual abuse has been a taboo topic at home and in Bangladesh’s public institutions, the time has come when responsible adults should enlighten children on the issue, without causing any harm to their mental health.
We reached one milestone when the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) incorporated an excerpt from ‘protection education for children’ prepared by Breaking the Silence, a children’s rights organisation working to combat sexual abuse against children in some of its textbooks and teachers’ guides.
Texts that enable children to know the boundaries of their body, that makes them aware of unsolicited expression of affection including kissing, touching or even being carried has been incorporated in grade three and grade five books by the NCTB.
However, our experience shows avoidance of the issue in the schools still remains even after the issue has been incorporated into textbooks.
In most cases of sexual abuse the child victims are hushed by the perpetrator, who scare them and tell them that nobody will believe them if they inform them about the abuse, but will, instead, stigmatise them.
So, the best possible way to raise awareness among children about sexual abuse is to increase their ability to trust and rely on their parents and guardians. They should know that when it comes to sexual abuse, their guardians will listen to them no matter what others say.
In the blog post the doctor wrote that Simi had been told by her abuser that her mother would not believe her if she told her about the abuse and that she would be scolded. Had she known her mother would believe her, she would not have endured such torture.
Although there has been an argument that it creates ‘mistrust’ among friends and family, children should be informed about possible dangers. They should be made aware that a perpetrator could be a friend, a relative or an acquaintance.
Along with the usual rule of ‘never talk to strangers’ parents should also teach their children ‘don’t let anyone touch you in a bad way.’
However, the basic idea is to make children understand the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ so they do not tag everyone as ‘abusers’ and they can differentiate between a goodnight kiss from parents and forceful touching by a perpetrator.
In developed countries, children have a ‘puberty talk’ in school when they come of age, which invariably helps them to enter a new phase in life. Although in some cases the ‘talk’ hovers around hygiene and safety, it provides them with awareness of possible abuse and allows them to protect themselves.
As we face a dearth of such institutional support, time has come for parents, guardians and caregivers to open up to their kids and talk about prevention of sexual abuse. Though it sounds cliché, we can never ignore the saying: Prevention is better than cure.