It takes a village: Small steps that can protect our children from abuse

SERIES: CHILD SAFETY AND PROTECTION

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Watched Bulbbul? The film, released in OTT recently, throws light on the all-pervasive male violence that existed a few decades ago and continues even today. Set in a fantastical background, the film is heart-rending, as it highlights the disastrous consequences of a deeply entrenched misogynistic and feudal outlook. But if you think that the film is just an anachronistic fictional tale, you couldn’t be more mistaken. 

Consider this report from about a fortnight ago, in which at least five minor girls at a shelter home in Kanpur – who were being tested for COVID-19 – were found to be pregnant. The city administration was, of course, quick to clarify that they were already pregnant at the time of admission to the shelter, which does little to absolve society of its collective responsibility to ensure the safety of children and prevent abuse.

Films like Bulbbul as well as news reports such as the above — which unfortunately are not all that rare — draw particular attention to the imperative need for creating a massive overhaul in societal mind-set through continuous dialogue and sensitisation, even as we confront the horrors of continuing, relentless abuse of children and women in society.

Child safety and protection need coordinated efforts of all the stakeholders involved in the growth and development of the child. The responsibility lies not just with the parents or the school or even the government, but with all the stakeholders who impact the child at different levels. In the concluding part of our series on Child Safety and Protection, we look at some simple steps that different stakeholders can take to create a safe ecosystem for our children.

In the classroom

“Teachers spend over 7-8 hours a day with students, making them crucial stakeholders in ensuring the safety of children. They can spend designated time to conduct structured and unstructured sessions about personal safety education,” says Harini, teacher at Ramana Vidyalaya, Chennai,“Age-appropriate knowledge about personal hygiene, boundaries, rights and responsibilities will help make the students aware of their body and surroundings. Students can also be given time to discuss issues or psychological conflicts they may face anywhere. It is important that the teacher ensures that there is a safe and supportive environment in the classroom for effective sharing, problem-solving to happen.”

For her part, Harini tries to identify gender bias and break the stereotype in textbooks in an effort to normalise gender-neutral behaviour and expectations. “We follow a common structure across all grades in our school with respect to behaviour and personality issues. When the issue is first noticed, we try to correct it using set behaviour management strategies. If this does not work, the issue is escalated to the respective coordinator who will take appropriate steps,” she says.

At home

Punitha, mother of a 12-year-old boy says, “It is important for parents to encourage their child to share all aspects of their life with them. When inculcated from a young age, this will ensure that the child feels safe talking about both positive and negative experiences with the parent. We also ensure that we project a healthy relationship (as a couple) so that it sets the right example for our son in the future.”

As parents, Punitha and her husband monitor their son’s behaviour with his friends and relatives. “I observe him when he watches TV and also his reaction to the media that he consumes. If he comes across something inappropriate, my hope is that he shares it with me so I can help him sort out his feelings,” she says.

Perhaps as a result, Punitha’s son feels quite comfortable talking to her about anything, including infatuations. She appreciates his openness in sharing his feelings with her. She has also empowered her son to manage uncomfortable situations by himself but if he is not able to manage, he could always approach his parents. She says she has benefitted from the parent orientation conducted by her son’s school.

How can parents know if their child has been abused?

Mothers are usually intuitive and can immediately sense any change in the behaviour of her children. There are some noticeable behavioural changes which a perceptive parent can notice and start a conversation with the child. 

1. Sleeplessness or sleep disorders
2. Frequent bouts of hunger or eating disorders
3. Child complains of pain in private parts
4. Very young children who have no knowledge about sexuality start touching their private parts in public.
5. Grades in school going down suddenly, concentration going down
6. Irritability

Courtesy: Viji Ganesh, coach and trainer, Personal Safety Education

Community efforts

When the news of an 11-year-old girl with a hearing disorder, who was allegedly gang-raped by a lift operator and 22 other men in Chennai for over seven months, hit the city, Kirubamalini and members of her community decided to organise a workshop on child safety and prevention of abuse. Around 30 kids accompanied by a parent from among 50 families in their community participated in the workshop. There was significant takeaway from this, and some of the families continue to practise helpful tips they learned at the workshop.

As a parent, Kiruba has open conversations with her 11-year-old daughter, who is comfortable opening up to her about any issue. Mother and daughter share a code word which the latter uses if she is outside her home and wants to convey her discomfort with anything. They keep reminding themselves of the code word every now and then.

Kiruba and her sister also have conversations with their kids during school breaks and encourage them to speak up about anything they had not been comfortable talking about. In her family, there is no differential treatment between girls and boys.

“While society has still not come to terms with boundaries and consent, there are challenges that come up when the child insists on these codes of conduct. So, it is important to keep the conversation going, which requires continuous effort,” says Kiruba.

Healthy parenting practices to prevent CSA

Positive sharing

It is ideal for parents to have continual conversations about what happens in their daily lives, so that the child too feels comfortable about sharing all that happens outside home and at home. Having established a tradition of exchange of information, if parents make a habit of asking the child about everything that happened in a non-threatening, matter-of-fact manner and without judging, the child may not feel parents are prying and will eventually be comfortable about disclosing even unpleasant incidents.

Listening

Instead of offering solutions, parents must listen to the child during conversations. Most of the time, the child does not need solutions but just needs to be heard. 

Believing

Parents should know that children who are not exposed to sexual behaviours will not be able to tell a lie or concoct stories and therefore there is every reason to believe them when they disclose abuse by someone. 

It is good for every parent to believe the child completely, especially when they are sure that their child does not have knowledge about sexual behaviour.

Courtesy: Viji Ganesh, coach and trainer, Personal Safety Education

Professional codes

Co-founder and senior trainer of Parkour Circle, Chennai, Prabhu Mani, speaks about the responsibilities of professionals working with children. “When it comes to physical training like parkour, where we have to be in close contact with the child, it is important for the trainer to seek permission from the child before handling him/her physically. In our organisation, we insist on asking the child permission every time before we start training. We give them verbal instructions that we may have to hold their hand or shoulder if they are about to fall, etc,” says Prabhu.

He feels that this approach has sensitised older children to rules like consent and boundaries so much so that they tend to expect such behaviour everywhere. They have also come to understand and identify inappropriate behaviour elsewhere.

A senior trainer has to set an example for all other trainers in the team to follow suit by adhering strictly to these rules. Prabhu has attended a workshop for professionals in this regard and has ensured that such training is also passed on to everybody in his team. He feels that only through communication can we change the mindset of society that does not regard or respect values such as consent and boundaries.

Professionals involved in activities that necessitate physical handling of children should strictly abide by their professional code of conduct. They should know their boundaries, both in order to protect themselves and to inculcate protective behaviours in children.

Parents should demand these personal safety measures from the centre that is working with their children, whether it is an art class, dance class, occupational therapy or a sport and insist on being present or witness what is happening. 

If a particular sport of activity involves physical handling of the child, the parents and the child should be informed about this before they start.

Every time it will be necessary to physically handle a child, the trainer should seek the consent of the child before the activity, explaining the need for such an act on his or her part. 
 
It is advisable to have the parent in the place where training or therapy happens. If not, the parent should be able to watch from a window or through a veil. 

It is advisable to have CCTV cameras where training of children takes place.

Professionals should never be alone with the child. It is good to have 2 to 3 trainers or therapists in the room.

Professionals should never have one-on-one communication with the child beyond therapy or training sessions.
 
Whenever communication is essential it should be through parents, especially in the case of special needs children.

Courtesy: Viji Ganesh, coach and trainer, Personal Safety Education
About Swati Amar 7 Articles
Swati is Editor-in-Chief, Eve's Times Group, a prolific freelance writer/author and content producer. She is a concerned citizen, who serves as Trustee on several foundations. She can be reached at editoretg@gmail.com