Why talking and training play an important role in keeping your child safe

Safety training is important not just for children themselves, but also parents, communities, those looking after children with special needs, professionals who interact closely with children.
Child Sexual Abuse has profound consequences for the child. It is known to interfere with growth and development and has also been linked to numerous maladaptive health behaviour and poor social, mental and physical health outcomes throughout life. As adults, the abused face increased risk of domestic violence later in life, and could themselves be prone to violent behaviour and committing child sexual abuse.

A longstanding social malady that needed intervention on a large-scale finally saw the light of day when the Indian government introduced a role play and activity-based module – titled School Health Programme – to be imparted in government schools as part of the Ayushman Bharat scheme.

This issue needs to be addressed at the community and family levels, too, and it is in this context that a structured manner of imparting personal safety programmes by trainers like Viji Ganesh gains great significance. In the second part of our series on Child Safety and Protection, we spoke to Viji Ganesh.

“Such is the impact of childhood abuse! It has many dimensions and affects a person at different levels – mentally, physically and emotionally,” says Viji Ganesh, trainer, coach and educator for personal safety and sexuality education. She has a page on Facebook called ‘Ripples – Small Pebbles Big Waves’ that talks about child sexual abuse and is closely followed.

A finance professional with fifteen years of industry experience, Viji Ganesh switched careers, joining a year’s counselling course in Banjara Academy, Bengaluru. Dr Lois Engel Brecht is her mentor and she attributes the success of her training programmes to what she acquired from Enfold Proactive Health Trust , Bengaluru, and several workshops by Tulir, Chennai, which she attended.

She offers round-the-year training for schoolchildren, parents, communities, parents of special needs children, professionals whose careers involve physical contact with children, transgenders, etc.

Learning about boundaries

Viji Ganesh says personal safety education offers life skills that empower children, is child-friendly and age-appropriate. The trainer does not talk about abuse or how to prevent it but about how to encourage and respect boundaries. The endeavour is to instil the concept of body autonomy and how to boost self-esteem, self-image and body image. Protection from abuse and protection from becoming abusive are the twin goals of personal safety education.

A child predator or an abuser cannot be profiled and is not easily recognisable. Child abusers are gender-neutral and are often nice to others, thereby earning the trust and respect of people and society. Most abusers are known to the victim such as a family member, relative or a close family friend.

Most opportunistic abusers resort to ‘grooming’ to gain access to the child, by winning the trust of the significant adults in the child’s life. By doing so, they earn the trust of the child which leads the child to believe in what they do. They get close to the child and once abuse happens, even if the child tries to disclose this to his/her parents or other significant adults, they will not believe them.

Catch ‘em young

Graphic: Ripples (Facebook page)

So how does Viji train?

“The first thing I do is to detach from the aspect of who can be an abuser and shift the focus of the children to what constitutes abuse. Most people do not know the distinction between abusive, endangering or condescending behaviour. In our culture our children are often told to put up with certain kinds of touch and behaviour and told to respect authority and adults. I try to break this and teach them about consent, initially without sexual connotation. By the time children reach pubertal age, they know what consent is all about,” she says.

Viji says role modelling starts at home: “Instead of asking a child to respect age, teach the child to respect deeds. Even a parent should seek a child’s permission before resorting to physical endearments and empower the child to say ‘no’ if the child doesn’t want to be handled physically by anyone. Unfortunately, in our culture, we do not do this.”

Her personal safety sessions impart age-appropriate messages which make them non-threatening to children. In fact, children feel that they have found a friend in the trainer and most often feel like sharing their thoughts with the trainer.

These sessions are started as early as LKG and UKG. They start with vocabulary relating to body parts. Children need to be told about all body parts without attaching any stigma or shame to them. Indirect messaging and lack of clear communication, as is happening today, gives a child the impression that it is not okay to talk about certain body parts. This will hamper disclosure when the child gets abused.

From 6th standard to 12th, sessions not only deal with body autonomy, body safety and boundaries but also consent, in relation to sexual consent. For high school students, the sessions are more about how to cope with their pubertal changes. Though initially hesitant and withdrawn, children become more comfortable as the sessions progress and start enjoying them. The sessions are interactive and children have much to share.

“We, as a society, have done a great disservice to boys. World over, there is under reporting of abuse of boys and, hence, we never come to know about the abuses they suffer. Whereas we have specific data that says 2 in every 4 girl children go through some form of body abuse before she reaches 18. In fact, parents of boys and significant adults in their lives do not know that they also go through puberty changes.

Role of parents

Viji also speaks about the important role that parents play in creating awareness in children. The father and mother have an equal role in this. First it is important for parents to educate themselves and get comfortable with calling out body parts, reading about and giving age-appropriate and correct information.

With a little training from a trainer before they start having a conversation with their child, they will be able to do this. Parents need to be clued-in, savvy about these issues and keep the conversation going. At every stage of development, the questions will vary and parents have to answer them suitably, age-appropriately.

With regard to special needs children, it is imperative for parents to work more because the education is more for the parents and caregivers than the children. Trainers need to customise their sessions to each child’s specific needs.

Training for people in close contact with children

There is a segment of abusers called professional perpetrators: people who groom children and get into professions that give them access to children, such as tennis or swimming coach, those who train children in gymnastics, callisthenics, PT masters in schools, etc.

Viji trains professionals dealing with children where a lot of physical touching is involved, especially in the case of physically and mentally challenged children. The training imparts knowledge on respecting personal boundaries, encouraging parental supervision, importance of wearing gloves and avoiding skin-to-skin contact and other such details.

Anna Institute of Management in Chennai has curated a training programme for wardens of Adi Dravida Welfare hostels, which has a module for personal safety education for caregivers and those handling adolescents and sexuality education, which Viji Ganesh conducts. In these training sessions, Viji talks about gender stereotyping, influence of media on body image, social stigma attached to girls, etc.

A challenge she often encounters is how people view abuse of girls who step out late in the night or wear ‘socially unacceptable’ dresses. “Nobody has the right to touch another person, whatever they wear or whatever the time they are out of their house. People have to understand this,” asserts Viji.

“Sexual abuse is a deep-rooted social malady that requires the undoing of several years of social conditioning based on gender stereotyping. We have to push ourselves to the ideal situation of whatever be the attitude, dress or timing, no one should be abused,” she says.

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