Why don’t we talk about child abuse?

Why don’t we talk about child abuse?

In October, a six-year-old was sodomised by his physical education teacher at the Manav Mandir schoolin Mumbai’s upmarket Malabar Hill area. The teacher had reportedly forced the victim to blame a senior child in the school for the assault, and threatened to throw him under the school bus if he refused. Not only was the child sodomised, he was forced to traumatise another child.

Barely a month later, on 8 November, a Mid-Day headline screamed, “Coach molests 4-year-old at school pool." This happened, it was alleged, when the upmarket St Stanislaus High School in Bandra, Mumbai, was holding swimming lessons.

That same week, Penn State University, US, exploded over allegations of systematic abuse of boys by football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for close to a decade.

It’s time to face the fact that abuse and assault is no longer something that happens to “them", not “us". That 19 November—World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse—went largely unnoticed is a reminder that people would like to hold on to this myth.

Nishit Kumar, head of communications for the CHILDLINE India Foundation, a Union government helpline for abused children, says that in a nationwide survey in early November, 99.9% of men stated they would never discuss subjects like rape or molestation with their children. “In many regional languages, people don’t even know the words to make sentences for such subjects. If adults don’t have the words, how will children find them to explain what is happening to them?" he says.

A child who asks “what is rape?"—as my son did when listening to Silencer’s “balaatkaar" (rape) speech in the film 3 idiots—is told “that’s not for you to know; just don’t ever use the word." Each such dismissal is one more day of lack of awareness about the dangers of molestation and rape.

According to Shailesh C. Mohite, head of forensics at the Nair 4nsic Medicine, Topiwala National Medical College and BYL Nair Charitable Hospital in Mumbai, 53%of Indian children are sexually abused (this figure comes from the first national study on child abuse conducted over 13 states by the Union ministry of women and child development in April 2007. It covered 12,446 children). Silence is not an option any more.

How paranoid should you be as a parent? How much should you tell a child?

How much information is too much?

According to social workers and psychologists, paranoid is pretty much a sane state of mind to live in. As Dr Mohite puts it: “I had a recent case (at Nair hospital) where a molested child was further molested by the social worker whose hands he was put in. That’s how bad it can be. Danger can be anywhere."

Yet despite all the public welfare programmes, myths abound: from “this doesn’t happen in our neighbourhood", to denial that it is something that needs to be reported.

Dr Mohite says he sees victims from affluent Malabar Hill as well as slums walk into his hospital. Kumar says, “According to CHILDLINE’s research, instances of rape in upper-class families are alarmingly high, and quickly buried by visits to gynaecologists practising privately.

It’s imperative to approach the authorities as well as seek medical help but clearly, not all doctors are equipped to handle a case of rape and not all police officers are sensitive to the trauma of a child. Dr Mohite says it is better to find a Multi-disciplinary Child Protection Centre (MCPC) cell in a hospital near you than head to the family physician. Several hospitals have such centres nowadays. “The hospital is anyway obliged to report a case to the police. But if you go to the police directly, there’s paperwork and your child gets admitted to the ward hospital closest to or attached to that police station."

While some discerning police offers do attempt to assign a lady constable to the child and reach out to an MCPC, going directly to a multi-departmental facility is best. An MCPC is able to bring together treatment: Children may need to be taken to sections such as obstetrics and gynaecology (revealing sudden childhood pregnancies resulting from rape), psychiatry (dealing with sudden or repressed disclosures of molestation), and for the collection of evidence (done by forensic experts). Typically, the MCPC cell should ensure that a social worker or counsellor stays with the child at all times.

Inam explains why you must go to the police: When you register a case against the offender, and sometimes that can be the toughest thing to do if he is a member of the family, or known well to the family, you are a) preventing the offender from preying on other children; b) ensuring your own child will never be attacked again; c) publicly denouncing the criminal, thereby lifting the burden of blame and shame from the child; d) reinstating your faith in the child and what he/she says. This is an essential part of the healing process for the child.

How does your body language and what you say add to the child’s trauma? At all times, display trust in a child who complains of molestation, till proven otherwise. In many cases, children do not tell their parents because they fear they will not be believed. When they do try telling them what’s happened, they take their cues from the anger and grief in their parents and it dictates whether they reveal the whole truth or just part of it. Dr Mohite explains: “Sometimes, the child is not able to open up immediately after such an event. Sometimes he or she may say what he thinks parents want to hear. You have to win the trust of a child to be successful in treating him, and that takes patience and time."

When rape occurs, counsellors say the child tends to be blamed, directly or implicitly, for what happened. “When you tell a child, ‘but why did YOU go with him?’, blame is implicit. When you avoid the child, avoid discussing it, avoid looking them in the eye, blame and rejection is implicit," explains Inam.

Healing is a process. It requires continual medical treatment and discussion, and protection from the family.

CHILDLINE can be reached at the 24-hour helpline 1098. For details, visit www.childlineindia.org