In recent days, incidents involving the assault and rape of young adolescents—girls and also boys—have come to attention. On the one hand, two girls, aged 10 and 13, were raped by supposedly “trusted" adults in Chandigarh and Mumbai. They silently bore the abuse until they fell pregnant and could no longer hide their condition.

In Mumbai, two boys swallowed insecticide and committed suicide after being abused and raped by older boys. They couldn’t stand the shame and prospect of further abuse. One boy died before he could tell his parents; the other sought his parents’ help only after he had consumed the fatal potion, but disclosed the names of his abusers before he lost his life.

These incidents should force adults to confront some hard realities. Today, growing up is fraught with physical insecurity, and yet adolescents know little about their bodies— how does one become pregnant, or protect oneself from unwanted pregnancies and infections? How does one confront a sexual predator or distinguish between good and bad touch? Too few girls and boys know these things and fewer still have access to a trusted mentor with whom they can share their experiences and who can take protective action. Most are never told that, if abused, it’s not their fault.

A study conducted by the Population Council on unmarried girls in Bihar and Jharkhand who underwent abortions showed that pregnancy took place after a forced sexual encounter for several of them. The study also sheds light on the reasons why the girls waited till they were well into the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy to seek termination. Several did not know the links between menstruation and pregnancy. Komal and Najma, both of whom were 18 and had experienced a forced sexual encounter, explained: “When I did not have my periods, I did not even think that I could have conceived. I did not feel anything. But one day my employer asked me why my stomach was looking so big... I started having a vomiting sensation. I had no idea that your periods stop when you conceive a child. Then my mother asked me when I had my last period."

Many girls also described feelings of fear and anxiety about disappointing their family; they were worried about breaking the trust of their parents and losing their reputation. Others feared that their parents would beat them, abuse them or impose restrictions on their freedom of movement. Binita, a 20-year old, said, “My parents’ view towards me would have been shattered. They have full faith in me but had they come to know about this, they would have lost trust in me."

While research on boys is sparse, it is likely that all four of the adolescents in the news recently, and thousands like them, react similarly to incidents of forced sex.

To prevent such incidents, we must shed the misconception that talking to adolescents about sex will encourage them to experiment with sex. Nothing could be further from the truth, as study after study in every part of the world has shown. Yet in India, teachers and parents shy away from sex education. They refuse to engage adolescents even on topics like pregnancy and menstruation, body changes, and good and bad touch. They believe that there is no need to provide this information, or that talking about these matters will encourage sexual activity. These perceptions are short-sighted, irrelevant in today’s times, and damaging for the adolescents. Informing adolescents about these matters does not lead them “astray"; rather, it empowers them and helps them make healthy choices.

School-based comprehensive sex education and open parent-child communication are urgently needed. Comprehensive sex education informs adolescents in an age-appropriate way about sexual and reproductive health, and unwanted sexual advances. At the same time, it also encourages them to develop notions of gender equality, and an ability to communicate and negotiate.

Parents, likewise, must be persuaded to discard their misconceptions and communicate openly with their children. They must teach their children that, if violated in any way, they must confide in their parents, and promise them unconditional support.

Elsewhere, parenting programmes have succeeded in breaking communication and trust barriers between parents and children, and there is scope for such programmes in India as well.

There are success stories in India too. A police outreach programme in Mumbai schools teaches children about good and bad touch. This month, a six-year-old girl in Mumbai, who had attended this programme, recognized that what a man was doing to her constituted bad touch, and was empowered enough to shout and raise an alarm as she had been taught, and succeeded not only in preventing him from perpetrating rape but also in ensuring his arrest. The little girl acted courageously, and the Mumbai police must be commended for delivering such an effective programme.

Parents and teachers must learn from this example. A three-pronged approach that includes comprehensive sex education, close parent-child interaction, and age-appropriate public awareness campaigns such as the police outreach programme will go a long way in fighting sex abuse.

Shireen Jejeebhoy is a social scientist and demographer.

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