Notes from a classroom: Talking to children about sexual abuse

Published August 1, 2016
Children learn through repetition, and when it comes to complex topics, constant reinforcement is crucial. —AFP
Children learn through repetition, and when it comes to complex topics, constant reinforcement is crucial. —AFP

“If you were sleeping beauty, what would you do if a prince kissed you to wake you up?”

In my class of 15 fourth graders, very few respond. They want to know why they have to think about this. I remain patient, allowing them to process my question silently.

After all, their parents kiss them when they’re asleep. Many are forced to hug relatives and strangers because saying no is considered rude in our culture. And, very few of us are taught that there are situations where being touched without consent is not okay.

Most children, in fact, are not aware that they can refuse being touched.

Unlike adults, children don’t have the tools or comfort to communicate child sexual abuse (CSA) easily. They give hints, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant.

I have seen kids dealing with abuse constantly act up in class, for example, or complain about being sick all the time.

Sometimes the hints are so subtle that most teachers don’t realise something is wrong. For example, if a child flinches when touched, that should be seen as a red flag.

Most people assume it’s a one-time reaction, not checking a second time, or not wondering why a child who never minded a pat on the head is suddenly upset by it.

As an educator, I hold myself responsible for teaching children to protect themselves, and in preventing CSA.

Very young children’s minds are tabula rasas, so teaching them about rights, consent and abuse is not a difficult task. Children learn through repetition, and when it comes to complex topics, constant reinforcement is crucial.

Also read: My stolen childhood...

But to do so also requires creative thought that goes beyond any set syllabus. Luckily, the school I work in encourages and values creativity in teachers, allowing me to incorporate awareness for children in my lesson plans.

Hence the question about Sleeping Beauty, a problematic fairy-tale children and teenagers are exposed to repeatedly. Its messages regarding consent and gender roles are detrimental to their well-being, unless analysed critically.

Girls are taught to idealise the princess as passive recipients who yearn to be rescued by a prince, thus reinforcing the principles of patriarchal objectification.

Boys are taught that they can violate consent with impunity. The message hurts both genders. Boys can be, and are, victims of child sex abuse.

See: Note to Disney — I don’t want my daughter to be a 'princess'

So, I ask the class to deconstruct the fairy-tale. “What messages do you get from this story?” works well as a prompt.

Their responses are often imaginative; once, a student said the message is about protecting kings from evil fairies.

Other responses are more disturbing, like students who express joy. “I would thank the prince and marry him for rescuing me,” is a common one.

Its underlying implication, however, is that children have not been taught they have rights, or that their body belongs to them alone. That discussions on consent— in the classroom— are sorely needed.

“What would you do?” the students usually want to know.

My reply surprises them, “Look, if anyone dares to touch me without my consent, then I will beat them up and take them to task for it legally.”

Some students laugh, perhaps out of shock; here is a woman pretending to be a weird kind of Sleeping Beauty who beats up her prince, and has him thrown in jail instead of marrying him!

I’m often asked why I would do such a horrible thing. I then show them this image.

Source: Feminist Disney
Source: Feminist Disney

From here, it is easy to move into a conversation about consent. What is consent? Why is it important?

I introduce the concept of children’s rights. I tell them they can assert these rights, such as the right to decide who can touch them. I tell them they have the right to refuse.

I also tell them that they have the right to ask for protection against anyone who doesn’t respect their physical space.

As a concluding activity, we brainstorm phrases that the children can easily learn and repeat. We finish with a slogan like ‘My body belongs to me and I get to decide who can touch it!’ and then take an oath to respect other people’s rights, since rights can’t exist without collective responsibilities.

Build strong children, don't repair broken adults

In my personal experience, a one-time workshop on abuse is not enough. A word of caution for educators and parents: this concept must be reinforced, and constantly.

Children don’t have the language to articulate what is happening to them. Those who are groomed by abusers, may be aware they are being harmed, yet do not speak up. They don’t just need to learn how to report abuse, but also to recognise how grooming plays a part in it.

With multiple classes, an instructor can design coursework to address these issues. Most schools do not teach children’s rights, neither are teachers trained in the topic, but there are plenty of resources available online.

Explore: Keeping quiet on sexual abuse is hurting your children

Unicef provides free online lesson plans; Kaleidoscope and Phuljajri textbooks by Simorgh include activities that facilitate a comprehensive understanding of children’s rights, responsibilities and social contracts; videos such as Komal from Child Line India explain how grooming works; and organisations like Sahil provide free counselling to victims of abuse, and are useful for parents and educators because children don’t have the knowledge or understanding to report sexual violence easily.

Whenever I bring up CSA and abuse in the classroom, children inevitably end up assuming that no one should touch them. They insist on their right to protect their bodies from doctors, to avoid vaccinations. They also start yelling “She touched me!” if a classmate accidentally bumps into them.

When this happens, teachers need to start a conversation on differentiating the various types of touch, such as accidentally bumping into someone versus intentionally hurting them.

These should be supplemented with discussions, both at school and at home. Helping them differentiate between types of touches, for example, could be an effective way to help children understand what consent means.

Rozan is an excellent resource for this concept; it breaks down the different kinds of touchesgood touch, bad touch and secret touch — to emphasise on one's right to their body.

According to them, good touch is that which makes you comfortable and loved, for example being hugged by Dadi or kissed by Amma.

Bad touch is that which hurts you, for example, a slap or a hard push. And a secret touch is one that makes you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, e.g. sexual abuse of any sort, or when the abuser asks you to keep the touching secret.

Take a look: Sex education through theatre helps Peshawar children report abuse

It is important to remember that children need time to learn how to apply the concepts they are being taught. Simply lecturing them isn’t enough. Allowing fights to break out in the classroom is essential to the learning process.

At home, parents need to speak to their children about sexual abuse repeatedly, and respond to a child's queries appropriately. While educators can ensure that children understand concepts, conversations in the space they feel safest are necessary in order to ensure that they are able to speak up if they are abused.

Instead of shutting down conversations that make us uncomfortable, we can help break the very cycles of abuse our children endure like a rite of passage.


Ominous demands
Updated 18 May, 2024

Ominous demands

The federal government needs to boost its revenues to reduce future borrowing and pay back its existing debt.
Property leaks
18 May, 2024

Property leaks

THE leaked Dubai property data reported on by media organisations around the world earlier this week seems to have...
Heat warnings
18 May, 2024

Heat warnings

STARTING next week, the country must brace for brutal heatwaves. The NDMA warns of severe conditions with...
Dangerous law
Updated 17 May, 2024

Dangerous law

It must remember that the same law can be weaponised against it one day, just as Peca was when the PTI took power.
Uncalled for pressure
17 May, 2024

Uncalled for pressure

THE recent press conferences by Senators Faisal Vawda and Talal Chaudhry, where they demanded evidence from judges...
KP tussle
17 May, 2024

KP tussle

THE growing war of words between KP Chief Minister Ali Amin Gandapur and Governor Faisal Karim Kundi is affecting...