Most parents will openly acknowledge that discussions around child sexual abuse (CSA) are a source of major discomfort for them.
However, the tragedy of Zainab reached far and wide and highlighted the need for these conversations.
Various reasons can be accounted for this anxiety, including parents’ inadequate knowledge, a sense of fear about answering questions related to CSA and not knowing when and how much to discuss.
Parents’ own history of sexual abuse may also add to their discomfort.
While some parents familiarise their children with the concept of ‘stranger danger’, many find comfort in the belief that sexual abuse against their children is not possible on their watch.
Thinking about sexual abuse often conjures a mental image of a violent situation where an abuser, often perceived to be a stranger, is forcing her/himself on the victim.
Though this may be true in some cases, CSA also encompasses inappropriate touching, unclothing, masturbating and child pornography.
Victims of CSA can be children of all ages, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic classes. The perpetrators in the case of CSA can be adults or other children. Nearly 90 percent of the time, the perpetrator is someone closely familiar to the child.
This person can be a parent, a step-parent, sibling, uncle/aunt, cousin or extended family member. They can also be a non-family member: a friend, a family friend, a neighbour, domestic staff or teacher.
CSA is highly prevalent both in the developing and the developed world. Almost 11 cases per day are reported in Pakistan, even though there is a scarcity of credible data.
Given taboos, self-stigma and mistrust of authorities about reporting cases, one can assume that the actual figures are much higher.
Recent events and media coverage have brought the issue into every household, and it is important to address this issue within our familial context. This is only possible if we understand the threat and educate our children about it.
A critical path forward includes conversations with our children about body safety to equip them with the knowledge and skills which can help them stay safe.
Some of the recommendations about these conversations include:
Talking about body parts
Start talking about body parts early in life and teach children to use accurate terms for them.
Avoid using generic terms like ‘bottom’ or ‘private part’.
Knowing the names of body parts and feeling comfortable using these names helps a child talk clearly about incidents that may occur.
Teaching about privacy
Tell children that there are some parts of the body which are private and no one should see, touch or take pictures of them.
They should also be taught to not look at or touch the private parts of other children or adults.
Tell them that only parents may help them shower or use the toilet, and that too should be weaned once a child becomes independent.
A doctor may look at their private areas when they are doing a checkup, in which case a parent needs to be present with them.
Good touch versus bad touch
Talk to children about inappropriate touch. Any touch which makes the child uncomfortable is inappropriate.
Hugging, kissing, holding hands, and sitting on the laps of adults in their surroundings is considered acceptable by many parents.
Inform children that if these acts or adults make them uncomfortable, they need to talk to their parents.
Tell them that no one, familiar or unfamiliar, should touch their private areas, whether they are clothed or unclothed.
Let them know that an inappropriate touch may not necessarily feel bad or hurtful.
On the contrary, it may feel good, but it is still important to talk about it with parents.
Many children may not talk about the touch if they felt good and may blame themselves for feeling that way.
It is important to address this and ensure that children are aware that it is not their fault.
Saying ‘No’ is OK
Do not encourage children to do what anyone tells them to do.
Emphasise their right to say no to anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable.
Rehearse with them ways of saying no to someone in such a situation.
For example, ‘I don’t want to be tickled’, ‘leave me alone or else I’ll tell mom/dad’, or ‘I am not allowed to do that’.
Emphasising that body secrets are not permitted
Many perpetrators may describe their action towards a child as play and may tell them to keep their ‘play’ a secret.
They may bribe them with gifts to keep these secrets or may even threaten them.
The threat can be related to terminating their ‘play’, hurting the child or their family, and/or telling everyone that it was the child’s idea.
It is essential to teach children that keeping body secrets is not permitted.
Tell them that they will not get into trouble if they tell their parents a body secret and it is important to talk to someone if they have a body secret.
Getting out of uncomfortable or scary situations
Some children might not feel comfortable saying no in the event of an uncomfortable situation.
Teach them alternatives which they can use to leave the situation, like saying that their parents are here to pick them up or that they have to go to the bathroom.
Come up with a family password
For older children, decide a code which can be used in unsafe situations.
This can be used over the phone when children are at someone’s house.
It can also be used at home in the presence of guests, teachers and/or domestic staff.
Playing with genitals and masturbation
This is a taboo in our society, but it is natural for children to fondle with genitals.
It is important to address this calmly instead of telling them that it is not a good habit.
Tell them that rubbing genitals may feel good but it is important to stay private if they are doing so.
It is also important to debunk myths associated with masturbation and talk to children about it from the perspective of privacy.
Talking about sexual reproduction is important
Children are curious by nature and it is important for them to acquire age-appropriate and correct information about sexual reproduction.
Books like Where did I come from? by Peter Mayle may be helpful in starting these conversations.
Talking about pornography
Internet use at a young age may expose children to inappropriate content early on.
It is important to talk to children about cyber safety, pornography and sexting — sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images.
It is also important to talk about sexting and the harmful consequences associated with it.
Creating a calm environment during such conversations
It is very important to be comfortable while talking about CSA.
This requires acquiring accurate facts and for some parents rehearsing their conversations before approaching a child.
Parents’ discomfort will make the child uncomfortable and hinder a fruitful conversation.
Be direct, don’t be shy and don’t beat around the bush.
Parents can use a personal story or story of a person they know to aid the conversation.
Children may just listen and not respond at all. In such a situation, let them know that you will talk about it another time and make yourself available later.
Be prepared for questions, but beware that you may not know all the answers.
Do not discourage the child from asking questions. Instead look up the answer and let them know later.
For older kids you can search for the answers together online or in a book.
Using ‘what if’ examples
Give scenarios when having these conversations.
For example, ‘what if you were at school and an older child took you to a corner and pulled down you pants during break time? What will you do?’
Once is not enough
Keep finding opportunities to discuss safety with your child.
You may use any recent example of abuse that the child may have heard of.
For teenagers you may use examples circulating on social media or recent TV shows with some relation to sexual abuse.
Other adults who may be helpful
There can be times when you may not be available or the child may not feel comfortable talking to you about certain things.
Identify other adults who can provide help in such situations. Ask your children who they may feel safe approaching if they were at the school, park or mosque.
Given the conservative societal context of Pakistan, many may think that these conversations are against our norms, morals and ethics, and promote ‘loose, Western norms’.
We must resist this critique, for it is an established fact that the only way to protect children from CSA is to talk to them about it.
Dr Sana has specialised in general psychiatry from the Aga Khan University and is a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Aga Khan University.
She works with children and teenagers with mental health disorders and holds special interest in advocacy related to child and adolescent mental health in Pakistan.
If your child has been a victim of sexual abuse, you can contact the following organisations for assistance: Sahil, Konpal, Aahung and pediatricians and child & adolescent psychiatrists at The Aga Khan University.