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While awareness on child sexual abuse is rising, most work still happens only with privileged communities, within cities. How can we change that?
In the few years that I’ve been working with children in different classrooms, and in some, their parents, nothing has stood out more than the dichotomy among the communities we work with. Many of us working in this space do not intend to discriminate in our journey of training towards keeping kids safe, and yet, it’s uncannily true that most of us are reaching out to the urban educated – be it in private schools, or in community café sessions.
There is a desperate need for awareness on Child Sexual Abuse – not just among the security sector or parents and teachers, but especially, among children themselves. Many of us work with dedicated curriculums on safe and unsafe touches, and how best a child can navigate their spaces by speaking up and getting out of harm’s way in time. And yet, these curriculums are still not reaching communities that need them.
A year and a half ago, I was at a special shelter for young women in Chennai. After we played a few games to build rapport and trust, I rounded in on speaking with them about safe and unsafe touches.
The first question that came up from one of the adult women in the home, who watched the proceedings, was, “Akka, why didn’t anyone tell us this when we were younger?” This incident made me realize that even as we sensitize some, many are still left wanting.
Keeping kids safe is a priority: regardless of whether they are our own, or those of a friend, or any child in the spaces around us. On many occasions, we’ve all been guilty of prioritizing the happiness, safety and good health of our own kids or others like them – but what of the children that don’t have the privilege that our own children do? It isn’t a problem of lack of resources, but about the lack of reach.
While most organizations are bootstrapped, workshops are definitely a means of funding and a business model for many. Consequently, pivoting toward private schools that can afford to pay for these workshops leaves a lot of children out of the loop.
To plug this gap, more of us can become trainers: simple things like reaching out to an organization and learning from them, and then implementing what you learned in your community can make a huge difference. Most of us have domestic labour – what if we could each strive to start by educating them?
One afternoon, I walked down the road from my house to the end of the street where a building lies in its early stages of construction. The construction workers appeared to be a mix of several families, and so a lot of their children were found milling about.
My first step was to ask for permission before I could speak to the children on safety – and funnily, none of the men were concerned with what I was going to tell their children. A shrug and a nod signalled their nonchalant approval. But the mothers, they seemed willing, interested, concerned, and curious, even. While speaking with the children, they stood, silently watching and imbibing what we all shared. One of the girls complained that she was always being beaten by her brothers – when one of the mothers mumbled, “What else would he know? He sees his father beating me.”
With a sinking heart, I remembered the words Priti Patkar, the founder of Prerana, an initiative that works with children of sex workers among other things: “Children of sex workers are children of a lesser god – society has already written them off as being the next ones in line to take up sex work. What would these children know if their lone exposure is to sex work? Isn’t their safety also a priority?”
I found myself wondering what a solution to this would look like. If humans inherently have rights, shouldn’t children – regardless of their background – also have their rights safeguarded? A painful reminder arrived when the Kathua rape case came to the forefront in the news. Children of migrating populations, children of daily wage workers, of sex workers, children from violent and abusive family environments, and children who are trafficked… who takes care of their rights? In a day and age where children are being targeted every so often, shouldn’t the right to safety and security be prioritized?
The onus, doubtless, devolves on us. Besides working with these children to train them, we could go a step further to step in as the ‘safe adult’ for the child – one that the child can approach or reach out to, should they be in danger. If our approach to the Right to Education and Midday Meals programs transcends tokenism (remember Hichki, and the way the children were treated at first?), we could co-opt the apparatus under these mechanisms to structure robust approaches toward keeping kids safe.
At its very base, education on safe and unsafe touches center around the body, and personal agency. It also involves giving your children the freedom to say no, and to expect that freedom to be respected.
Late last year, I was given the opportunity to work with fifty young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, sponsored by a city-level women’s group, specifically on safe and unsafe touch awareness. I was given a caveat by the head of the group that put the training together: “Madam, please don’t speak about private parts. We don’t want to corrupt the children.”
Stunned, I spent a few hours working with the head of the group, and the outcome was a rather belated understanding on her part, but understanding, no less.
In any workshop on keeping kids safe, it is imperative that those in charge of the care and upbringing of the children you train, be involved. The scope is wide, including the parents, teachers, guardians or any other relative in charge of the child’s safety. This is especially important because a workshop lasting for no more than a few hours offers a life lesson, no doubt, but one that can easily be forgotten if the message is not reinforced.
What’s most important is that keeping kids safe also needs training: in the language you use, the way you articulate yourself to your kids, and what it is that you choose to say. If you’re the kind that wants to pay forward beyond your children, then a measure of cultural competence and empathy is also necessary.
In our culture of shame, we are so fastidious in resisting anything that makes us ‘uncomfortable’. Very content in our inertia, we are also the people who say, “We should do something!” when a flashpoint occurs, only to return to our regular lives and not do anything about anything.
As a first, regardless of whether we are parents or not, we should begin to dismantle shame, and reorder our thinking in a way that prioritizes keeping kids safe, keeping ourselves safe, and taking to task any violations of this safety. Sexual violence thrives on a culture of silence and shame. And by keeping these cultures alive, we are complicit in shrugging off our responsibility in keeping our kids safe.
Top image via Pixabay
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