Parents–key to fighting child sexual abuse

PARENTS – KEY TO FIGHTING CSA

Interview with Vidya Reddy, Tulir, by S. Meera

Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (CPHCSA) – works against child sexual abuse in India. One of the key messages they impart is that cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) exist, but in silence due to the discomfort it generates if acknowledged. Accepting and taking the initiative to respond in a timely and appropriate manner keeping children’s safety in mind is not only a priority, but also a necessity. This will enable children to grow in a safe and enjoyable environment, says Vidya Reddy, who works at Tulir.

Can you tell us about your work done with schools under the Personal Safety Education programme that you conduct?

We don’t do anything in isolation. Personal Safety Education is one of our programmes for schools, but there are multiple ways Tulir can help schools become safe. Whichever aspect is received well, we go with that and then expand the scope organically, depending on response and the needs of each school.

Government schools in Tamil Nadu have been far more receptive to the idea of creating awareness and responding appropriately in their schools. The Director of School Education, in fact, has evolved a reporting system in the schools for such cases. In our experience, private schools in Tamil Nadu should hang their heads in shame. Most private schools are in denial and find several excuses for not creating awareness and establishing systems to enhance child safety. For example, we had been doing CSA workshops annually for a few years in one school. However,  they asked us to take a break one year. The reason – they felt that by doing it every year, they were giving the impression that they had a serious problem of CSA in their school!

Many private schools think that CSA cannot happen in their schools. This is ignoring the reality on the ground. There is no one profile for the perpetrator. They bust every stereotype – they can be educated, married, even have children of their own. Most often, they seek jobs where they can have access to children. Schools are places where abuse or disclosure of an abuse can happen. Schools need to accept that and be prepared for it.

How do you think schools can be equipped to handle and work against child sexual abuse?

They can start with a self-audit for themselves – this way, they can know the situation on the ground and take necessary action to improve the safety levels in their school. Tulir as a facilitator can provide guidelines.

This is just the first step. If nothing else at all, I believe schools need to follow at least these five tenets, which together form a framework to provide children with a safe environment and protect an adult from false allegations:

  1. Take steps to overcome the risks. When hiring a teaching or a non-teaching staff, it is important to look beyond qualifications and experience. If there are gaps in the resume, or if the candidate has hopped schools often, find out why. I think even when recruiting volunteers, this exercise should be followed.

In addition, value interviewing is important as it helps assess their capability to handle awkward situations – for instance, ask how the candidate would react if a student had a crush on him/her.

  1. Then look at your training for teachers to help them understand children’s development issues, not just cognitive and physiological but also psychosexual. I understand you cannot provide training to each and every recruit, but you can have online tutorials and make undergoing that training mandatory for a promotion or a raise.
  2. Code of Conduct – do you have a policy on how the staff should behave with children? Have clear guidelines so staff members are aware of expectations, such as: no staff can be alone with a child, someone else must be present; or if you have to, then you must keep the door open.
  3. Reporting process – every school must have a system for reporting concerns about a child or staff, for instance, having a whistleblower’s clause. Again, the TN government has been proactive in this.
  4. How one manages a reported instance also needs to be thought of. For instance, have a committee that includes an odd number of members and an outside agency to deliberate on what further steps to take. Schools also must consider how they will handle cases of one child abusing another.

Where do you see the challenge in reporting CSA and implementation of the process?

Schools are very aware that they have problems. However, they fear it is a can of worms best not examined too closely. They stonewall and try to play it down.

The second and greater challenge is parents themselves. Ironically, the more educated and well-heeled parents are the ones who usually underplay any kind of safeguarding needed to keep their child safe. Even if the child reports, they want to hush it up and do not bring it to the notice of the authorities concerned. PTAs should demand that their schools implement child protection policies. Any child deserves justice, and being believed is the simplest and most powerful form of justice for a child. More often than not, they are disbelieved and shamed.

Studies show that only 12-24 percent of instances of CSA get disclosed, and only a miniscule of that gets reported to authorities. Parents are the key; they must stop deluding themselves with myths about CSA. Their mindsets have to change, and that can happen only with greater awareness. They must be able to handle uncomfortable topics – for instance, today children are watching pornography because they have easier access. Parents need to acknowledge that and guide their children to process what they see.

POCSO Act (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) 2012 very correctly makes school management responsible for any incident of CSA in their school, which they may have been aware of but did not act upon. Law is the not the only recourse, but even if it has to be enforced, and if there is a complaint,the success depends on the child not turning hostile. The greatest risk is from parents as well as schools. Also, principals themselves need support to be able to implement and enforce protection policies.

Schools also make the mistake of assuming that having a counsellor is enough. However, are they in tune with this generation? Do they know enough about sexual violence and trauma to be suggesting and taking appropriate steps?

These are some of the issues we at Tulir address through our workshops and by working closely with schools that want to provide a safe environment. Between November 28 and 30, we will be conducting a workshop, ‘Safe Schools: Supporting schools address child sexual abuse, holistically’ under our continuing workshop series – Connecting the Dots. The lead facilitator will be Dr Lois J Engelbrecht, who has helped create systems of prevention and response to sexual abuse of children in the Phillippines, Malaysia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Ghana and Vietnam.

 

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Gender Violence: The Health Impact: Child Sexual Abuse & Health Care Systems

An Interview with Vidya Reddy, Tulir

by Meera Srikant

Despite advancements in medicine in the country, there are not enough mid-level mental health professionals trained to work with children who have experienced sexual violence.

  1. You work with children who have experienced sexual violence. Is our healthcare system equipped to provide them with the required care?

The healthcare system is definitely equipped where treatment of physical injuries is concerned. It is in fact families who are diffident to seek help unless there is blood and gore. If there are no physical injuries, then they do not even seek medical help. They are worried about the stigma attached to those who experience sexual violence

On the other hand, even medical professionals are diffident in our country to deal with sexual violence. Though treating cases of sexual violence is part of medical curriculum, they are not sufficiently trained.

There is a government guideline from the Ministry of Health, Government of India, specifying that private and government hospitals must provide treatment to those coming to them for treatment following sexual violence. The Government of Tamil Nadu has passed an order based on this advising heads of departments of government hospitals about treatment for such cases. However, while it refers to private hospitals in para 2 of the order, in para 3, it only mentions government hospitals. This can cause some confusion and we are bringing it to the notice of the authorities concerned to have this rectified.

This is required because currently, hospitals are too wary to treat children who come to them because of sexual violence. One, because there is diffidence in our society about discussing sexuality itself, and the doctors and nurses  are drawn from this society and have a similar attitude. There is greater diffidence about discussing sexual violence, and even more so when it is with reference to a child! And then the need to deal with courts since every assault case needs to be reported becomes a deterrent.

But while healthcare in our state, especially, may be equipped to handle the consequences of the assault on the body,  the mental health aspects of sexual assault leaves a lot to be desired.

  1. You mean we do not have enough mental health professionals?

We do not have enough mid-level mental health professionals. We have psychiatrists who are pharmacologised in their approach, or counsellors. Anybody in a position to advice is called a counsellor. I think counselling is the most abused word in our country. We have a counsellor for everything, but they don’t have an understanding of the dynamics and effects of sexual violence! One counsellor, for instance, told me that she counselled children who were victims on how to “handle” the situation. They are children, how can they “handle” the situation? The entire society around them needs to be mobilised to give them support and address the situation appropriately, which would also mean making the abuser accountable! The onus should never be on the child.

Even social workers are not trained to deal with cases of sexual violence, and there is also stigma attached to such work. We are a two-member team at Tulir because women who come for interviews back off the moment they hear the work involves sexual violence. They believe their marriage prospects will diminish!

Social sector is dominated with women, with men mostly in managerial positions. Therefore, there are not enough men to address boys experience sexual violence. Sadly, there are almost as many boys as girls who are subjected to sexual violence.

  1. What would you say are some of the challenges today?

Only children under 12 are seen by pediatricians. Girls of any age who experience sexual violence are referred to obstetricians and gynecologists and boys to surgeons, and hopefully a pediatric surgeon if one is around. Pediatricians are seldom trained in providing treatment for children who have experienced sexual violence because they need not just treatment for their physical injury, but a sensitive and understanding approach, which is sadly lacking. The doctors especially in the government hospitals cannot be blamed, though, because they also work under tremendous pressure and often in difficult conditions.

  1. So does Tulir work with professionals on sensitising them?

We do. The results of a pretest that we conduct before starting a workshop can be very enlightening. We realise that even professionals harbour several misconceptions about child sexual violence. Many think only girls experience sexual violence. In fact, the father of a boy who had been sodomised told me, “I am glad I have a son and not a daughter!” They worry more about the consequences of sexual violence, like pregnancy, as that will bring dishonour to the family (spoil the future of the girl). With a boy, that possibility does not exist and so many families do not care.

But what about the boy’s mind, what goes on in there? Sometimes I think if the risk of pregnancy were not there, many would not even bother about such assaults!

  1. So do you see the same stigma attached to children too, like adults?

No, not so much. But there is a reluctance to report cases. Even the police and and allied health professionals discourage the families of the victim from filing cases. They think it will affect their future prospects of marriage.

  1. The media seems to be more active these days in reporting the cases. Do you think that helps?

It is superficial. They do not understand the complexities. Hang a rapist! Most of the times the rapist is a family member. Which child will want him or her hung? Media presents a very skewed picture, does not inform or educate the public, but creates paranoia. They are also the reason why many cases do not get reported, as people fear the news being splashed. As professionals who need to inform and educate the society, they need to become more sensitised and ethical when reporting such incidents.

  1. How do you compare the Indian scenario with other nations?

There are at least 25 specialisations in addressing sexual violence in developed countries! India has a long way to go. In Tulir we do  all 25 rolled into one because we have no specialised systems to fall back on.

  1. How about Tamil Nadu?

I would say our state is far ahead of others in awareness as well as redressal systems. When I go for meetings at the central level, they are discussing issues which our systems have addressed 10 years ago. We are looking to build on these and strengthen the system for better quality of healthcare and support for the children.

*****

Vidya Reddy is the co-founder of Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. Tulir works to support and participate in local, national, and international efforts to promote and protect the rights of the child. Their work involves raising awareness about CSA, improving policy and practice to prevent and respond to CSA, providing direct intervention services as well as undertaking research, documentation and dissemination of information in the area.

Meera Srikant is a writer and a dancer. Violence of any sort disturbs her deeply, and by associating with Prajnya’s 16-day campaign, she hopes to contribute meaningfully for the cause in whatever little way she can.  

Comment: Should a child rapist get a reduced sentence…

…because he was living away from home and therefore ‘lost control’ as his lawyer argues. Should we look kindly on him for losing control due to these extenuating circumstances and overlook the fact that he has sodomised a 10 month old baby?

Read what Indian Homemaker writes and sign the petition if you feel this reduced sentence is ridiculous.

We need stronger laws against Child Sexual Assault, not this random leniency.

We need a website which tells us exactly where convicted child sexual offenders are living after their release from imprisonment so we, as parents, can watch out for our kids.

We need a lot of awareness on the part of parents to get serious about Child Sexual Abuse.

We need a strong refusal to accept such ridiculous arguments and we need to protest against this.