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How to prevent your child from getting abused

By Abhishek Mande
January 19, 2010 18:26 IST
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Like it or not, they're everywhere -- molesters who think they can get away by groping you or feeling up your child. With the Ruchika Girhotra case, issues of molestation and child abuse have yet again reared their ugly heads.

Divya Sinha* is 14 and studies in an upmarket Mumbai school. A member of the athletics team, Sinha often travels with her group and her coach to participate in tournaments across the country.

During one such tour, she complained of pain in one of her ears. Her coach, who she has known for a few years, volunteered to help. Before Sinha knew what was happening, she felt the coach kissing her.

Taken aback by the action, Sinha went numb. Throughout the trip, she tried to avoid him as much as possible, and she complained to her parents when she returned home. When the parents decided to take the matter up with the school's principal, they were told that girls her age are often attracted to their male teachers and made things up.

Sinha's parents are worried. Meanwhile the traumatised teen is being ostracised by her peers. She is consulting a psychiatrist and seeking the coach's removal along with her parents.

The Sinhas have been watching the Ruchika case unfold on television, where it took 19 years for the family to bring the accused to the books. Surely, no one wants to get the police involved, not yet. They also have their younger daughter in the same school and are expecting a backlash.

For a society living in denial of child sex abuse, Sinha's case is among the thousands that go unreported in India. And there is perhaps little or no hope for justice. The Sinhas' fight however is still on.

This is the key, says Dr Anjali Chhabria, a Mumbai-based practicing psychiatrist -- to make oneself heard under whatever circumstances.

Chhabria feels that there is no way you can identify a potential molester -- even if you know him well enough -- and if he has set his eyes on you nothing you do will stop him.

She says: "When someone known to them (victims) behaves inappropriately, the first reaction is that of shock. The next thing that crosses their mind is if they'd imagined the whole thing. This dilemma often creates confusion in the mind and they begin debating whether or not they should share their experience. Very often they keep it to themselves in the fear of being judged. At other times they ask themselves if they had in any way provoked the reaction or were the reason for whatever happened. A simple touch can change a person's life and the way s/he looks at himself/herself."

It is not your fault

Chhabria gives the instance of a young girl who asked her if she was smiling too much. "If such things happen to you more than once you begin to question yourself. This girl really began to wonder if she should be smiling lesser fearing that she was giving out the wrong signals. In cases such as this one, it is important to let the victim and his/her family know that it wasn't their fault and that the other person is in the wrong."

Identify the touch

According to Dr Sadiah Raval, the child should be made to understand which touch is acceptable and which is not. She says, "We even try to educate special children to identify another person's touch by telling them that certain parts of your body are out of bounds for another person. They should also be told that it is okay even if someone touches their hand and they are not comfortable with it. Educating the child about touch is extremely crucial."

Chhabria goes a step ahead and says, "Don't make your child sit on a relative's or a teacher's lap. Avoid hugging and kissing the child and discourage others from doing it. There is nothing wrong in being Western in that aspect of our lives."
Keep your parents informed

All psychiatrists and counsellors would agree that telling one's parents about the molestation is the most correct thing to do because they are in the strongest position to stand for their child. Take the case of 10-year-old Rasesh Shah* who told his mother that one of his older friends was trying to climb over him as he slept in the night. The mother immediately brought it up with the other boy's parents. It turned out that the boy himself was a victim of sexual abuse and now that he had found someone younger, he was doing it to Rasesh.

For the longest time, Rashesh refused to go to any overnight camps. And it was only after extensive counselling that he was able to get over the shock.

Get a support system

Not all parents can be forthcoming and co-operative. Chhabria narrates the instance of a young girl who was being molested by her uncle. And despite telling her mother, nothing much changed: "The mother couldn't get her brother-in-law kicked out of the house. So she tried to tell her daughter that maybe she wasn't dressing right or that something was wrong with her."

Counsellors believe that in such cases it is important that the child approach another elder in the family or someone in school who can take up the child's cause.

Do not stay in the same room as a stranger

Old-fashioned as it may sound, this is perhaps the best advice to follow.  As Chhabria says, "If someone calls you into a room alone, avoid it as far as possible. Take someone along with you if you can. Always consider anyone who tries to meet you alone in the wrong till he is proven right. If you feel violated do not hesitate to shout, scream, run and gather attention. There is no reason to feel guilty and take things lying down. If you are out of town, reach out to your nearest relative or friend or someone who can be there at the shortest possible notice."

Keep records

Nisha Samson, 25, who unwittingly found herself in a casting couch, says that even though she was disgusted with the way he behaved, she was able to keep a record of some of her interactions with the man who propositioned to her. Samson advises people in such situations to keep records of all the conversation that happened over text or email. "If you realise something is going wrong, always record the interaction so he doesn't cry blue murder," she says "Unfortunately, I did not record my telephonic conversation with this man. However I have the rest of the evidence."

Do not invite the problem

A parent on condition of anonymity tells us that the child must be taught not to invite trouble. She says, "One needs to tell them what are acceptable social norms. While you need not police them, there is nothing wrong in telling them if they are dressed inappropriately or that they should not get drunk or that you find some of their behaviour inappropriate or provocative. Very often these are attention-seeking devices but the child does not know what she is getting into."

Parents need to be candid

Rawal adds to this argument and says, "Just as you tell a child what is right and wrong, the child should be made aware of what right or wrong is being done to him/her. It is important for the parents to be candid and educate young children about sex. You need not tell them everything but the concept and idea needs to be introduced in their young minds. There is no point in trying to be shy and avoid talking about sex altogether."

What you need to remember
1. There is no reason why anyone can or should touch your private parts. If someone does, raise an alarm -- kick, shout, hit and scream so everyone around you knows what's happened.
2. The person touching you inappropriately could also be someone from the family or a friend of the family. So don't be surprised or shocked. Instead be prepared. If an uncle or family friend touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, tell them in as many words. I this person continues to ignore your protests, tell your parents about it.
3. If you think your parents won't understand, look out for support from an elder -- perhaps your schoolteacher. In case you want to speak out to a friend, do so but ensure that it is a friend you know and trust entirely.

4. See a counsellor if you think there's no one who can see your point of view. Most of them will be willing to lend you an ear. Despite whatever people around you might think of it, there is nothing wrong in seeing a psychologist.
5. Do not keep things bottled up. They will eventually get to you. Find a release somewhere.
6. Being alone in a room with a stranger is a no-no. There is nothing a stranger cannot tell you in public that he will tell you in private. Restrict your interactions with unknown people in public places. However, if you do have to meet someone in private, ensure you have someone with you during the meeting. Also there is no harm in carrying a pepper spray, available at most major pharmacists.
7. Be prepared! Molestation can happen any time and at any place. The key is to keep your head on your shoulders. Do not get disturbed or flustered. Deal with it with a cool head.
8. It is easy to blame yourself for a certain situation. It's easier to blame your parents/guardians to have put you in that situation. If there is someone who has to be blamed, it is the person who has or has tried to molest you. Blame that person instead. And fight back. If you go into a depression, the molester wins. Certainly you don't want that to happen!
9. It's fine to wear short skirts. But would it invite trouble? That's a question you can answer best. How you present yourself is how the world will perceive you.

(Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims)

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Abhishek Mande