Tariq* was repeatedly molested by an uncle over three years since he was five. The uncle used to bribe him with chocolate and ask him nicely to not tell anyone about their “playtime”. As a child not understanding what happened to him, Tariq never spoke about it to anyone, but became a very distant and antisocial child, prone to sudden tantrums and angry outbursts. When he was 16, in midst of an argument, he finally broke down and told his mother about it. Mortified about such allegations against her cousin, his mother told him he must have misunderstood and asked him not to mention this to anyone. Now in his 20s, Tariq still sees his uncle at family functions who jokes around with him, as if nothing ever happened.
I learned of Tariq's story not from him but from his tearful older sister who learned about the incident by chance. She is worried about how Tariq has extremely low self-esteem and has isolated himself from his family. She said the matter was never brought up again and their parents never acknowledged it happened. She is full of resentment against her parents but doesn't have the courage to confront them or talk to her brother about it.
Tariq's story illustrates three things about us as a society:
One, we don't respect the agency and experiences of children. When they challenge us with something distressing, we try to convince them, and ourselves, that they either imagined it or are lying. And whatever the case may be, they will forget about it over time.
Two, we are so uncomfortable about talking about issues related to sex and abuse that we are willing to push them under the rug and ignore them out of fear—fear of dealing with the truth and fear of what other people might say. In this case, it was particularly difficult for their mother to deal with the idea that her son had been molested, and by a man no less.
Three, we are so in denial of the idea that those close to us can also engage in abusive behaviour, that we are completely unwilling to confront the crime so as to not create rifts in the family or attract undue attention.
But we need to get over ourselves. Enough newspapers reports and anecdotal evidence has shown us that sexual abuse of children is rampant across all strata of society, but our silence around the issue is deafening.
Children who experience sexual abuse tend to keep silent about their experiences because of feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion. Stigma around the issue and examples of muzzling conversations set by adults also discourage children from expressing their feelings out of fear of not being believed. It is this shroud of secrecy and denial that we need to shake ourselves out of, and one way of doing that is by openly communicating with children about it.
The positive impact of this open communication is demonstrated by the work of a student-led project called Nishu (Nirapod Shoishober Uddeshe) initiated by a group called Ground Zero. In December 2016, Ground Zero won the BYLC Youth Leadership Prize, a grant of BDT 750,000 from Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC) with support from UKAID. With help from other child rights groups, including Breaking the Silence, they created a child-friendly module for students reading between classes three and five, that disseminated accessible information on the threat of sexual abuse.
A baseline survey with 480 students from five different schools found that around 70 percent of the children were not aware that they had private parts, which were not supposed to be touched by anyone else. They held sessions with 1,200 students from various schools and, through the use of cartoons, poems and posters, were able to make them aware of their personal space and private parts, which are forbidden to others, understand how to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching, and what to do if someone did anything that made them uncomfortable.
Ground Zero's main intention was to reach children with the right information before they experienced sexual abuse. Through their intervention, they found that many children had experienced abuse at home by people they trust, but hadn't spoken about it either because they couldn't comprehend what was happening to them, or couldn't articulate their feelings of discomfort. Having someone speak openly to them about it helped them to understand their experience and speak to their parents. Several parents called the group afterwards, admitting shock that this had happened to their children right under their noses. In one instance, where a girl was being molested by her father, the child spoke to her mother after attending one of these workshops. Upon learning this, the mother moved away with the child and filed a police report. Ground Zero's initiative demonstrates that an act as simple as speaking to children on their level can have a far-reaching impact on their lives.
A lot needs to be done to address child sexual abuse. We need to find out the root causes of why it happens, we need to establish better processes for legal recourse and punishing perpetrators, and we need better counselling services for those who experience abuse and trauma. But these sorts of initiatives are often left for government services, hospitals, or NGOs to manage. A small but effective measure that each of us can take at home is to create channels for open communication and talk to the children in our lives about it. It doesn't have to be an uncomfortable, detailed, explicit discussion, but enough so that they are aware, able to protect themselves, and seek help if something happens. Hopefully then, we will have all played an active part in creating a society where no child has to suffer in silence as Tariq did.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
Shaveena Anam is Deputy Manager, Communication at Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre.