There are people who have near-death experiences, who acquire a whole new perspective on life, who learn to live it to the fullest extent, and in many cases no longer fear death. Sadly this is not the case with sexual assault. One may get used to it because of the repeatability of its occurrence, but the fear of it never goes away.
My last blog about sexual assault being society’s best kept secret (and worst problem) struck a chord in many who read it. It is a topic that takes up a lot of media attention when celebrities and people in power are found guilty of indecent behaviour or worse. The sad truth is that most sexual abuse goes unnoticed or unchallenged because it happens behind closed doors in an environment that is ‘supposed’ to be safe. It can leave lifelong emotional, even physical scars, on the survivor. For all the training we give our children on how to be wary of strangers, are we doing enough to protect them from the dangers lurking amongst the familiar and the known?
Here are a few simple things we as parents can do to minimise the risk of our children being abused by people we know and trust:
- Affection: Never force your child to show affection or accept it from someone if they don’t want to. It is never too early to let children choose whom they want to bestow affection upon, and vice versa.
- Space: Teach your child about personal space early on. Unless they happen to be on a very crowded bus or train, there is no excuse for another person to get too close to them. Teach them also about their body and what is private.
- Signs: Look out for signs of change in your child’s behaviour patterns. Do you get the feeling that something is not right and that your child is reacting in a troubling way around certain people?
- Instinct: Follow your instinct. Also teach your children to trust theirs. It will almost always be right.
- Safety: Assure your child that their safety and wellbeing is your greatest priority. For goodness sake, mean it, and act on your promise. There is no greater betrayal than a parent neglecting to protect their child after having assured them they would.
- Talk: Encourage your child to talk to you if something is troubling them. When they do, don’t ever make the mistake of not believing them or telling them they are imagining things. Don’t let your emotions – disbelief, anger, sadness or helplessness – taint your conversation. Even if the revelations are hard to deal with, you must be at least as brave as your child is being in coming clean to you.
Remember it is entirely possible that the perpetrator has threatened your child with retribution if they tell anyone or that it is “secret” that they must divulge to no one. Once your child has placed their trust in you, it is up to you to take action. No relationship should be more sacred than the one you have with your child where you have promised to protect them. Doing nothing should simply not be an option.
It is impossible to put in a blog in simple steps what form that action should take as each situation is different. Always, in instances of sexual abuse, we must assume that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. In most countries child sexual abuse is a criminal offence and punishable by law. But often, depending on the severity of the crime, a rebuke from close members of the family, or the disdain of the community may be enough to put them on notice. If the perpetrator knows he is being watched and faces dire consequences if he does not change his ways, he is less likely to reoffend.
Secondly, ghastly as the experience may have been for the child, we must tap into the resilience of childhood. It is up to us as parents, and for society, to not let it define them as victims and taint the way they view themselves for years to come. We don’t want children to go through life afraid of being violated, full of suspicion and with diminishing levels of self-worth. We can give our children the confidence to better anticipate and avoid situations where they might be in danger, and teach them strategies to deal with these, should they arise. Abusers prefer their victims to be meek, silent and afraid. In a threatening situation encourage your child to be anything but that.
Whether we are parents, teachers, elders in a family, care givers or simply bystanders, we have a role to play in tackling sexual abuse and reducing its occurrence. We must teach our girls and boys right from wrong, and also what to do if something does not feel right. But most of all, let us make a pledge that we will not turn a blind eye if we witness something troubling. For nothing serves to perpetuate sexual abuse more than the silence of those who suffer it, and the inaction of those who sense it is happening.