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Teaching children safe touch and unsafe touch
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Teaching children safe touch and unsafe touch

With staggering statistics of child sexual abuse across the globe, educating children about safe touch and unsafe touch will empower them to recognise and report it

How to talk to children about safe touch and unsafe touch

Gayathri Kamath, a homemaker from Jakarta, Indonesia, recounts her daughter Grishma returning from school, one day in 2018. While bathing her, Grishma uttered something that took her by surprise. “Mama! This is unsafe touch!” squealed the 4-year-old. Puzzled about the source of the new knowledge, Gayathri dialled Grishma’s teacher, to find out that Grishma was taught safe touch and unsafe touch in school.

The inquisitive kid that Grishma is, she began prodding more. “Can grandma touch me? What about uncle?” She even began pointing to different body parts, asking which among them were safe and unsafe to touch.

Gayathri sat her down and did an activity where they drew concentric circles on a sheet of paper, with her close family members in the circle closest to the centre and strangers in the circle farthest from the centre.

“I used the diagram to guide her on who could touch her where and under what circumstances,” says Gayathri, whose daughter is now 9.

Why teach children safe touch and unsafe touch?

The WHO terms child sexual abuse (CSA) as ‘a silent health emergency that is unnoticed, grossly underreported and poorly managed’.

According to several studies, a staggering one in eight of the world’s children (12.7 per cent) have been sexually abused before reaching the age of 18, with the perpetrators mostly known to them.

“Some of the reasons that child sexual abuse goes underreported is children unable to recognise their experience as sexual abuse and the shame and stigma associated with it,” says Ramesh Kidambi, co-founder, Break the Silence, a not-for-profit from Hyderabad that works in raising awareness on child sexual abuse.

“The perpetrator may manipulate a child into maintaining a shroud of secrecy about the abuse by using threats or instilling fear and making the child feel guilty. Some may also do it in the guise of love and affection,” points out Kidambi.

Knowledge about safe and unsafe touch equips children to recognise and report sexual abuse.

How to teach children safe and unsafe touch

“Educating children about safe touch and unsafe touch should begin as early as 1.5 years when a child begins to comprehend language,” says Dr Shaibya Saldanha, a gynecologist from Bengaluru, who also works as a child protection specialist.

Dr Saldanha opines that bath time and toilet training are good times to begin teaching children about their private body parts.

Using pet names and colloquial terms to describe private body parts is a no-no according to Dr Saldanha.

“It is important to teach the correct names of private parts, without attaching any stigma or shame, so that when someone touches them inappropriately, they aren’t ashamed to talk about it,” says Dr Saldanha.

Explaining terminologies

Echoing Dr Saldanha’s thoughts, Chhavi Dawar, a child rights activist from Bengaluru says that children should be equipped with a language to speak about sexual abuse so that they can disclose it if it happens. According to Dawar, this can be done by explaining what safe and unsafe touch means and teaching about body parts and sexual abuse in an age-appropriate manner.

Terminologies matter, say, experts, adding that the phrase ‘safe touch and unsafe touch’ is to be used instead of ‘good touch and bad touch’, as the latter can attribute to righteousness, stigma and feelings of rejection and guilt.

“Parents can teach children that safe touch elicits positive emotions, like comfort, warmth and happiness, and includes shaking hands, pat on the back and hugs from a loved one,” says Meghna Karia, senior psychologist, Mpower, Mumbai.

“An unsafe touch makes you feel confused, fearful and uncomfortable. For example, touching private parts. Teach them to run away and scream when they feel discomfort and immediately report it to parents or guardians,” Karia adds.

According to Dawar, cultivating an environment of open communication and not shushing children while discussing topics about sexuality or chiding them for their sexual curiosity will go a long way in empowering children to speak about sexual abuse.

Respect a child’s ‘no’

Dr Saldanha emphasises teaching children body autonomy and establishing clear boundaries.

“By the age of five, parents can direct their child to wash their privates themselves while bathing them, making them feel in control of their bodies and giving them clear-cut ideas about what touches are okay and what are not okay,” says Dr Saldanha.

Dawar points out the importance of parents respecting a child’s ‘no.’

“When a child’s ‘no’ is respected at home, they are empowered to say no elsewhere. If someone doesn’t respect their disapproval, they are more likely to report it to the parent,” says Dawar.

Probable signs of child sexual abuse

Dr Jesal Sheth, senior consultant pediatrician, Fortis Hospital, Mumbai, lists some of the signs that may indicate child sexual abuse:

  • Bruises on the body
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Changes in gait
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Tantrums

Karia notes that hypo/hyper sexualisation, drawing sexual content, playing with their sexual organs, excessive sex play with friends, withdrawal and clinging to parents could also be possible signs.

Some of these signs can have causes other than sexual abuse and hence parents need to keep a close watch on these signs and probe further.

“Long-term effects of child sexual abuse can be post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, low self-esteem, body insecurity, trust issues and delinquency,” Karia adds.

When a child reports abuse

According to Kidambi, parents are often the first line of defence and parents mustn’t make the child guilty or minimise it; they must show empathy and acceptance to cope better, seek professional help and reduce the long-term psychological effects of abuse.

There are legal ways to tackle it via The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) which protects the survivor and ensures stringent punishment for the perpetrator.

Takeaways

Child sexual abuse is a rampant problem that often goes underreported. Teaching safe and unsafe touch to children can empower them to comprehend and vocalise their abuse, reducing long-term consequences.

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