What exactly is child sexual abuse (CSA) and why is it so important to tackle it?
CSA is a form of child abuse. It can be both touch- based and non-touch based. It can involve touching or fondling of a child’s private parts, or asking the child to touch one’s private parts or any sort of contact whereby the person perpetrating it seeks sexual gratification.
Non-touch based abuse such as exposing one’s genitalia, using sexually explicit language with a child, showing a child pornography etc. are all also forms of CSA. Studies show that there is usually an element of power involved where a person, usually known to the child, takes advantage of the child’s vulnerability and helplessness.
How rampant is CSA in India?
India has the highest number of CSA cases in the world. Government statistics put the figure at 53% of all our country’s children. Numerically that means more than 1 out of every 2 children has been sexually abused in some form before the age of 18.
The numbers combined with the fact that India is a family centric society and CSA is a taboo subject, most cases go unreported due to the fear of shame and dishonour. It is this shifting of the blame from the perpetrator to the victim that allows the problem to exist and multiply. Studies have shown that a single offender is capable of targeting multiple victims. This explains how this problem is very relevant and widespread in the Indian context.
How can sexual abuse impact a child?
The impact of sexual abuse varies from child to child. Some children are more resilient to the effects and are able to channelize their coping mechanisms to fight and heal. For example, if a child is naturally more resilient and accepts that it wasn't his/her fault, they can channel the energy in ways that helps him/her grow out of this experience. For most, however, the damage can be enormous with the impact still being felt in their adulthood, affecting several aspects of their life.
Often, children who face CSA have issues managing their feelings and can even develop mental health conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety disorders, substance addiction, etc.. They may find it difficult to judge people and their intentions and, may develop unhealthy relationship patterns.
Which children can be more at risk to be sexually abused?
While it is true that any child can face CSA, there are a few factors which can make children more vulnerable to it, such as:
Children who are neglected or don’t receive affection from their family
Children with an intellectual or physical disability
Children in war-torn or conflict-ridden places
Children from marginalised communities such as children of commercial sex workers, children who are transgender, etc..
Children who are psychologically distressed or facing mental health issues
The MWCD (Ministry of Women and Child Development) study revealed that 53% of boys and 47% of girls, of varied age and background, have been reported of being sexually abused. So, when it comes to gender both are almost equally vulnerable.
We need to keep in mind that these are just some factors and may not be all-inclusive. However things such as a child’s attire, social & economic status or the educational qualification of parents do not make children more/less prone to CSA.
What are the signs that may indicate that a child is being sexually abused?
Child sexual abuse can impact a child profoundly which can bring about changes in their psycho-social behaviour. While these signs may not be surely indicative of CSA, they can tell us that the child may be facing some distressing situation. Here are some signs you can look out for: Inappropriate sexual behaviour, which includes acting out and using toys or objects in sexual way
Problems with sleeping, such as nightmares
Being socially withdrawn or avoiding social contacts
Sudden personality/behavioural changes that are not age-appropriate or related to natural changes like puberty
Unexplained fear of certain places or person
Unusual secretive behaviour
Changes in eating habits such as eating in excess or skipping meals
Changes in temperament
You can talk to the child if you see any of these signs in them to check if something is bothering them.
How does child sexual abuse usually happen? Is there a pattern?
CSA is generally shown as a snatch and grab situation through media, however that is rarely the case. It is often an ongoing abuse and usually, the abuser chooses a child who can be abused repeatedly. Studies found that there is a common pattern among sexual abuse offenders, observed world over, which happens in three stages.
People who abuse children groom the child by gaining the child’s and his/her family’s/caretakers’ trust. They try find out what needs are not met in child’s life and attempt to fulfill them in order to gain a child’s trust. Similarly they offer parents and caregivers much needed help and support, in a bid to win the trust of these people as well. The next step is to make the child comfortable with their touch, such as caressing them on the shoulder or head, making them sit on their lap or hugging them. At this stage the touch seems casual and non threatening but is still providing sexual pleasure to the person. During this time they start seeking private and alone time with the child too and try and make the child feel comfortable with such arrangements. This is called Grooming.
After grooming, the abuser may proceed to violate the child. Once the abuser has gained such access, he/she begins to actually Sexually Abuse the child. This stage may also include showing pornographic content to them.
People who abuse children may offer a combination of gifts or treats and threats about what will happen if the child says 'no' or tells someone. This is called Accommodation. Often, the abusive person will convince the child that they won’t be believed or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it. The child may care about or feel protective of the person who sexually abused them and may feel they’d be betraying this person by telling a trusted adult about the sexual contact and, the abuser may use this information to help maintain the secrecy. The abuser may scare the child with threats of physical hurt, but more often the threat is about what will be lost if they tell e.g. the family breaking up or someone going to prison. This makes it more difficult for a child to seek help and they end up with self-blaming and self-reproach.
What are the signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons?
You cannot pick out an abuser in a crowd. They usually are people who are well-liked, respected and trusted by a lot of adults. Some will seek out employment which brings them into contact with children, some will hold positions of trust which can help to convince other adults that they are beyond reproach, making it hard for adults to raise their concerns. Studies conducted world over have proved that sexual crimes against children are most often perpetrated by someone known to the child or in a position of trust and power. This could be family members, friends, neighbours, or even seemingly trustworthy educators, school bus drivers etc. Abusers come from all classes, ethnic and religious backgrounds and may be homosexual or heterosexual. Both men and women can be abusers.
Unnecessary involvement in child’s life, not letting them have sufficient privacy
Although, there are some signs that an adult or an older teen will show if they are seeking sexual pleasure from a child. such as:
Insisting on showing physical forms of affection such as kissing or hugging
Taking extra efforts to make the child feel “special”
Looking out for opportunities to spend alone time with kids than being with people of their age. This may be done by way of getting a job that puts them in the contact of children.
Picking on a child
Frequently walking-in on a child/teenager in the bathroom or bedroom
Showing too much interested in child’s/teenager’s sexual development
Spending lot of money on them for no reason
Why is it so difficult for children to tell their parents about abuse?
There are many understandable reasons why a child victim of sexual abuse is not likely to tell anyone about their abuse. Some of the most common reasons are:Grooming and Accommodation make it difficult for the child to share what is happening to them.
If the perpetrator is a parent, caregiver or friend then children frequently remain silent to protect a non-abusive parent or other friends from such upsetting information.
Sometimes, a child may feel confused if they experienced positive physical pleasure, arousal, or emotional intimacy during the abuse. This confusion can make it difficult for the child to speak up.
A child may feel that they permitted the abuse and should have been able to stop it. Remember that a child is NEVER responsible for any sexual interaction with a more powerful child or adult.
The child is unable to express such an encounter because of lack of vocabulary or a lack of open communication channels between the child and his/her parent or any other adult.
How can I help my child deal with CSA?
If the necessary steps are taken to help the child towards recovery, the child can recover from the trauma that he/she has experienced and can live a healthy life. The first two steps towards a healthy recovery are:
Instilling confidence in the child by telling them that you believe in what they have said and that you are by their side.
b) Assure them that whatever happened was never their fault and they had nothing to do with it (as many children blame themselves for the abuse).
Beyond this, with professional help, sustained love and support the child can heal.
What is our government doing for this?
There is a strong law in place in India to tackle sexual violence committed against children called Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO). It came into action in 2012 after an extensive study done to find prevalence of CSA by Ministry of Women and Child development (MWCD). It is a very comprehensive and child-centric law. To read more about the law click here. Also there is Childline (helpline for child abuse) which works for children who are in need of care and protection. It started as a project under the department of family and child welfare in TISS and the MWCD established it across India in 1998-99. In 2017 Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched Saathiya Salah app to provide appropriate sexual health related information to adolescent children.
Can people sexually abuse and exploit children on the internet?
Yes. Mostly young people tend to become less wary and talk about things far more openly while communicating via social sites than communicating face to face. Both male and female adults and some young people may use the internet to harm children. It includes, but isn't limited to, looking at, taking and/or distributing photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused.
In many circumstances, grooming online is faster and anonymous and results in children trusting an online ‘friend’ more quickly than someone they had just met ‘face to face’. Those intent on sexually harming children can easily access information about them and they are able to hide their true identity, age and gender. People who groom children may not be restricted by time or accessibility to a child as they would in the ‘real world’.
Adding a Monitoring application on the devices the child has access to is one way to keep the unknown threats away from children. Always having that rapport and open communication with the child of what information should be kept private and what should be public is important.
Can child sexual abuse also involve a child abusing another child?
Yes, More than a third of those who sexually abuse children are under the age of 18 themselves. In many instances, especially with younger children, a child may not understand that his or her forceful sexual actions toward another child are harmful.
Children who harm others often have been victimized in some way themselves. But being sexually victimized absolutely does not mean a child will develop sexually abusive behaviors. Most children who are sexually abused never sexually harm another child. However, without treatment, a child who has been sexually abused may be more vulnerable to being abused again or be confused about which behaviors are appropriate.
How can we keep our children safe?
While it is quite unsettling to accept the reality of child sexual abuse, there are ways to prevent it. These are some measures we can take to keep children safe:Removing the shame around private body parts by teaching them the right names and giving age-appropriate sexuality-related information.
Making sure to avoid one-on-one adult and child situations, such as leaving one adult or older child alone with one younger child in a closed space.
Intervene when you see someone showering extra attention on a child or group of children when it seems unnecessary. It can be done politely by just informing the person that the kid/s do not look okay with this kind of attention so she/he should let them be alone or, inform the child’s trusted adult about what you have observed.
Community groups can be formed to talk about this concern so that people are available for support if needed.
Letting kids decide their body boundaries and empowering them to say “No” when they are uncomfortable with anyone’s touch/interaction, which also includes saying no to an aunty who pinches their cheeks or even shaking hands with an uncle. Parents need to support their kids so they can politely decline such advances.
Training communities and school staff etc to be more aware of this issue and participate in keeping children safe.