Interview with NGOs by Chandni

What words should adults use in helping children identify touches? Is it okay to say ‘good touch’/‘bad touch’?

Pooja Taparia, Founder of Arpan (PT):

Nope. ‘Safe touch’ and ‘Unsafe touch’ is best to use as children who get sexually abused will retain the word ‘bad’ in their heads and apply to themselves in the future which can result in them thinking that something bad happened to them and that they are bad too. Cognitive distortions can happen so it’s best to say ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe touch’.

Suchismita Bose, Director of The Foundation (SB):

I feel ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ touch is what we should train our kids to identify. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are more moralistic terms I feel. It places the tough responsibility on the child to judge whether the touch is good or bad, especially in cases where the abuser is a person the child loves and feels loved by. ‘Comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ are more experiential, thus being simpler to identify. That not only takes care of the grey area on the continuum where something might feel physically/emotionally good but is making the child uncomfortable about the situation. Plus it takes care of even the possibility of guilt and low self regard arising in a child from having experienced a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ touch…

Overall, we need to help our children trust their instincts when something feels uncomfortable even if they are confused about it being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing.

Rakshanda Inam, Core Group Member of Forum Against Child Sexual Exploitation (RI):

‘Comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’. I think it’s ok to use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as these concepts are known to youngest of children in our society.

At what age do you think parents should talk to their child about personal safety or sexual abuse?

PT: As an infant itself parents can begin talking to them about personal safety. Even at 1 year we teach children to stay away from fire, not to touch electrical points, etc. so it can begin at a very early age itself. It’s not necessary to talk to children about ‘sexual abuse’ but personal safety as a broader topic which involves everything about children keeping themselves safe and so including safety from sexual abuse as well but without teaching what sexual abuse is. That can be taught later and age appropriately.

SB: Talking to children about personal safety is a gradual process. It is not a conversation that is reserved for a 12th or 13th birthday!

Right since the age of two or three one needs to start initiating the child into a comfortable zone with the adult stakeholders such that an open channel of communication is maintained throughout.

Some broad guidelines of age-appropriate information that parents can share with their kids:

  • 18 months – Teach your child the proper names for body parts.
  • 3-5 years – Teach your child about private parts of the body and how to say no to sexual advances. Give straightforward answers about sex.
  • 5-8 years – Discuss safety away from home and the difference between comfortable touch and uncomfortable touch. Encourage your child to talk about scary experiences.
  • 8-12 years – Stress personal safety. Start to discuss rules of sexual conduct that are accepted by the family.
  • 13-18 years – Stress personal safety. Discuss rape, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy.

RI: One should start talking to children about personal safety as soon as the child understands and starts speaking. I have taught my child to say ‘NO’ from the age of 1.3 months. Children should not be asked to give kisses randomly to any second person we meet even if they are flying kisses. It’s so common with us parents to ask so of children and even give hugs to relatives, family and friends. As for abuse, one can start talking to the child once the child starts talking about concepts of growing up, and the time they ask questions about boys and girls. I think children themselves give us clues when their curiosity increases to know about the growing up processes.

How do you suggest schools educate students about child sexual abuse?

PT: Arpan has developed a Personal Safety Education (PSE) program for schools to incorporate into their curriculum and implement with age 6 yrs – 10 yrs children.

PSE is a comprehensive program that not only introduces personal safety messages to children, but also identifies parents and teachers as important stakeholders in a child’s life and aims at building their capacities in protecting children from sexual abuse.

Over the years, Arpan has conducted capability building sessions for teachers and counsellors of schools like: The Cathedral & John Connon School- Colaba, Goenka Group of Schools (In western Suburbs & Thane), Greenlawns High School- Worli, St. Thomas School, Goregaon, Canossa High School- Mahim and more in and  outside Mumbai.

Arpan has facilitated incorporation of PSE into Life Skills Program curriculum (for Primary School) at 5 schools under the Bombay Cambridge Gurukul (BCG) Group. This process involved training of the teachers in conducting PSE classes themselves with children and also helping the schools to come up with protocols and strategies to deal with sexual abuse cases that are reported by students.  We have directly taught over 4000 children so far.

In a review exercise conducted in one of the schools with two grades, it was observed that 30 children were able to say ‘No’ to attempted and ongoing abuse after the skills they learnt in the PSE program. This data was taken one year after completion of PSE program with the children. 

Schools should take up this program and build it into their curriculum so that children get the personal safety messages regularly.

SB: Schools and parents need to reinforce each other’s teachings. Schools should impart the same age-appropriate information as mentioned earlier. The school should be very alert and sensitive to signs of abuse.

Periodically, experts in the field should be brought in to conduct workshops and have a dialogue with school authorities, teachers, school helpers, parents and finally, children. The onus of responsibility should be on the adults and not on the child. Regular discussions in the classrooms should be encouraged on the issue with a space being created for disclosure.

A sensitized school cousellor should be employed by every school.

RI: I think telling the child parts of the body, especially the private parts, is important. I think we should teach the names nursery onwards and that no one is allowed to touch them except parents and doctors if necessary. Besides, it’s important to keep on reminding them of it. Play ‘what if games’ or just quizzes so that they are well versed with the words. The teachers should be given sensitivity training first, as if they are not comfortable they are going to pass it on to the children. I just did a training for B.Ed students where the budding teachers were so shy at my utterance of words like periods, breasts, chest, etc. I think they need to be well oriented with the issue first. I am not saying that every one of them should be given sexuality training but at least brought to a level of comfort to discuss the issue. When there is a disclosure by any of their students, they should be able to handle it and not get overwhelmed or shy away or for that matter not believe the  child. I think children in their early teens should be given sexuality training or orientation. A lot goes on in the name of experimentation. One needs to address those issues too.

If a student reports abuse to a teacher or counsellor, what should be the next few steps that the school should take?

PT: With the consent of the child the parents should be informed and depending on who the abuser is action should be taken to first make the abuse stop. If it’s a parent who is the offender then the non-offending parent should be called in. Whatever is practically possible should be done to make the abuse stop. If the case is of incest and that too if it’s a parent it can get very tricky to handle. The major role will then be played by the non-offending parent on how assertively can he or she make sure the child is not abused again.

The next step will be through either the school counselor or an external counselor the child is assessed on the impact of abuse and accordingly counseling is done for the child as well as the family members.

It’s not easy for the child definitely but even family members need support specially in cases of incest where betrayal is felt very strongly.

If the abuse has happened in the past then too the counselor should check for residual impact and address it through counseling sessions.

If the abuser is a stranger or a known person it’s easier (comparatively to incest) to make sure the abuse stops and that person doesn’t have access to the child. In any case counseling must be done to make sure the child is not showing any symptoms as a result of the abuse.

SB: Most importantly, every school should come up with a suitable child protection policy with careful consultation and discussion with experts from the field.

As part of this policy they must have in place a child protection committee. This could include select number of parents, teachers, external psychologists, lawyers, etc.

Any case that is brought to light should be taken up by this committee and depending upon the needs of the particular case, appropriate steps must be taken.

RI: If the child reports abuse, the school or the counselor should seek permission from the child if it can be shared with some trusted adult. In most probabilities, the child would agree and the information can be shared with that adult. One must also see who the abuser is, it’s a must. If it’s any of the family members the child would be more resistant. The child must be taken into confidence. The severity of the situation must be taken in to account – the urgency or emergency to take the child off from the exploitative situation. Most of the times the person who gets to know the first time is eager to call the family and inform them, but forget the fact that the abuser might be a family member and the parents or the parent themselves are not prepared to handle such a situation/information nor the abuser. When the abuser is outside of the family, they might still maneuver the situation and deal with it. But in cases of incest, we as care givers would also lose out on the child, her/his trust and any remote chances of helping.

What techniques do you think could be employed in counseling children who’ve been or are being abused?

PT: First of all the abuse must stop.

Next is to create an environment of safety first. The child must be able to feel supported and safe and secure.

Help the child grieve the loss of a lover (abuser). This is very specific to cases where abuse has been going on for a long period of time and where the child has accommodated the abuse and the abuser and the child is liking both. Stopping the abuse can be then quite distressing for the child because the child associates sex with love. Children also experience pleasure like adults. Human bodies naturally respond to sexual touches. Even a  baby does. So children over a period of time start enjoying the abuse because they are feeling pleasure which is absolutely natural. Only they are not aware that this is inappropriate behavior. Children may miss the sex and sexual touching.

This is also applicable where the child might not like the abuser but is liking the abuse.

The effects of abuse can be very varying depending on

•          Age

•          Gender

•          Type of abuse

•          Duration of abuse

•          Who the offender is

•          Degree of violence used

•          Mental health of child before abuse

•          Coping mechanisms

•          Social support

Understanding the above, a plan should be made to counsel the child beginning with teaching appropriate behaviours, appropriate relationships and sexuality, addressing the feelings of the child, creating a comforting and supportive environment and involving family members to help with creating the comfort and support. In the event of there being no family, the guardians or caretakers need to be given adequate information to play the supportive role for the child.

There are various mainstream and alternate therapies that counselors use to address trauma. Depending on the counselors skills in various therapies different methodologies can be used. Mainstream therapies include Trauma model, Traumagenic dynamics (Finkelhor and Browne), EMDR, Somatic experiencing, etc. Alternate therapies include, dance movement therapy, arts based therapy, play therapy, etc. Group therapy is also done. In our experience while group work is powerful individual counseling and therapy is extremely vital in processing trauma and changing belief systems of the individual which bring about significant change. Alternate therapies have also good impact. Depending on the age of the child, adult and the impact of abuse and the counselor’s own skills the kind of therapy can be decided.

It’s comparatively much easier to heal child survivors than adult survivors as more the time passes after the abuse more the impact is seen. Lot of cognitive behaviours get manifested. With adults large part of the therapeutic work should be planned around building self esteem, self love and self acceptance. That addresses the shame and guilt in the adult which is the most difficult to get rid of. However, we have seen changes take place and it’s extremely heartening to see significant shifts come in an individual’s life as a result of the therapeutic process.

If you want more details on the healing processes please write to me on pooja@arpan.org.in

Special note: For Parents – Please do not make your own assessment of whether your child is ok or not after being sexually abused. Only a trained counselor will be able to judge impact. Please take your child for counseling and let the counselor judge whether your child needs counseling or not and if the child does then please take him/or her for it without fail. You’ll be doing your child a huge favour.

For friends of survivors – Be supportive to your friend and encourage your friend slowly to go in for counseling.

For adult survivors – You don’t need to fight this battle alone or only with a friend. Seek help from a counselor. Believe me when I say, it’s a liberating process from being survivors into becoming thrivers. Please reach out. We are there to help and support you. You could write to support@arpan.org.in and or call 98190.86444.

SB: This is very case dependent and it’s best not to make generalizations. If the counselor is well trained and equipped to handle a case he/she will be in a position to use the best approach required.

However, the basic ethics and qualities that a counselor must have like non -judgemental attitude, empathy, trust, confidentiality etc. can be generalized.

RI: The Counselors need to first deal with their own issues related to sexual abuse or their own sexuality before they even venture out to deal with child sexual abuse of the world. It has taken me a long time to do so. But now I am much more equipped to deal with it. They also need to learn newer techniques of trauma resolution and management. I also feel the counselors need to help the children or other victims of sexual abuse to share, acknowledge and take further steps to resolve the traces of hurt, mistrust and responsibility/onus of the abuse.

Can you share names of counsellors that you might recommend to schools or parents for cases of sexual abuse?

PT: Arpan itself addresses cases of sexual abuse since this is our area of work. We take on cases of both children and adults. We can be contacted on support@arpan.org.in and or 98190.86444.

We have dealt with over 250 cases so far.

We also have a database of counselors who can handle cases of sexual abuse. Anybody can get in touch with us for contact details. Complete confidentiality is maintained with us.

SB: The Foundation has a panel of psychologists and counselors who work pro bono for us. This is apart from the in-house counseling services we offer.

Anyone can get in touch with us and we will try our best to create a suitable link depending on location and availability. We offer services to both child and adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

RI: Yes, I can. In Mumbai – Pushpa Venkatraman, Ferzeen Faroodi, Sandra Farrel,  Jyoti Savla, Suchismita Bose and of course Mine.

Do you have any recommendations for how we can keep kids on the streets and in state-run children’s homes safe?

PT: Children wherever should be taught personal safety skills. If they are empowered with these skills chances of abuse can become less. However, one can’t say it’ll stop completely despite children having these skills. Wherever there will be huge amounts of trust and or authority, children might give in.

In children’s homes caretakers and other staff in those homes should be made aware about child sexual abuse and skills should be given to them also on handling disclosure and addressing cases of sexual abuse within the home. They can also be trained on teaching personal safety skills regularly to children.

The streets are open ground. It’s very difficult to protect children on streets. They themselves will be the best at protecting themselves by running away from the situation.

SB: This question is something that every individual and organization has been struggling with. We are all aware of the systems and processes existing in our country. There are lots of layers and levels that have to be worked on to address this issue.

Institutional abuse is one of the major concerns of recent times.

Again, awareness building for the adult society at large is the base point that we need to start from.

RI: Oh well, it’s an unfortunate situation that they are so prone to abuse while in residential homes or on the streets. They should be made aware of the issue, the laws should be more stringent and organizations and individuals should be more open to talk about the issue.

What has been your experience with schools and other NGOs?

PT: Schools have been welcoming the idea of teaching children personal safety skills. Though in the beginning they had their reservations but now with the growing number of cases of sexual abuse being reported schools are realizing that this is an important issues to address. So far all the schools we have gone to have said yes to either training their teachers and the teachers implementing the personal safety education program or us teaching the children directly. Some of the schools we have worked with are mentioned above.

Even NGOs are calling us for training their staff. We have trained staff of many NGOs like Childline, Prerana, Mobile Creches, Aakanksha, Doorstep School, World Vision, REAP, Saathi, CCDT, and many others. Some of them have taken up a campaign on spreading awareness on CSA post our training. It’s helped their staff address the issue of CSA in their environments and respond appropriately to cases that come up.

My message to schools is to continue to see the importance in empowering your children with personal safety skills and make it a top priority in your life skill curriculum. If you don’t have a life skill curriculum put one in place and teach children personal safety skills. Preventing a child from sexual abuse is literally like saving a life. The impact as we all know can be so damaging that it can take years to deal with it.

My message to NGOs is keep training your staff regularly on the issue of CSA so that the old staff remembers the intricacies of the issue again and the new staff is freshly trained to be able to deal with the issue. In your own areas of work take up the issue and do whatever you can to spread awareness with all your stake holders. If you run schools, teach the children and parents. If you run a shelter home, teach the children and staff. If you work with adults address the issue with them. If statistics are correct then with every second child or adult it could have been a past experience. Create awareness and help the survivors heal.

Both to schools and NGOs – Put certain child protection policies in your organizations and ensure it is implemented. Work towards how you can make your own environments safe for children.

SB: Experience with schools varies.

Sometimes we come across schools that are very enthusiastic and open to tackle the issue of child sexual abuse and that is a huge source of encouragement for us. However, there are also times when either due to personal discomfort, denial of reality or fear of social taboos and stigmas, a lot of schools do not want to accept and address this issue. This makes it very difficult to penetrate such organisations and work with them.

RI: Very few schools are open to discuss child sexual abuse as an issue. If they get to know about it they would want to turn a blind eye to it as it spoils the reputation of the school or its trust. You would be surprised to know that many children’s organizations also have the same attitude. Most of the time, the child is either transferred or is removed from the school/institution. According to me, the reason is lack of awareness on the issue and lack of skills to deal with the issue. Even for that matter, counselors are not well equipped to deal with child sexual abuse. If we take the statistics that out of every 10 children, 7 children are sexually abused, then according to that ratio, many of us have not been able to deal with our own abuse and that is the reason why we get stuck in our practice and want to refer the moment we get to know that the symptoms of the patients/clients are pointing to child sexual abuse.

How would you like the media to contribute to the work you do?

PT: Publish articles on child sexual abuse so that more and more people become aware about it. Today the biggest challenge we face is overcoming people’s denial and disbelief to the issue. The more they hear and read about it the more acceptable and open they will become to learning and finding out more so that they can protect their children.

Media has been playing a huge role in this and should continue to. Media can also publish articles on the kind of work organizations like Arpan are doing and the impact we are making so that people can access our services and get help either for counseling or on understanding how to teach children personal safety skills.

SB: In today’s world, media is one of the strongest allies we can have and use for widespread awareness about child sexual abuse. There is just so much that we can do using the media’s help.

TULIR in Chennai has set a wonderful example of how the media can help spread awareness about child sexual abuse and make this reality creep into our consciousness.

But again, we have to be careful to not confuse our goals when we come to the use of media. We need to remind ourselves to use the media wisely and effectively to highlight the issue rather than shift the focus to our personal roles in the fight. Sometimes that might take away from the importance of the issue itself.

RI: The media should be more sensitive towards children and handle the issues pertaining to them more seriously rather than sensationalize the victim or the family. It is unfortunate that they get so much attention that the hurt of being abused is lost in the media coverage. Lots of people and organizations pour support in the initial stages but very few last long to take the case to any logical end.

Is there any video or film addressing issues of child sexual abuse that you like?

PT: Yes. ‘Children we Sacrifice’ by Gracy Poore made many years ago has been a good resource of information and of experiences of adult survivors.

Animated films by Stairway Foundation, ‘Daughter’, ‘Good Boy’ and ‘Silent Leaves Falling’ are very good films that we always use in our trainings. They bring out the issues of incest, paedophilia, child trafficking and internet pornography in a very good way.

SB: There are lots of videos and films – both Indian and International – available on this issue. Depends again on what kind of videos are we looking at. The videos range from awareness videos for adults, for children, films on disclosure and effects of child sexual abuse as experienced by adult survivors of child sexual abuse…

‘Children we Sacrifice’ is one such film on child sexual abuse that gives us a good perspective of experiences of adult survivors of child sexual abuse while there are a series of animation videos by Stairwell Foundation that can be used with older kids… Apart from these there is a lot more material available…

RI: None that really cover all the aspects of abuse, however one play that really made more sense was the Marathi play "Vatevarti kachaa ga" by Kalsootri (Meena Naik).

Awareness, advocacy and service delivery (working with victims and/or abusers) – can you throw some light on how we have fared in each area?

PT: Arpan’s been working on all these areas Prevention and Healing for almost 5 years now and I feel very proud that we have worked hard and worked well. We have reached out to 13,000 children and adults directly with our prevention and healing work as well as indirectly with over 4000 children and adults by training teachers.

We have also been advocating for bringing in child sexual offences as laws that are missing in India. We have been involved in drafting the laws with a core group of Lawyers and NGO professionals we have been hosting and sending our recommendations regularly to the relevant ministries and govt. officials.

Advocacy, Direct services as well as Research have been our areas so that we are able to address the issue of CSA more holistically.

With our prevention work we have seen children being able to report abuse after our programs, saying ‘NO’ to attempted abuse and running away from the situation, children teaching their siblings and their other friends about these skills. We see an average increase of approx. 25% in the knowledge, attitude and skills in both children and teachers post our trainings with them. (We map this by conducting pre and post tests.)

Parents feel much empowered too.

Our healing work with survivors has seen significant changes in thoughts, beliefs and behaviours as a result of our counseling. Our most challenging work has been with rescued minors who’ve been very violated but it’s heartening to see the changes in them as a result of our regular and intensive interventions with them with counseling as well as psychiatric support.

Themes of change that have taken place with this group of girls are:

  1. Reduction in anxiety symptoms,
  2. lot of bodily physiological symptoms of severe anxiety have reduced,
  3. greater empathy,
  4. greater self awareness,
  5. more assertiveness
  6. transition from self harm to reduced or no self harm,
  7. better learning and implementation of life skills,
  8. to take time before speaking/ reacting etc,
  9. increase in internal motivation to change

are some of the changes we are seeing… 

We’ve also been regularly working towards building capacities of mental health professionals through trainings on mainstream and alternative therapies. It’s resulted in significant changes in skills of these professionals.

SB: At the awareness level, most NGOs, individuals and schools working against child sexual abuse have been taking a lot of steps like conducting awareness workshops, creating awareness material like videos, movies, posters etc…

However, we have touched only the tip of the iceberg so far.

There has been some amount of advocacy happening over the last couple of months with the child protection bill in the scene. Again, a lot more advocacy work could be done for which collaborative efforts by all NGOs and interested individuals is required. We need to start with identifying our concern areas.

Finally, at the service delivery level, workings with survivors of child sexual abuse is a challenge that most NGOs working on this issue have taken up. Just about a decade earlier, a lot of doctors and therapists used to find themselves at a loss if a case of CSA was disclosed.

But now the scene is slowly changing and the shocking reality of how common CSA is has finally started to enter our national consciousness and professionals are finding themselves more capable to deal with such disclosures. However, no proper training or specializations are available for counselors, social workers or medical professionals to deal with such cases yet.

It’s more of an on-the-job training and self-learning that one has to rely on. No standardized procedures to follow are established by the government either which leaves us professionals working in the field in the dark.

Working with abusers is hardly a reality yet. There is very little work nationwide being done on this and I personally feel that it will be a while before as a nation we are in a comfortable zone to start working with abusers on a wide scale. A lot of training has to go in to provide the professionals with the right mindset to work with abusers. It’s not something we should put our hands into without sufficient preparation.

RI: I think we all have a far way to go. However, with the Law coming up we have something to rejoice as the Govt. and the law making machinery have at least realized and recognized it as important.

There is lots that can be done for the issue and everyone’s point of view and attitude counts when it comes to children, so we need to make the lives of our children better and exploitation and abuse-free.

Does paucity of funds hinder your work?

PT: Raising funds is challenging but has never been a hindrance. Whatever we have planned we have always been able to achieve. Our work has been doubling every year and support is coming for it. Important thing is to do good work and present it properly. People are always happy to support good work creating measurable impact.

SB: More than paucity of funds it is the unwillingness to accept child sexual abuse as a reality and talk about it that acts as a hindrance.

If you have clarity on what your goals are funds do come in somehow…

RI: Yes it does. Donor agencies usually need sustainability plans, and usually the work on child sexual abuse is more on prevention and training. There is also an element of secrecy to the issue itself and we can’t let out information even to create good case studies. Most of the time when the case is taken up for litigation the victims and their families turn hostile and get so tired they do not want to continue it further. It’s difficult to get money when the work is not able to show any end result.

About the Interviewer:

Chandni Parekh is a social psychologist. Among other things, she conducts workshops on sexuality education, child sexual abuse and street sexual harassment, primarily with adolescents.