How to combat the evils of child sexual abuse
World Children’s Day comes at the tail end of the year.
Sadly, 2019 has been a devastating year for children in Bangladesh. In just the first seven months, 929 children were sexually abused in some way or another.
This number does not include children who never disclosed the abuse, or did not understand that what had happened was an act of abuse and crime. Nor does it include the number of families who keep the abuse a secret, or do not seek help from the law.
Sexual violence leaves deep trauma in survivors, which can -- and often does -- last a lifetime. And as the effects seep well into adulthood, child sexual abuse can doom a person for life.
The social consequences are no less severe. Direct costs include medical expenses, counselling services, etc. Sexual harassment, abuse, and child marriage are directly linked to higher drop-out rates.
Other, less direct, costs are related to lower academic performance of children who are abused, which can affect the productivity of the country.
In the long run, the burden falls on the state’s health care sector, stemming from the physical and mental health issues that survivors tend to live with. People who are sexually abused during childhood are also more likely to be involved in criminal activities when they are older.
Needless to say, while policy-making and advocacy are important, the question remains: What can we do about it, in our own capacities?
A silent epidemic
In over 90% of child sexual abuse cases, perpetrators tend to be someone close to the family, someone the child has a relationship with, making protection -- and reporting -- that much harder.
Prevention has to start from an early age. Just as parents give their all to protect their child from harm, they must remember that sexual abuse is a prevalent crime which can take place with their child.
Parents must not shy away from talking about body boundaries with their children; by defining which body parts are private, children can identify more clearly if someone is trying to intrude on their personal space.
Children should know the difference between good touch and bad touch. This sort of learning should not only take place at home, delivered by a child’s immediate care-giver, but also by their teachers at school.
Learning about safety in an environment of discipline with peers can be more effective in the way information is retained, while creating a strong sense of unity.
To address the issue of the rising numbers of such incidents, BRAC’s education program has incorporated a “Good Touch Bad Touch” module into BRAC primary schools.
The messaging is simple: Teach children to distinguish between good touch -- something that makes them feel safe and happy, and bad touch -- something that may make them feel scared or uncomfortable.
Children are also taught what to do in the case of a bad touch, such as scream, run away, or tell a teacher or parent. Children alone cannot be responsible for their own safety. Which is why it is important to integrate the knowledge of parents, teachers, and students.
In BRAC’s schools, topics on children’s safety are covered in monthly parents’ meetings. There has been a positive response to this initiative both from students and parents. Initiatives such as BRAC’s Good Touch Bad Touch module help sensitize communities about crimes against children, and their rights and safety.
It empowers children by reinforcing their right to say “no” to situations they feel unsafe in, and can help in starting a conversation between parents and children that may have long been deemed as “taboo,” but are necessary conversations to have.
The government’s national curriculum includes chapters on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), but teachers and students’ reluctance to discuss these issues often have them skipping these crucial chapters altogether.
When we talk about the next generation, we put them on the pedestal of being the future of the nation. But are we failing to prioritize the safety and well-being of a generation that we expect so much from?
The incidents of this past year should be a wake-up call for everyone -- to put children’s safety at the forefront. When it comes to an entire generation’s development, no task is too big, given we are equipped with the right knowledge.
Children, must know what to do to keep themselves safe; parents must begin that conversation with their children, and teachers must not shy away from discussing health and safety with their students.
We must remember that children are one of the most vulnerable groups of people, and they require all our attention and care to ensure they have the best start in life.
Marzina Khatun is Manager and Gender Lead at BRAC Education Program. Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, BRAC Communications.