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A few days ago, at a family get together, my sister in law was so happy about how well my 2.5-year-old niece was settling into playgroup. And to my utmost sorrow, the first thing that I had to ask her was, "Have you explained to her about good touch and bad touch?" She was actually quite taken aback, and asked, "Isn't it too soon? What will she understand?"

The other day, a friend admitted that she had been sexually abused by her male cousins when she was a kid. It had taken her a long time to realize, assimilate and come to terms with this. And a lot of therapy to accept that what had happened with her was not her fault.

An elderly co-passenger on the train was saying how they had to sack a middle-aged full-time house help after she was caught fondling her 6-year-old grandson’s genitals. She was terminated immediately but the family is now wondering how long the child has been molested and if he understands what’s happened with him, and what sort of therapy he would require.

As I was discussing this article with my sister, she mentioned how once on a flight, a male co-passenger who was watching some soft porn on his phone kept angling the phone so that her 5-year-old daughter could see what was on the screen. The moment the mother realised this, she changed seats with the child. "Why didn't you create a ruckus?" I asked her. "What's the point? He can always delete the video and claim innocence. No point dragging it further," she replied. That, my friends, is also child sexual abuse, not just a perpetrator touching the private parts of a child or making the child touch him. The scope of child sexual abuse is so vast that it's downright depressing.

There are numerous news stories of preteens and teenagers being molested, and in many cases, even raped and subjected to a power play by their school teachers and/or private tutors. This list is just the tip of the iceberg. There would be a hundred times more cases that go undetected, unacknowledged and unreported each year. And I’m sure many of you must have read the above examples probably without flinching too much. That’s how normalized something as heinous as child sexual abuse has become, rather we have all become so desensitized to it.

Something like this robs a child of his or her innocence, faith in the elders, focus on his or her studies and activities, and most importantly, their self-confidence. As parents and caregivers, the onus is on us to make our children aware and safeguard them from sexual abuse. As my sister in law was wondering, at what age should we ideally educate our kids about this. It is never too soon, my friends, to make your child aware of potential child abuse and safeguard them. It is imperative to make your child understand the concept of boundaries. Children as young as 10 or 11 months can also show discomfort around certain people. As parents, it's our responsibility to ensure the safety of our children from predators.

It is essential that a child is made aware of a "good touch" and a "bad touch" early on. As parents, we can ensure that they know about the swimsuit safe areas of their body. That is, any part of their body that gets covered in a swimsuit is personal, and they should not allow anyone other than caregivers to touch them there. Children as young as 18 months can assimilate this idea, we should not underestimate their comprehension abilities. Those children especially who spend a lot of time in the company of domestic helpers and staff, and even family members other than the parents should know that they should not be touched in their private parts, or their chest, or any other way that causes them uneasiness and discomfort

The onus is on us to win the child's confidence and to make sure he or she confides in a parent and is also aware that he or she is in no way responsible. The easiest tool of a predator is to create fear and insecurity in the mind of the child. Once the child feels secure enough to confide in a parent, this power is lost. It is highly advisable to do thorough background checks before hiring anyone in your employ. Also in case, you realize you have a predator in your midst and have asked him or her to leave, make sure you pass on this detail to any future employer. One fallacy that we all fall prey to is in the assumption that a child sexual abuser would be male. There have been various instances where female domestic helpers have sexually abused a child, sometimes even under a parent or a grandparent's nose without their realization.

How does one identify what child abuse is?
Child abuse can include not just sexual abuse but also physical, emotional and mental abuse that takes the form of corporal punishment, gaslighting, undermining the child's confidence, and creating doubt in the child's mind regarding the parents' love and trust.

The moment a parent recognizes any difference in the behaviour of the child, it is important to be vigilant and observe. These changes can be physiological, like sudden bedwetting or psychological, like aggressive and rude behaviour, or clinginess to a parent, or fearfulness and nervousness in speech. Sudden speech impediments like stuttering and stammering could also be indicative of underlying abuse. A sudden urge to spend nights in the parents' bedroom, an onslaught of nightmares could also be signs. The unfortunate part is when child sexual predators are close members of the family or domestic staff or friends, the child might normalize abusive behaviour. Which is why creating awareness is imperative.

Who can recognize that a child might be a victim?
In many cases, parents might not be aware that their child is being abused. A teacher who spends almost half a day with the children might be in a position to identify this. Many schools do have a counselling centre. Unfortunately, most are seldom functional. But teachers can definitely identify and help an abused child.

Author: Shobhana
Hi, I'm Shobhana, lapsed journalist, full time mommy, self professed bookworm, always reading between lines, straddling countries, eras, lives and personas.
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