This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
Most Indian women hardly know where to begin when it comes to the #MeToo campaign. On the bus to school, on the road to the market, in the office, in the classroom and – most commonly – in their own homes, growing up female in India means sidestepping lecherous “uncles”, pretending not to hear ugly threats and artfully avoiding come-ons, invitations and slurs.
The tragic rape and torture of minor girls in Kathua and Unnao and the outcry from citizens around the country is an unsurprising outcome in a culture deeply divided against itself – India, on the one hand, glorifies and deifies women and girls, and on the other hand, controls, objectifies, rejects and abuses them. And the solution offered by the government – the death penalty for rape involving girls under age 12 – is a shallow political ploy which doesn’t address the true nature of such crimes.
This solution of the death penalty is unhelpful: For starters, according to a research paper, boys are actually more likely to be sexually abused than girls; second, death for rapists serves mainly to distract the rest of the population from the structural violence, systemic and everyday abuse which a hierarchical society perpetuates, and third, it does nothing to strengthen investigation and prosecution which need to happen first for any conviction to take place at all.
The Narendra Modi government is obviously pandering to public sentiment while avoiding the root causes of the problem, but what would a sensible approach look like? No problem so deeply rooted in a society can be undone with a single measure, but as with most human complexity, it helps to go back to child development.
How children are raised, what they are taught about bodily integrity, self-determination and managing their emotions determines the kind of society we all end up living in. Parents changing their babies’ nappies and feeding them dinner probably aren’t thinking about the long-term societal impact their actions are creating, but it’s true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
So, it’s worth looking at the messages we are giving our children when they are very young and how those messages may determine their behaviour as they get older.
Consider sleeping patterns. How many parents put their children to bed because they themselves are exhausted and need a break? How many of us force children to eat even when they insist that they aren’t hungry or they don’t like what’s being offered? How many kids are made to wear a sweater because ‘amma’ feels cold, or to stay indoors because ‘papa’ thinks it’s too hot to play outside? Or, what about the message we give children that their ideas and opinions not only don’t matter but are also morally wrong to even be voiced? “Jawab deti” (“She talks back to elders”) is a common and damning criticism in India, especially for girls, and it sets a lifelong pattern of submissiveness and inability to speak out.
I’m not advocating anarchy, or “Total Child Rule,” but it’s important to acknowledge what we are doing when we teach a child that we can handle her body better than she can, that someone else knows better than she does about what she wants or needs and that she has no right to voice her own feelings, let alone object if she doesn’t like something.
This is particularly true for girls, who have this message reinforced at every stage of their lives, but it applies to boys too and the groundwork is laid from infancy. Part of it is a conscious belief in the value of community, and the willingness to forego personal preferences for the good of the community. This is a significant feature of Indian culture and as a concept, there is nothing wrong with it.
But sometimes, it goes too far – If one has to sacrifice one’s own sense of integrity for the good of the group or the honour of the family, it’s both frightening and dangerous. The other part of the “keep silent” message, however, is even more worrying. It goes back to an ancient belief (Hammurabi’s Code enshrines it in Babylonian law but most cultures share this history) that the father of the family holds absolute, life and death power over his children as well as his wife or wives. With such a mindset, where even grown women have no agency or independence, a child hasn’t got a chance at asserting herself.
Being raised to sacrifice one’s individual identity for that of the group is hard. Being forced to submit to the tyrannical dictates of fathers is evil. But Hammurabi is long gone. We’ve moved past that, haven’t we?
And yet, every other child in India is sexually abused at some point in her younger years. Almost all the abuse happens at the hands of a relative or family friend. We have to wonder what we are enabling by our silence and what we are demanding when we teach children not to speak. We have to ask ourselves why our kids don’t tell us when terrible things happen to them.
Could it be in part because of the instructions we give them as youngsters? We have trained them so carefully not to trust their own bodies and not to believe that what they feel and think is important. We have taught them – and we prove it over and over – that they have no right to speak up when something feels wrong and that if they do, no one will believe them anyway. We have taught them to defer to adults in all things without giving them the judgement or the permission to differentiate. Both by example and omission, we tell them not to say out loud what is happening in secret: this adult is hurting me; that one frightens me.
How many times do our children have to squirm away from that particular chacha or refuse to be alone with that uber-charming older cousin before we take them seriously? What do they have to do to make us defend them? It’s easy to focus on an atrocity like Kathua which, though horrendous and depraved, is actually among the rarest of the rare. It’s hard – and maybe impossible, judging by how infrequently it happens – to admit that the real problem is much more banal, frequent and close to us than Kathua.
The real problem of child sexual abuse is in fact located in our own homes, it lives there and it is preying on every second child. We would rather shout ourselves hoarse about the monster “out there” than confront the uncles, fathers, grandfathers and cousins who live right here in our families. Speaking up about something as earth-shattering as sexual abuse does not happen overnight. It takes practice. A child who has never been allowed to choose what she takes to school for lunch or asked her opinion about which movie the family is going to watch is unlikely to feel confident enough to say that neighbour uncle wants them to get naked and be photographed.
One step at a time.
So, we teach children to make choices about easy things. We give them practice in expressing their views on non-controversial issues such as whether the shoes we are buying them are comfortable or whether they’ve actually understood the homework assignment we’ve just explained. We ask them what they think about their school or their friends and we listen carefully to what they have to say. We let them practice expressing their thoughts and feelings. We don’t laugh at them and we don’t brush them aside.
Giving children the tools they need to stay safe does not put the onus on them to protect themselves. Not at all. That is, and always will be, our responsibility. When we teach children to raise their voices and speak their minds, we do so with a promise and a guarantee: We will listen to what you say. If action needs to be taken, we will take it. We will believe you.