Child Sexual Abuse

‘Children with a disability are often low on self esteem. Thus the grooming process for the abuser becomes easier. Such children easily start trusting the abuser on receiving a little extra attention and love from him/her.’

Anupriya, counselor Arpan (NGO to fight child sex abuse)


Is my child more prone to abuse than non-disabled children?

Child sexual abuse External Website that opens in a new window has been called India’s worst-kept secret External Website that opens in a new window.A national survey in 2007 External Website that opens in a new windowacross 13 states showed that more than half the population surveyed had experienced child sexual abuse, including boys. It is also well known that children are abused by adults they are in close contact with, not always strangers and often from within the family. Yet, there are strong social taboos on the issue and a silence around it which has damaged many young people who have been abused.

While all children are vulnerable to abuse (even more so in a context where there is silence and shame around the issue), children with disabilities are exposed numerous times to various adults other than their parents: people responsible for their care from within and outside the circle of family and friends, hospital porters, volunteers, bus drivers, teaching aides, technicians, and others. As a result, potential abusers see that access to someone with a disability is easier, which makes children with disabilities differently vulnerable External Website that opens in a new window to sexual abuse. Some children with disabilities may go to special institutions and if these are not carefully monitored, incidences of sexual abuse are possible here. External Website that opens in a new window

Children with disabilities are sometimes made to believe that they should be compliant, passive, and accepting of whatever is done to their bodies. They are used to doctors probing their bodies, family members and caregivers performing intimate chores (like bathing, dressing, toilet care), and decisions being made for them without their consent. They subconsciously learn that no one appreciates it when they kick up a fuss. So they learn early on that they shouldn’t protest if they are feeling humiliated or uncomfortable. Therefore they become easier targets for abuse.

Many a time parents or teachers do not provide children information about sexuality. This prevents them from developing a sexual identity, which may result in confusion and uncertainty over what is acceptable behaviour from other people. It may also be very difficult for them to distinguish between daily care and abuse. A child will often remain silent or may not be believed if he or she reports being abused. Sometimes, a child with a disability may not be able to communicate this – simply because of lack of speech or lack of a vocabulary around what has happened.

The most important thing you can do is equip your child with information and tell them whatbehaviour constitutes abuse External Website that opens in a new window . If you are able to establish to your child what is an acceptable physical interaction, or the instinctive difference between a ‘good touch’ or ‘safe touch’ and a ‘bad touch’, they will be able to identify and report abuse to you. Watch out for changes in their behaviour which could be symptoms of sexual abuse. Give them the confidence that if any such incident takes place, they can tell you and expect your full love and support.

My daughter has a mental disability. Can she be taught to keep herself safe? How?

All children need to learn how to protect themselves from abuse. It may be difficult and challenging to teach a child with a low IQ or a severe mental disability. Some children, like those with autism, do not pick up on social cues or read another’s emotions well, which can compound their vulnerability to abuse.

When your child reaches a developmental level and can learn some degree of basic life skills, like general hygiene, potty training and getting dressed, she should also learn about personal space,sex and sexuality External Website that opens in a new window, and how to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. The lessons about personal safety should include the following:

  • Who can assist in personal tasks such as hygiene issues, dressing and going to the bathroom
  • Parts of the body, and which parts no one should touch except the child or an approved caregiver who is properly assisting the child with hygiene or dressing
  • The difference between a ‘good touch’ and a ‘bad touch’
  • Bathroom safety – locking and unlocking the bathroom door and not letting others inside the stall except approved caregivers
  • Telling parents or a teacher if anyone attempts to touch them inappropriately

Says Ratnaboli Ray, a mental health worker from Anjali Foundation: ‘A child with a learning disability or ADHD can be taught about safety through short audio-video clips, or through skits and stories. A mentally ill child’s judgement could be faulty. So only giving them the right information won’t really help. Keeping the channels of communication open is important. Observe whether your child is showing any symptoms of being abused. Basically you will have to be innovative while teaching them about difference between touches. See what works best with your child.’

To make her understand simple things like the right to say no, these will have to be taught. Unconsciously parents and others give out signals to disabled children (especially with a mental disability) that they should accept everything quietly. You can correct this. Don’t hug a child tightly, or kiss or tickle her if she displays discomfort. As soon as he or she says no, stop. This will help children register the fact that can say no – and be heard by adults. Starting with these small things could help you bring about a huge change.

My daughter is just 4. Won’t she forget her abuse with time?

Every individual has a unique reaction to abuse. Even at a very young age, sexual abuse can have an impact External Website that opens in a new window. Sometimes it affects the child immediately because at that young age, the neurons are developing and the child learns and registers what she sees and experiences, without necessarily processing it in the same way as an adult.

When a child is abused, shock, fear, confusion, anger, shame and guilt are the dominant feelings experienced by her. These feelings could get carried forward to adulthood. As adults they may have lower self-worth, be less trusting of others, instinctively have a negative reaction to male touch, or difficulty in sustaining relationships. In some cases, child sexual abuse victims can exhibit overly sexualized behaviour or a confused sexual identity.

In the case of children with disabilities, there are some added concerns. The child may believe that she ‘deserves’ it. If her disability made it difficult to escape or communicate the abuse, she may start hating her body. She could start believing that the disability and the abuse are both somehow her ‘fault’. Or it could ingrain in her the feeling that her judgement is faulty, and hence none can be trusted in any relationship.

It is critical that your daughter feel that she is supported and loved, and being helped to recover from abuse. By not supporting or helping her recover, you are condoning the abuse.

I am disabled; will that leave my children more prone to abuse?

There is no evidence to show that children of disabled mothers encounter more abuse. Given your constraints, there are situations where you may feel you cannot protect them – from tripping, falling, or even abuse. But the more you think you won’t be able to do certain things for your child, or be with him or her at certain places, the more information External Website that opens in a new window you should give them. For instance, if you are in a wheelchair and cannot physically keep up with them, then you can explain in greater detail about good touch, bad touch, potential abusers, and so on. Create that kind of rapport with your kids, with support from your spouse, other member of the family, or hired help. If you have more than one child, ask your children to keep an eye on each other.

Teach your child about sexual abuse and undesired or bad touch, through stories or games if not directly. A popular way is to play the ‘What If’ game with them. ‘What if someone comes to you and says this?’ you can offer, and then when they reply, you can give them more alternatives and explain what they could do. You can also involve yourself in the situations, like, ‘What if mamma wants to do this but mamma can’t?’ These kinds of questions increase your chances of being well-prepared for any eventuality, and imparting knowledge in a palatable form.

In spite of your best efforts, if your child experiences some abuse like millions of children all around the world, then be sensitive to any emotional or physical changes in your child. You may be able to minimize the negative impact and prevent further damage from happening.

I am disabled; will that leave my children more prone to abuse?

Says counsellor Jyotti Savla, ‘If you think that the impact is still there, then take them for counselling, because child sex abuse can have a very deep impact on a person. Many people at the age of 40 and 50 come in for counselling because it affects their life that badly. These people have a very low sense of self worth. This may be the case with your partner External Website that opens in a new window as well. They may not really feel that they are worthy of a relationship. Besides, it is very difficult for them to trust anyone. As a result, they may feel insecure in the relationship. They may also get paranoid about their child getting sexually abused.

Yes your sex life could be affected. But you can help your partner. Coax them to seek professional help from a counsellor. Never blame them for whatever happened to them. Do not just say ‘Forget External Website that opens in a new window it, it is over’. Logically even they know, but emotionally, it is very very difficult to forget. The wound is not healed External Website that opens in a new window. Be compassionate and understanding towards them. Be ready to listen, but do not probe much about what happened, why it happened, how it happened, etc. It will not help. It will almost be like revictimising them, because the person will relive the abuse.

The more support you provide by being there for the person, the more it will help. The abuse compounded with their disability, may make them feel that their bodies are somehow not worthy of respect and love. As a partner you can prove this wrong. In your sex life, try to give them a little more control. Their sexual boundaries were breached by someone, and hence they may want to feel that they are now in control of their sexuality. When you initiate sexual acts, ask them, go gentle in the beginning, and respect their wishes if they want to avoid certain sexual acts altogether. Giving them space and comfort is very important.’