One of the most prevalent forms of child abuse, child sexual abuse (CSA) is a universal problem that affects children across differences in age, gender, and geography. Experts agree that the incidence of CSA is higher than the numbers reported as most young victims do not report these crimes. On average, the proportion of CSA lies between the range of 8% to 20% depending on the country under consideration. Typically incidence rates for girls tend to be higher than that of boys.
Data released by the Crimes Against Children Research Center indicated that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States are victims of sexual abuse. With better reporting mechanisms and stronger laws being instituted against perpetrators, statistics on the prevalence of CSA in south and south-east Asian countries have become more available. An often cited report from 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in India estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 have been subjected to sexual abuse or violence in the country. According to data released by the Ministry of Public Security in Vietnam, one child faces sexual abuse every 8 hours in 2017.
The global magnitude of the problem makes it imperative for children to be made aware and taught about child safety. Studies have shown that children are most vulnerable to abuse between the ages of 7 and 13. And the median age for reported abuse is 9 years old. These statistics highlight the importance of starting the conversation on child safety with children at younger ages. While caregivers and teachers alike agree that child abuse is an issue that must be tackled by raising awareness and educating children about child safety, the important question of who should shoulder the responsibility of teaching child safety — parents and caregivers or teachers and educators — remains unanswered.
For most parents, worries about beginning the conversation on child safety rest on 3 factors. The first is at what age should they have these conversations with their child. With children at younger ages becoming vulnerable to sexual abuse, it becomes necessary to start having these conversations with children earlier. But most parents struggle with identifying the age when they should approach their children to talk about child safety. Teaching your child about bodily autonomy should begin as early as at 4 to 5 years, and must be an ongoing open conversation.
The second struggle parents face in talking about child safety is learning the appropriate language, expressions and labels to use while talking to their children. It is important for parents to learn that it is acceptable for terms such as breasts, vagina, penis, genitals and bottom to be a part of their children’s vocabulary. Talking about private parts without hesitation or embarrassment from parents will teach children that they can treat these parts of their body without shame.
The third issue parents face is when and what to teach their children about child safety. Conversations about genitals can be started at times such as during bathing or changing, where parents can initiate these conversations without alarming their children. Additionally, parents can start talking to their children about who is allowed to touch their genitals and define under what circumstances this can take place. For example, a caretaker’s list can be created with their children as a fun exercise. This list should include the names of people who can bathe, change and be alone with their child. Parents can also create a ‘circle of love’ list to include people that can hug, carry and kiss their children.
To teach children about body autonomy, parents need to talk about what is appropriate and inappropriate to be said and shown to their child. Their children must also learn of the instances where they should not be alone with an individual, or should not be held by an individual. They must also be taught that no one outside their caretaker’s list or circle of love should touch their child. Parents must teach their children that genitals are called private parts as they should not be talked about or shown in public.
Parental anxiety about child safety revolves around how best to plan and handle the conversation with their children; whereas for educators factors such as social constraints, political, and religious factors act as deterrents. The enormity of the problem, however, creates a shared responsibility among caregivers and educators to combine their efforts to tackle the issue of CSA. Additionally, the age group most vulnerable to abuse spends the greatest proportion of their time in a day in school. With both parents and teachers being role models that young children look up to, both groups should utilise this to bring about child safety awareness. An educator’s role in teaching child safety is further heightened in the event that the child has absentee or abusive parents.
As an institution, schools must have formal organisational policies in place that ensure child safety on school premises. The organisational policy should list appropriate and inappropriate physical and verbal interactions between an adult and child. The policy should also cover measures to ensure that children’s right to privacy is maintained on school premises, and that child safety is considered during the hiring process. A recommended course of action in the event of an incident of sexual abuse taking place at the school should also be listed. Lastly, teachers and educators must be educated in the language and scope of talking to children about child safety.
*For resources on teaching children about child safety, visit How To Tell Your Child