LonePack Conversations – Child Sexual Abuse and its impact on Mental Health ft. Viji Ganesh

In our country, safety has always been a major public health concern. While it’s disheartening to see cases of abuse almost constantly flashed on our television screens, stigma around the issue prevents us from talking about it or discussing the personal trauma that one battles.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie. 

Today, we have Viji Ganesh, Personal Safety Coach and Educator.  She volunteers and works as a freelancer promoting awareness and prevention education about Child Sexual Abuse and imparting sexuality education. She is here talk to us about the impact that child sexual abuse has on one’s mental health and how we can help contribute to a safe space for children.

Welcome, Viji. 

Viji- Thank you, Valerie. It’s such an appropriate time to do this because just yesterday, Child Safety Week ended. November 14th being Children’s Day in India, November 19th being International Day of Abuse Prevention and November 20th being International Children’s Day. We had a week-long session on creating awareness about this particular topic. It’s so apt that we’re doing this today. Thank you for this opportunity.

 Valerie- Thank you. It’s amazing that you spent the entire last week and actually, most of what you do is to promote a safe space for children and create awareness about child sexual abuse. 

Viji- That’s right. I’m mostly into primary prevention, which is to get people to talk about it more and help child children and empower them to get into protective behaviours- to protect themselves from abuse and also to not become abusive. 

Valerie- So, when we look at statistics in India, it shows that around 110 children are sexually abused every single day. You can see around us that a lot of people may not even be aware of the fact that such acts are committed, or we choose not to talk about them because we find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. When you look at the people affected by it, it is so difficult for them to talk about it because of so much stigma that’s associated with it, or sometimes it happens at such a young age that they don’t even understand what’s happening to them. What are your views on this?

Viji- Child sexual abuse is rather disturbing, abhorrent and most often an unimaginable crime for most of us but the unfortunate reality is that it exists and does keep happening. Many people say that only of late, the incidences have increased but I wouldn’t agree with that because it is only now that the reporting has increased. It has always been happening but thanks to social media, the reporting has increased now. As you said, there is a lot of stigma around this, most of us are in denial. Most of us are also uncomfortable and inhibited from talking about this. That is where primary prevention comes in. The response to child sexual abuse should be handled with a view to increase awareness rather than to be in denial. It may seem very daunting and we can get overwhelmed by it but let me assure you, the fears, concerns and inhibitions are all very relevant and cannot be wished away. We have to deal with it so that we can empower our children effectively, address this issue to prevent it and help survivors heal. 

You are very right when you say there is so much stigma around this, mostly because when a survivor speaks up, they are most often not believed or are shamed. They are blamed and asked questions about what they were wearing, till what time they were out, and other typical questions. So most often, they prefer to keep quiet and suffer in silence. But we need to speak up about this. Not only the affected or the survivors, those who are not affected should also have the same amount of empathy towards it and only then can this issue be addressed in its totality. It starts with the community. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to address this issue. All of us have a role and responsibility in addressing this issue, is what I feel.

Valerie- Very true. When you spoke about the amount of stigma that’s associated with it that so many children prefer to suffer in silence as opposed to being questioned and shamed, in relation to this I wanted to ask you that people who face child sexual abuse often battle psychiatric disorders mostly because of stigma, suffering in silence and the after-effects of trauma. This may extend and reflect largely on their adult lives too, at times. Could you elaborate on this for us? 

Viji- Yeah, sure. Most often, ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are by people known to the child. Stranger danger is no longer a real danger. Not all strangers are dangerous and not all known people are safe. In most CSA cases, it is a known person that commits this crime. That is the first difficulty that a child faces- not being able to accept that it has happened by someone they trust, like and have to live with in the same house, sometimes. That’s where it all starts. The confusion and emotional conflict that they have with the person. As a child, they suffer a lot. It can lead to a fall in academics, eating disorders, bed-wetting, sexualized behavior or becoming introverted. It could manifest in many ways but these should not be looked at in isolation, they have to be seen together. 

But as an adult, it can manifest in varied complex ways. There could be physical symptoms which disappear after a while which could be treated and medically addressed but there are a lot of emotional aspects that an adult survivor could go through- anxiety, depression, PTSD and emotional distress. Some of them could even suffer from eating disorders. They could even have externalizing behaviours such as substance abuse, alcoholism and in some cases, can also become abusive themselves, but not all abusers have a history of being abused so it has to be seen in isolation. The fact that ninety percent of these cases are of abuse by trusted adults leads them to trust issues, issues in interpersonal relationships and may also become revictimized in several relationships. They may be in a self-blame mode thinking that they did something which is why this happened to them. The system doesn’t respond to tell them that it’s not their fault, that it was never their fault. We always tell parents that to encourage disclosure, first listen and listen actively. In fact, we tell the parents that if they suspect that some child is on the threshold of disclosure, the first words that you should say is “It’s not your fault”. Once we start from there, the healing journey becomes easier. That’s how it manifests. The effect of CSA could be very complex and long lasting. 

I would like to quote a particular incident that happened in my workshop- a 63 year old grandmother had brought her granddaughter for my workshop in Hyderabad, around 8 years ago. After the session, I was quite overwhelmed listening to her tell me that she wished she had these kinds of workshops and education when she was growing up because she was also abused as a child and at 63 years old, this was the first time she was talking about it. That kind of jolted me, to realise that somebody could live uncompromisingly as an adult, with this in the background. One of the ways they deal with it is to push it to the back-burner, but you never know when it will erupt. Broadly, these are the effects that it can have on a functional adult. Sometimes, there could be a compromise on adult functionalities- they could appear to be normal but you don’t know what they are going through within. There is so much more to it than what I can tell you during this brief podcast.

Valerie- Right, but thank you for spreading light on this for us. You are someone who is deeply involved in the cause of child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, like you said, you host plenty workshops to spread awareness about this. How important would you say reaching out is for those affected by it? When you come across someone affected by child sexual abuse, what is your approach and interaction like? 

Viji- In nature, everything is resilient with an attitude to bear with all to heal and spring back to life. The first thing a survivor should have is the bravery to ask for help. That’s the bravest thing that one can do and it opens up a floodgate of options for them to start their healing journey. Which is why we keep reminding them that it’s not their fault and that they should ask for help. You do not have to define yourself by what happened when you were a child, when things were out of your control. It’s just like if you meet with an accident on the road, if you break your knee, you get surgery. You do not define yourself by the accident or what your knee has undergone. If you have the same perspective about abuse as well, it is easier to heal but even as I say that, I am aware that the two are not comparable situations but what’s important is that we do not define ourselves by what happened to us as we were a child, when things were out of our control. It is very difficult but it is not impossible to start our healing journey towards closure. 

This is where our society comes in to work on the stigma attached to it. In newspaper headlines, when they report incidents of abuse, it is always the victim that’s highlighted and not the abuser. We need to change that narrative. The blame needs to shift from the victim to the abuser. That in itself gives acceptance and can help start the path to healing. There are many ways to deal with the trauma from sexual abuse, there is no one solution that would fit all. Some people could spring back to action soon, some people could put it on the back-burner and live a normal life, some people could do things positively and help heal others. There are various ways to heal and that journey starts with the bravery to ask for help. That would be my message to all survivors- ask for help.

Valerie- I think it’s beautiful that you said don’t define yourself by what happened. You don’t centre your life around one incident. I thought that was beautiful.

Viji- Thank you.

Valerie- How do you approach people when they come to you and show bravery to talk about what they have been through? How do you approach and interact with them?

Viji- Basically, it all comes down to listening. Abuse is all about power inequity. It’s never about a sexual act but about somebody more powerful doing something that you have no control over. That is the stage they are in which is why even a grown adult gets into patterns of revictimization and self-blame, and always look for validation in others. This is one of the manifestations. We try to tell them that now you are in a safe position, it is over and done with. We may even take them back to that memory or place or time and relive it at their level of comfort and get over the lack of power that they felt at that time, and feel more powerful about their current empowering situations. They say that even now, it is a child that’s trapped in an adult’s mind even now. When they think about the abuse, they think of themselves as the child which was abused then and not as an adult now. That is why we have to start the journey from there and overcome their limitations. Also create safe spaces now, surround yourself with positivity, positive people and safe people.

Valerie- Okay. Talking about the importance of safe spaces, could you elaborate on some personal safety lessons that one can learn at schools?

Viji- Schools are a great place for transformation. It is where every child spends two-thirds of their waitful hours. Be it disclosures or learning about safety measures, it all happens majorly in schools. Their resources for disclosure are peers and teachers. We advocate personal safety education for children right from kindergarten till the end of their school years. It’s a holistic life skill approach that we follow, that gives them the education that empowers them to take part in their own protection, with knowledge, assertive skills, and information. The basic problem with most children when it comes to child sexual abuse is the lack of vocabulary, we do not name our body parts correctly. To children, a hand, a forehead and a penis are all body parts when they are just two or three years old. It is the adult mind which thinks of these parts as reproductive organs to use for sexualized behaviours. To a child, a vagina or a penis is just another part like a hand or a leg. Our education proceeds by giving them the correct names of their body parts, teaching them their functionality and slowly, as they grow into adolescence, discuss sexuality education. 

We teach them assertive skills by telling them that they are unique and special and have full body autonomy and they have every right to say “no” to any unwanted touch. It is not “who” that matters but the action. It could be anybody, it doesn’t matter but what matters is what they do, whether you like it and whether you want it. The commonly used terms of “bad” and “good” touch are not recommended, instead we should teach children about “safe” and “unsafe” touches. I would like to quote from one of my workshops- a small boy asked me “What if I feel good about a bad touch?”. Some of these touches could make them feel good even though they are intentionally wrong because these are all places filled with nerve centres and a lot of blood flow so it could make them feel good and pleasurable but they do not have the perception to know that the act itself is wrong so they could just stop with feeling that it makes them feel good. 

We want to teach children that they have absolute body autonomy and the full right to say “no” to any touch that they do not like. Any form of physical affection should always be at the behest of the child and not the calling of an adult. We cannot make our children responsible for an adult’s emotion. We educate the parents to accept a “no” every now and then so that the children know that it all starts from home and that the significant people in their lives will accept it when they say “no”. Once you give them the confidence that they can say “no” and that it will be accepted in the right spirit, they will do it outside as well. Whereas if you tell them that they have to respect adults and listen to whatever they say, they will remember that and even if it is a wrong touch, they may think about it and stay silent. 

We also teach them to build a robust support system of adults and communities by choosing their trusted adults, possibly parents, family and teachers, and also how to handle emotions like fear and anger, which are normally seen as negative emotions but we tell them that fear and anger are very positive emotions, which are like red flags. If you fear something, it means that you need to do something about it. It is an action point. If you feel angry, you need to act on that anger in the right way. We teach them conflict resolution and how to handle their emotions. Before telling them how to handle their emotions, we tell them to recognize and talk about their feelings. We do not know how to put a label on our emotions. Only when we know what we’re feeling will we be able to address and handle it. We also help build empathy because while every care is taken to prevent abuse from happening to them, we also need to ensure that they do not become abusive and that’s where empathy comes into play. The most important thing we teach them is that despite all this, if it still happens, do not blame yourself because it was never your fault. This is our personal safety education in a nutshell.

Valerie- Thank you for talking to us about this, it was very informative. Especially the part where you said that you’re supposed to understand your emotions and channel it correctly. Also not to blame yourself for anything that happens, if it does.

Viji- That’s the most important, yes.

Valerie- Also, when we talk about the current situation in the World, there is so much darkness when it comes to sexual abuse. There is so much talk about it and it’s because it keeps happening. I wanted to ask you- How do you see things getting brighter in the future? How do we become part of the solution? 

Viji- That’s a very good question. We have to be a part of the solution and not stay in the problem forever. There are many knee-jerk reactions whenever a case is reported- there is media bashing and a lot of blogs being written but after that, nothing happens. Do we do anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? We are all in denial that it is happening to someone else, it may not happen to me. Prevention and healing require an equal amount of sensitivity, care, positivity, optimism and being practical. 

When it comes to care, you teach personal safety education to children, start a conversation about it, make note of the vulnerable points in your community and the possibility of abuse happening. Adults need to sit and talk about it and not live in denial. It is very difficult and daunting but we need to work positively and believe that things can be changed. A lot of people are creating awareness now. Earlier men never used to talk about it but now there are a lot of men rooting for this cause and talking about it. A lot of survivors are now bold enough to open up and talk about their journey, and not define themselves by it. 

Practically, we have to translate prevention and healing into an actionable blueprint. That’s where practical tips on personal safety education in all schools and resources for survivors need to happen. So it is possible and to be a part of the solution, the first thing we can do is to start a conversation around it. It can be a dinner table conversation at home or even a conversation with the children while travelling in the car. If the parents need more information, there are plenty of resources available on the internet. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a professional to come and talk about it but a little training and research certainly helps to not teach the children a wrong lesson because un-learning is very difficult here. It’s better to always give the right message by reading up, doing your own research and there are professionals working in this area. 

That’s how you can start a conversation around it and address the issue, and be a part of the solution. In fact, a lot of people took part in this week-long child safety week and I had interviewed four or five people from various walks of life who are rooting for this cause. The first thing is to get people to talk about it and normalize it just like a fire safety drill or a road safety drill. That is how it has to be taught to a child, like another life skill. 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to us about this. I hope that through this conversation that we’ve had, we could help raise more awareness on child sexual abuse. I really appreciate everything that you said to us about the importance of starting conversations and normalizing them for children so that it’s not looked at as such a taboo thing to talk about or something that’s associated with shame. Also, more importantly, not to live in denial of the fact that it will not happen to us but in turn to do some research, to start reading up on it and to handle situations with empathy, sensitivity and optimism, and empower people. There’s so much that we got to learn from you today and I’m really grateful that you took out the time to talk to us about this. Thank you so much, Viji.

Viji- My pleasure. Awareness is the key to all this and it’s the only sustainable solution to end this social malady, I would think. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Valerie. My life’s motive is that if I can save one child from abuse, I will have lived my life well.

Valerie- Yeah. Thank you so much.

You can learn more about Viji Ganesh’s work on YouTube

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