Rashmi Balakrishnan is a mother of two, with ten years of Corporate Experience. She is also a freelance writer who has been published in various journals.
Rashmi is currently working on creating modules to start conversations with children on previously undiscussed topics. Part of this is a subject very close to her heart. - Child Sexuality Awareness.
The Times of Amma got a chance to talk to Rashmi on the topic. She talked to us on how parents can do their bit and why Child Sexuality Awareness needs to be talked about openly.
1. What made you get into the field of Child Sexuality Awareness?
I do not think I really got into the field; it felt quite natural to me. However, when I wanted to talk about it - I could feel the invisible walls of hypocrisy and discomfort all around it. At that point, I felt the urge to break down the walls. And I still feel it everyday. As an adult, I feel responsible for children. And it is not only that topic that we want to bring to the table, there's so much more: human rights in children, civic awareness, social responsibility, self-esteem, body image, character building and the list is long.
Plus, I do not believe we can protect our children every minute. Every hour. Forever. I'd rather we enable and empower our children.
2. At what age should parents start talking to their kids about this issue?
Firstly, I think we should see this as normal, and not an issue. We, as a community, tend to look at it as an issue and that's why the whole built up around it. Don't we talk to our children about food, good manners, crossing the road safely and all of it? Then why not this?
As a mother I started talking to my daughter when she turned two. It wasn't planned for or thought about. When an opportunity presented itself in my home, I spoke, I shared and started sensitising her. I don't think we need to talk to our children about this as a problem, but simply as an awareness topic - like introducing them to different body parts. Self-respect and self-awareness is as simple a topic as that when we start early enough.
3. As a parent and campaigner do you think enough is being done on this issue in India?
This topic needs to find its place in every household and every child-society relationship. It needs to start at home, within the walls of the schools and within the minds of adults. Only then will I say 'enough is being done'.
I think there are conversations on this topic lately. However, this is not a topic for debating anymore. Yes, it's good to debate, hear each other out, understand why we should debate on it in the first place, but it is not enough. This needs to be a topic for normal conversation with children at homes.
There are some organisations that work towards this issue like Enfold India and Arpan. And then there is the Childline 1098. Every child in our country should know this number. We aim to take these topics into every household and ease the conversations around it to be able to nurture a generation of well-aware children. We, as adults, also need to discuss to react to untoward incidents. None of us like cases of abuse, but we need to deal with it, if it were to happen.
4. Do you think that child sexuality awareness from a young age could help decrease the number of sexual crimes in our society?
Child sexual awareness is one thing and child sexual abuse is another thing. They may sound related, but they are not really so. Child sexual awareness is all about enabling and empowering our children, while abuse is an act of victimisation. Making a child sexually aware does not guarantee zero abuse probabilities, however it does ensure empowerment.
When we create a comfortable environment for children to talk openly about anything, we are creating an ecosystem of awareness and empowerment. Plus, when an act of abuse happens - we are often consumed by the victimisation, which is definitely important. But it is equally important to wonder what created the perpetrator? Why do we have adults walking around displaying their parts in public, wanting to violate small children? One reason can be a condition that requires attention. The other could be the upbringing? The cloud around such issues, incorrect information from wrong sources and insensitivity to others' privacy, right to being and so much more. And yes, of course the lack of fear of system.
5. What is the greatest challenge you have faced so far in the field?
We want to take these topics to every possible space. Create translations in the minds and lives of people. And we struggle to do it. We need to find an entrance into established systems or institutions likes schools and colleges. And why we say schools is because children spend a good deal of time at schools and it makes sense to be a part of such institutions.
Talking to many parents about CSA and writing about these topics, I have realised that the challenge is really in someone having to find time to spread awareness. Parents and children are quite open to discussing this. Yes, with adults there will be an initial hesitation, but soon that wears off. Then they are curious to understand the hows, whats and whys. There is always a shade of discomfort in discussing topics like this, but it is not impossible.
6. As a mother of two girls, do you think gender is a barrier to discussing these issues?
No, I do not think so. However, if there is a barrier, it lies in the myth that it is the girls who are more sexually abused than the boys. It is so untrue and I wish our society pays heed to this. Our boys are as much at risk, as our girls when it comes to child sexual abuse. Gender doesn't matter.
I have have friends who talk to their 4/5-year-old sons about respect, body image, gender sensitivity and I also have mommy friends who have daughters and they do it with their girls too. We do not have to bring up girls to be strong like the boys or the boys sensitive like the girls. We just need to let them be. talk to them about things they'd like to know. Talk to them about topics that seem too small like respect, acceptance, tolerance and so on. And we'll have some beautiful adults in future.
7. Could you suggest some ways in which parents and guardians can approach this issue with their children?
As I mentioned earlier, communication is the key. And it is not only communication around Child Sexuality Awareness, but in general. We need to start with trust. As adults and parents, we need to build a trust factor with our children. These topics are to be dealt with as a one-time session. It needs to be a culture in our community and that's what we are aiming at. We want to be able to and enable others to talk about any topic with their children.
We should empower them to say 'no' in uncomfortable situations, no matter who is cause of it. Have faith in them. Have trust.
We need to stop taking decisions for them and saying things like "It's ok, that's your uncle - let him hug you", "I know your tummy is not full, eat more" (how do we know this and even if we do, how does it matter if the child eats one bread/roti/idly less?). When your child says the milk is too hot for him, allow him to be. It may not be too hot for you, but maybe it is for him. When something is uncomfortable for your daughter, do not force her to do it.
8. Do you know of successful campaigns on CSA in other countries that you would like to share with us?
There are people all across the globe who are trying in their own little ways to deal with this demon called child sexual abuse. And the foundation for any kind of solution is child sexual awareness. In Denmark, for instance, they start sexuality awareness for children at a very young age that helps them be responsible for themselves. I think something like that is very important and should be taken seriously.
There will always be people to say no and put down the minds ideating it, but if we can get past that - we will be paving a path for a responsible and empowered future. Changing the country or the mindset f our country is never going to be easy. So, let's start with one life, one thought.
9. Could you tell us a little about 'Dreamcatchers', your project in this field?
We want to reach out to as many children as possible. We want to try and enable and empower them because I feel that is the best way to deal with this. We cannot really attach CCTVs in every nook and corner and monitor children - it's next to impossible. So, it has to be empowerment; not just to help them deal with tough situations now, but also to help them avoid being a perpetrator in future. We must not forget that the perpetrators today were children yesterday and something has definitely gone wrong that they violate children today.
We - I and my soul sister Uma, are a working on a project 'Dreamcatchers'. We hope to engage, enable and empower our children. However, we cannot do this alone - we need adults and established institutions with us. We can only do this together. And there is so much to do. Please visit our Facebook page and let's have a conversation there because we need to.
We hope to try and introduce programs that touch upon topics like sexual awareness, civic awareness, character building and human rights as a part of school curriculum. There's no other way to deal with demons of our social fabric. We simply need to raise a better, well-informed and sensitised future generation.
Thank you so much, Rashmi for taking the time to speak to us. We hope that your thoughts serve as an eye-opener to the parents in our community and that the channels of communication will stay open for our children.
The Times Of Amma wholeheartedly supports - 'Dreamcatchers'.
For more conversations with inspiring moms like Rashmi, follow the Times of Amma on Facebook and Instagram.
We'll see you there!
Photo credits : Rashmi with her daughters by Nitish Venugopal
Meet-up with the Kamura Art Community in Calicut by Musthujab Makkolath