The injustice against Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was sexually abused and later set ablaze on the terrace of her madrasa, shook the country. Yet, despite the cries, protests, and banners that read “Stop Sexual Abuse”, Bangladesh remains rooted in its poisonous conservative practice: ignoring the sexual violence against children when the abusers are family members. This unjustified stigma that silences victims from a very young age leads to re-victimisation—through victim-shaming or being sexually harassed again—and protects perpetrators for the sake of family honour. Children who have no knowledge of their experiences fail to describe it, and many remain silent about their experiences for fear of being re-victimised. This silence surrounding sexual abuse and the lack of action thereof permit the perpetrators to commit such crimes in broad daylight.
This silence is largely influenced by parental denial in children’s accusations against a family member. Parental denial stems from a variety of reasons: the fear of jeopardising family honour, becoming detached from society in fear of shame, having to become financially segregated if the family is dependent on the accused member, and more. Yet the most significant reason is to protect one’s child from re-victimisation. Victim-shaming is instilled in our society, whether it be toward a child or a woman. Thus the possibility of a child being re-victimised through scrutinising her flaws, independence, outfit, or even designating her as the reason for abuse, makes parents hesitant to raise their voices against perpetrators.
Victim-shaming, regardless of socioeconomic status, primarily creates the cycle of abuse, escape, and re-victimisation that prevents parents from taking legal action against the perpetrators, especially if the perpetrator is a renowned and prominent figure in society. This further reinforces the economic and class divisions in our society and incentivise those in power to escape without a blemish on their records and further silence victims through threats and other means.
In recent months, Bangladesh has witnessed an alarming rise in sexual abuse cases and violence against children. Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF) published a report that estimated that in the first six months of 2019, there were 496 incidents of children being raped. However, BSAF claims that the numbers are likely to be higher, as many victims do not report sex crimes in fear of being blamed, disowned, or ostracised.
Our society stigmatises “sex”, “menstruation”, and “rape” as taboo due to which sex education is uncommon in the country. The gaps in children’s understanding of sexual health limit their interactions with others and suppress social skills. Parents believe that limited information should be shared with children about sexual abuse as it can arouse curiosity among children, and push them to learn more about the topic through different means, such as inappropriate media content, sensitive images, etc.
Parental concerns about sexual education in our country should be given the utmost importance while remaining aware of the repercussions of not having a structured discussion on the topic. Sexual education is perceived as identifying reproductive organs and sexual abstinence, which disregards the holistic education that is quite necessary in our institutions. A holistic sexual education course would entail: learning about age of consent, emotional relations and responsibilities, reproductive health, and more.
The holistic approach of sexual education, either taught in educational institutions or by parents, firmly distinguishes affection from sexual abuse and harassment maliciously imposed on children by some family members. This validates accusations made by children against their perpetrators, disproving doubtful parents. Hence, parents are spurred to action that can stop the heinous trend of sexual abuse in the family, as well as save children who silently accept severe pain and violation of their human rights.
Parents need to break the silence around sexual abuse and harassment. Parental neglect and a continuation of abuse result in several psychological issues that develop throughout childhood. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, fear, poor nutrition, and low self-esteem are a few psychological hazards that affect the victims for their entire lives. The emotional bond between parents and children is destroyed through neglect and disbelief, the consequence of which is a child’s development without love, trust, and support.
When a child experiences discomfort from affection by a family member, he or she cannot readily justify their feelings. However, a strong bond between parents and the child, which fosters a supportive environment, encourages the child to voice his/her experiences. After all, if children do not open up about their experiences, how would the parents become aware of their child being sexually violated?
The first step to breaking the silence around sexual abuse is to acknowledge sexual violence as a topic of discussion. Talk with your child and ask them about their interactions with family members. Ask them how their day at school was or if any problems arose at home while you were away at work. If your child is attended to by a caretaker, ask your child about their interactions with them. Be conscious about whom your child is associating with, whom your child is sleeping next to or sharing a room with, and the people in your child’s surroundings. Good parenting requires strong communication between parents and children so that there is never hesitation in confiding in each other.
Bangladesh has now become a breeding ground for perpetrators even in the presence of law and order. Thus, sexual abuse should not be a controversial topic for discussion in our country, where 2-year-olds are maliciously raped and mercilessly killed. Children who have been victims of sexual abuse need safe and nurturing relationships to recover from the traumatising experiences that they perchance cannot stave off. It is the responsibility of parents to form this healthy and positive relationship with their children. Saving your children from sexual predators who are family members is far more important than, if not equivalent to, saving family honour. As parents, it is your duty to provide the safe childhood every child deserves.