Is home the safest place for our children? It was not safe for Tuli.
In her early teens, Tuli (name changed) was a lively girl. When her father returned home from work, she would greet him with a broad smile and a hug. If he were late, she would pester him with many questions. But, of late, this vivacious girl has suddenly become silent. She avoids meeting her father or any other man in the family. She does not smile or greet visitors. She does not even speak to her mother. No one in the family knew what had happened to her and everyone was very worried.
Finally, she has opened up to a psychologist that her parents took her to. She told the doctor that she was sexually harassed by her own uncle, who lives in their house. When Tuli's parents were not at home, the uncle would call her to him and hug her in a way that she felt was not right. He assured her that there is nothing wrong in what he has done to her. "An uncle is like a father and there is no reason to fear him," he would tell her. This was a secret Tuli kept to herself until her family took her to the psychologist.
Ima (name changed) studies in the fourth grade. She has suddenly stopped visiting her next-door neighbor and friend Jyoti (name changed), who is Ima's age as well. Jyoti does not understand why. She asks Ima to tell her what is wrong and, when she finds no answer, takes the matter to Ima's mother. "I don't like the uncle (Jyoti's father). He places me on his lap and does something I hate. He is just not good," the little girl tells her mother. Ima's mother understands, and since then has been guarding against her daughter visiting Jyoti's house.
Stories like Ima's and Tuli's are, sadly, not uncommon in Bangladesh. Many children face sexual harassment and, in most cases, the perpetrators are close relatives, like uncles or cousins.
Dr Nizam Uddin, Assistant Professor at National Institute of Mental Health, explains, "Sexual harassment of children comes in various forms. Touching the genitals of children, photographing them naked, showing them genitals or forcing them to touch others' genitals are considered sexual harassment."
Mahmuda Islam, Professor at Dhaka University's Social Science Department, says, "Children are sexually harassed mainly by close relatives in the family or neighbors. This is one of the reasons why a majority of such incidents are not made public."
And, sure enough, figures on sexual harassment of children in the country are difficult to come by. What is available is often outdated and incomplete. According to a fact sheet on child rights violation prepared by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, a coordinating body of NGOs engaged in child rights issues, 69 incidents of child sexual harassment were recorded in 2002. And these are figures based only on newspaper reports. Considering that only a tiny fraction of cases are actually reported, the real picture is far more harrowing.
According to a 1997 UNICEF report 'Children of Bangladesh and Their Rights', half the under-11 girls in Bangladesh are subjected to some form of physical torture or abuse. A more recent evaluation in 2001, says, "In Bangladesh, as is the case across South Asia, sexual abuse and exploitation are amongst the most prevalent types of violence that affect girls throughout their childhood and adolescence. In contravention of the law, early marriage of girls continues to be prevalent in many parts of Bangladesh and this too can be seen as a form of child sexual abuse. While less has been documented about the vulnerability of boys to sexual abuse and exploitation and its impact on their development, feedback from consultations held with boys and anecdotal evidence reveals that they too suffer in silence."
According to Nizam Uddin, there are both short-term and long-term effects of sexual abuse on children. The immediate effect, he says, could be unexplained fear, stress, depression, unusual behavior and a sense of guilt. In the long run, this could develop into acute distress disorder and some victims may become prone to suicide. Lack of self-confidence and adjustment disorders, psychosexual problems, anti-male attitudes, problems in marriage, self-harm and long-term depression are the possible long-term consequences.
Zahidul Islam, a programme coordinator at Breaking the Silence - an NGO working to create awareness on child sexual abuse in Bangladesh for over a decade - explains his organization's strategy to combat this abuse: "We seek to create awareness about sexual abuse at various levels - starting from the family to schools. We also provide legal assistance to child victims of sexual abuse. Media can play an important role in this regard."
Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - to which Bangladesh is a signatory - says that the State must do its best to protect from all types of sexual abuse and exploitation. Bangladesh, though, has not been able to fulfill this international commitment. Section 10 of Repression against Women and Children Act 2000 also defines physical sexual abuse, saying that if a man wrongfully touches a sexual organ or any other part of the body of a woman or child with his organ or by any other object, it would amount to sexual abuse. However, there is yet no definition of what would constitute psychological abuse.
Mahmuda Islam stresses: "Our social attitude must change. We should also teach children about the dangers they may face. Parents should be able to freely discuss the matters with their children. And children should be encouraged to discuss problems with their parents without any hesitation. They should not feel that their parents will not trust them."