Home is the place we imagine children to be safe. No matter how harsh, rejecting, humiliating the world is, it is supposed to offer a sanctuary where they are accepted, nurtured and loved as they are. But what happens when the home is unsafe and parents most dangerous for the child? This notion goes so much against the popular discourse that it might seem unbelievable. After all, don’t parents love their children unconditionally and want the best for them? Not much is talked about how this love has so many filters of expectations, disappointments and rejections. It may have to do with the child’s gender, looks, academic success, social skills, abilities, talents, and so many other aspects that are valued in our society. I am sure if you look at your own extended family, you will find many examples of this discrimination in so many nuances. Love is not a binary where you either love your children or not; love also comes in different shapes, sizes and hues.
Then there is love that is manifested in such a twisted way in the form of violence, abuse and conflict. Where the children are faced with unpredictability in the emotional climate at home on an everyday basis.
An 11-year-old once shared with me that after school, she had taken to sitting in the park for hours, waiting for her father’s return from work. Her mother’s rages were often directed at her in the form of slapping, kicking and shouting abuses at the slightest provocation. As she sat there in front of me, twisting her hands and crying, she said, “I know she loves me a lot. There must be something wrong with me.”
A 10-year-old, who had witnessed alcohol induced violent rages in his father, told me that he wished his father was dead and then broke down crying, “I feel so guilty for saying that.”
A 13-year-old I met had been groped by her father at night while he was sleeping next to her. She shared it with her mother, who dismissed it as, “He had too much to drink, I think.” When I met the father, he was quick in telling me, “It is just her imagination, I love her very much.” Would that warped love be enough for these children to feel safe at home?
Every parent is doing the best they can for their children with the resources and skills they have. But sometimes their best is not good enough. How often do we see children being abused, beaten up, screamed at in public? Can you imagine how much worse it can be for them behind locked doors? Children rarely talk about it as there is so much shame and stigma attached to these issues and also because they think it is their fault. The more dangerous the abuse, the higher the level of shame. It breeds in a culture of silence, secrecy and judgement. Sometimes their bruises are there for the world to see, but many times it is just hidden in their furtive, haunted glances and constant vigilance towards the adults and how they might react if they get one step wrong.
Then, as they grow older, it spirals out into so many different ways. Some might have many other adults in their lives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings who can save them from the clutches of the offenders. But then there are many who carry the trauma with them for the rest of their lives. It might live with them in various forms — depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorder or at times push them to repeat the cycle of abuse, generation after generation.
Stand up for child rights
Violence towards our children is culturally sanctioned, especially when it is at the hands of the parents, with a convenient justification — “they know what is best for them”. So when parents do get abusive, who will speak up for the children? Children have rights, but they do not have the voice to fight for themselves. Especially when they have been told from early years that they have to be quiet, not question their adults and be obedient. We need a movement #SpeakUpForOurChildren (there can be no movement without a hashtag nowadays). We need to have these conversations and discussions in our schools, colleges, media, public spaces everywhere. And all of us need to be part of it — parents, teachers, doctors, organisations or professionals who work with children. Our children, 470 million of them and more, deserve better. As the clichéd but powerful phrase goes, “If not now, then when? If not you, then who?”
Strengthen the family
It is so easy to shelve this as a problem of some isolated families, “the others”. In fact, that idea in itself is so problematic. Till the time we see the problem “out there” and not as none of our business, we will keep feeding it. It is our cultural dismissal of our collective responsibility and the normalisation of violence towards children which is at the core of the problem. Studies have indicated that children who are the most vulnerable are the ones who have a disability, a parent who might be struggling with addiction or a mental health problem, a violent father in a system steeped in patriarchy, or a family structure where the child does not have enough champions to stand up for them. We have learned from well-resourced Western countries that taking the child away from the families does not work; in fact, it multiplies the trauma manifold. POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) is a significant step taken by the government but what we need is high-quality child protection services that can be accessed without parents being judged or shamed. The focus needs to be on strengthening safety and not breaking families.
Children are the litmus test of a society
We are all part of this society which is feeding this culture of child abuse in some form or the other. After all, children can be very easy and convenient receptacles for our daily stresses and frustrations. They are silent, helpless and will never turn around and question the abuse. And that is why building emotionally safe spaces is a call to arms for each one of us. It is not rocket science, and no formal degree is required. Respect the dignity of every child, give them a safe environment to grow and accept and nurture their uniqueness. Keep them safe, listen to them, become alert and stand up for them despite all the awkwardness or inconvenience. This is not a sentiment, attitude or a world view, but a practice. A deliberate, daily practice, where we commit to building emotionally safe spaces for them. No matter what.
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