Sexual Abuse: The Elephant in the Room

I grew up in Germany, where during the late 80s and early 90s this was a topic that had begun to be discussed openly to create awareness and protect children. We were told not to allow strangers to touch us intimately and that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. When I was around 9 or 10 years old I remember very well how an older cousin of my cousin, around 13 years old or so, used to touch me under my shirt. We were all kids back then playing at home in Agami whilst our parents would buy Feteer or Grilled Chicken from Andrea. I still remember the green shorts and tank top I was wearing and how he would still do this whilst we were all crammed up in the backseat with my parents up front; a smooth operator. I never told my parents and I recalled this dreadful weekend when I was in my twenties. Despite the fact that I knew it wasn’t my fault, I was too ashamed to say something because I felt like a loser for allowing this to happen and not standing up for myself.

When I became a mother, sexual abuse was always a big topic for me and one of my biggest fears, and it actually helped me in raising them a little differently. Statistically, sexual abuse is carried out by the closest people in the child’s surroundings, making it so difficult for him or her to speak out and end the suffering.

1) “Come sit on my lap” is a very common situation, in which an adult takes a toddler or child on his lap and it becomes completely acceptable that children sit on the lap of a distant relative or friend in a big gathering. Children need to know that they should not be taken and placed on laps like dolls and that physical personal space is very important.

2) “I give you this candy if you give me a kiss” is one of the most common phrases we heard as kids and probably is passed on to our kids. Don’t ask your children, especially girls, to give kisses in exchange for something. It teaches them sexual favors. A kiss is a kiss and should be a form of affection for the closest people, not a currency.

3) “Give uncle a kiss”, is probably the most stereotypical call to action for any Egyptian child. The security guard is not an “uncle”, nor is the “bank teller”, nor the old school friend you have met after 30 years at the Mall. Our children need to know that there is a nuclear family and extended family and that uncles don’t have to be kissed. Kisses must be taught as an expression of affection for close people not to be thrown around like confetti. How confusing must that be for a child?

4) “Send him with the driver” is one of the most dangerous situations. Sending a little child as young as a toddler to a pre-teen alone with a driver is the worst kind of vulnerability you can expose your child to. Who of us doesn’t have a friend who sends her son to KG with a driver? 3 or 4 years old with an adult and no supervision is likely a very bad situation. Your child should not be unattended with an adult. I know of a father, who had no time to pick up his 8 year old from Maadi and he sent a taxi driver to pick her up and bring her to Sheikh Zayed. The girl complained to her mother, who didn’t know, after the second ride and that she doesn’t want to be with him in the car as he drives fast. “But our driver has been with us for twenty years”, fantastic, but that doesn’t change the situation at all. Think of the uncle who abused his nephew, or the priest who touched little boys in the choir, or the sheikh who molested the little girl during the “ta7feez” lesson.

5) Private teachers, coaches, tutors and the like. Stay with your child in the same room or area. How many of us felt awkward with the private tutor alone in the dining room? How many stories of young girls who have been touched inappropriately during a private lesson? How many stories of the young boy who was abused by the trainer? Your child is the most vulnerable in a teacher-student relationship, which often gives children the burden to comply and endure.

6) “Can I measure your temperature?” is not a sign of spoiling your child, it is teaching her that her body is hers and she has the right to decide over it and must be asked permission. I recently was told that my youngest was spoilt because she wouldn’t allow her speech therapist to touch her tongue, so I told her to ask her for permission and explain what will be done. Kids are not to be grabbed by doctors or nurses and just feel violated by whatever examination that will be done. Teach them to demand respect for their bodies.

7) “Private triangle” is probably the nicest way that helped me explain my girls what her private parts are. No one is allowed to see or touch this private triangle, which is her chest to her genitals. Even a doctor is not allowed to see or touch this private triangle without permission and the mother being around.

8) “Teach them to say NO”, is the most challenging one. We all want our kids to behave in front of fellow adults and are often embarrassed when our 9 year old refuses to greet someone with the obligatory cheek kisses. But who said that it is ill-mannered to “just” shake hands when this is what they chose to do? To be able to teach them to say no to situations they don’t like we must allow them the space to refrain and accept that choice.

9) “He is a boy”, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean he is immune. Boys and girls are subjected to sexual abuse alike.

10) “Speak about sexual abuse”, I once told my back then 7 or 8 year old that some adults do things to children that are bad and that she needs to remove herself of any situation she doesn’t like. “What if I can’t?” she asked me and I told her she could scream, yell NO, run away, run to another adult for help. You need to create space to allow your child to ask for help without fearing to be yelled at or punished.

11) “Sorry, you can’t attend your son’s therapy session”, should be enough for you to leave or ask for a female therapist. A friend was once told to stay outside while her 5 year old is inside for an hour with her male therapist. If that practice doesn’t have a see-through mirror or any form of supervision that allows you to see what your child does with a stranger in a room then you should leave. A doctor/therapist- child relationship is similar to that of the teacher.

Of course we can’t be everywhere but there are basic situations in which we have to be around protecting our children and not leave them vulnerable. Sometimes, we protect our laptops and wallets better than our children. If a three year old abroad was being driven around in a car by an adult who is not a guardian and something happened, the parents would be questioned for neglect. Yes, our lives are busy and we want to make things happen and stretch ourselves to meet busy social calendars and be here and there wanting the best for our kids, but their safety must remain a priority.

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