When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.
Following incidents of molestation on New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, fingers have been pointed in many directions. But while the plight of women victims at the hands of male aggressors has been decried at high decibels, little constructive conversation has followed on how society create the conditions for such events.
One conversation that often gets lost in the furious din following such events is just how early attitudes towards sex, gender and sexuality get fixed in children. Let’s admit it – parents in our times have it harder than we’d like to believe. They’re possibly one of the first generations that have had to consciously think about these questions.
So how do you begin the conversation that helps children, particularly boys, grow into gender-aware individuals? There’s no single template or quick and easy formula to apply, but here are 7 ways to make a start:
1. Repeat to yourself: Gender-awareness isn’t a ‘women’s problem’
But compartmentalising patriarchy only perpetuates it. The fundamental issue is that gender and sexual violence arise out of inequalities in power between people, not out of sexual desire.
As Ajanta De, Counsellor and Co-Founder at InnerSight Counselling in Bengaluru points out, thinking about all girls as potential victims and boys as potential aggressors misses out that boys can be just as victimised in various ways.
“The point to start with is that hurting another human being is not okay, versus a question of hurting a girl or hurting a boy,” she says.
2. Do not generalise or speak in stereotypes
It’s amazing just how quickly children pick up and learn to conform to gender stereotypes. But it’s also unsurprising when you realise just how often parents and role models casually throw around these stereotypes.
“Even those who consider themselves liberals do it, particularly when they make jokes,” she says. One solution is to make the conversation about individuals, their skills and abilities, without linking that back to that individual’s gender, adds Ajanta.
But this doesn’t mean ignoring differences of gender. After all, it is important to recognise that the world treats men and women differently. But the point is to not reinforce that difference as a bias.
3. Set rules for conduct, not barriers of ‘sin’
How do you actually talk about sex and sexuality without doling out lectures on sin?
The way forward is to focus on specific rules of social conduct rather than instilling vague all-encompassing fears about ideas like dirtiness, says Ashika Shetty, head of Programme Development and Communication at Enfold Proactive Health Trust.
“Bringing these issues out in a rules format rather than instilling a sense of fear and shame helps to make sex and sexuality natural and normal. It also tells the child that it’s okay to talk about these things with mum and dad,” she says.
Most importantly, you must stress that the blame for violating a person’s autonomy should fall on the person who violates the rules, rather than making the victim responsible, she adds.
4. Don’t get squeamish, use the right words
Pushing things under the carpet, telling children that they’re not old enough to hear about something, and shying away from honestly naming body parts don’t protect children. They just add to the confusion and push them to illicit sources of information.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Don’t touch your shame shame, puppy shame’. They will not use words like penis. It’s like Lord Voldemort,” laughs Ajanta, before pointing out that such acts only create long-lasting shame about body parts, needs and desires.
But this doesn’t mean that you have to jump straight into vivid biological detail, points out Ashika. While not using terms like uterus and vagina when children ask about pregnancy, she says, you could use terms like baby bag or baby passage, instead of the fiction of the baby being inside a woman’s stomach.
5. Don’t just give out a list of ‘Don’ts’
With all the information floating around on the internet and elsewhere, children are constantly bombarded with both useful and malicious messages about sex and sexuality. Amidst all this, parents can’t head off unhealthy mindsets with just lists of No-Nos. Instead, they have to work towards building a healthy and respectful attitude.
The first step towards this is accepting the normal curiosities and desires that originate in children and guiding them in the right direction.
And no, providing more information doesn’t encourage children towards more permissive sexual behaviour. “Research has shown that when children are given appropriate information about sexuality and reproductive health the chances of them indulging in sexual activity will always be lower as compared to children who have no knowledge or have been told nothing about it,” says Ashika.
6. Just one ‘talk’ won’t cut it, make it a continuing dialogue
Watch English television or Hollywood teen movies, and you’ll often hear of “the talk”. But one uncomfortable lecture, no matter how long, can never take the place of a continuing conversation within the family over the whole gamut of issues around sex and sexuality.
After all, the particular problems a child faces at age six are completely different at age eight or 14. What parents should do instead, says Ajanta, is create an open space for children to return every time for healthy discussions with their parents, without being judged.
“You can’t control the messaging that is happening with your child but you can definitely be in the know. If you want to be involved in what sort of messages your child is internalising then I think it’s important to keep that open and safe space where the child can come and speak about anything.”
7. Be mindful of your own actions
As Ashika points out, instilling gender-aware behaviour starts with how parents themselves speak and behave around their children. After all, children learn as much or even more from what parents do than what they say.
“Children need to see parents standing up not only in public spaces but also at home. If at home there is an environment where there is a gender disparity, parents need to stand up and say this doesn’t work. You need small sparks, you don’t need a big fire to make the change,” she says.