One of my earliest random memories is from when I was 9-years-old. I had just won a prize for a dance performance (on Jahan chaar yaar mil jaaye from Sharaabi!) at an army function and was being pretty much adored by everyone around. ‘Everyone’ then included lots of army ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ and particulary a large number of ‘young’ uncles. Young uncles in the army are unmarried lieutenants and captains who are (or were back then at least) usually treated as the kids at a cantonment.
What I clearly remember is not the dancing or the prize but of some young uncle picking me up in his arms and throwing me in the air while the others cheered and applauded my (excellent) dance moves… and later, of Papa growling at Ma for ‘letting’ that officer pick me up, Ma whining her helplessness and Papa finishing off with, “You don’t let any bastard touch my daughter”. I remember feeling bad for Ma and being confused at Papa’s reaction (didn’t he like my dance?) and yet understanding then (and for the rest of my life) that Papa did not want me picked up or cuddled – even as a 9 year old – by other men, even nice young uncles.
If my vocabulary had included ‘over-reacting’ then, I probably would have used it. (I did use it often for Papa in my teen years). I understood the why of Papa’s fury much later; and now that I am expecting my first child, suddenly, mysteriously and guiltily, ‘over-reacting’ seems such a useless, over-used word. How can you overreact in protecting your child…or can you?
One of the things Partner really had to train me for (or against) when we first came to Melbourne was to NOT go “how c.u.t.e.” over strangers’ babies. I’ve always liked babies and have (or had) not thought twice about walking up to parents with an adorable tot and striking a conversation that usually started with, “Your baby is so cute etc.” Or if at times a child was found wandering by himself/herself – somehow toddlers seem to manage it extremely well despite vigilant parents – holding its hand and asking where its mother was and simply waiting for the parents to turn up.
In Melbourne, it’s not as easy. First couple of months here a similar lonely-child incident had happened. I had promptly walked up to the child and was asking it about its parents when they had come running...The mother was relieved and said thanks but the father – He looked like my father as he stared at me suspiciously. I was so hurt, Partner was understanding but upset (with me). “Baby, you cannot just talk to kids here, you could be arrested.”
I’ve received varied reactions from parents when I’ve smiled at a cute tot or made faces at babies (it’s awesome when they react and smile or laugh). Some parents have smiled back and others have glared at me, with mistrust, some with fear. I don’t think it had anything to do with me being Indian etc. These were protective parents. It hurt me initially and I wailed at Partner, “But I was just being friendly!” “You know I am not a ‘kiddie fiddler’!” And Partner had again patiently explained and I had understood but lamented how innocent people were being viewed through the same lens as the paedophiles.
And yet, can we – can I? – ever know who is innocent and who can harm my child?
It’s considered good mothering here if you let your baby be cuddled by others. ‘Others’ does not mean strangers but say family, friends etc. It is said that it helps children socialise better and lets them get used to other people more. If a mother smothers her child in her bosom (not literally but is over-protective), the child is thought to grow up as an introvert or someone who is not as socially adept. It’s here that I get confused. What if I trust the wrong person?
Papa’s (over) protectiveness did not end with strangers; it extended to everyone, regardless of friend or family status. He did not trust anyone. It protected but it also choked. I had no night outs at friends’ homes because they had older brothers and fathers; didn’t go for school trips or picnics because I’d be alone with boys, didn’t learn swimming because there were too many men in the swimming pool (and I had developed breasts at 10, bloody things), was not allowed to compete in the doubles badminton tournament (after winning three prizes) because that would have meant partnering with an unmarried officer (I was 14)…the list goes on.
But did it eventually protect? Or did it exclude me from people? Is that the reason that I can be ‘popular’ with people but don’t have many friends…and don’t know how to ‘make’ friends? Was it his protectiveness that harnessed extreme reckless, rebelliousness in me and made me seek out things and experiences that were the antithesis of whatever he believed in? Or was it my destiny to learn things the hard way (f**k destiny really)?
And most importantly, how am I going to be with my child? Am I content to teach it ‘stranger danger’? How do I explain the difference between good and bad strangers? Yes I know about the good touch and bad touch…but how do I explain how to see/fathom malicious intent before the touch? How do I prevent the touch? Will I be a good judge to know who’s good/bad for my child? Can I trust anyone… or have I become like my father?
How do you – those with children – know what to do? Are you not scared?
Read this on similar thoughts, from a mother of three
Some scary facts:
USA: Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as friends of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases.
[Julia Whealin, Ph.D. (2007-05-22). "Child Sexual Abuse". National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.]
India: 53.22% of children in India reported having faced sexual abuse. Among them 52.94% were boys and 47.06% girls (sample of 12,447 children, 2,324 young adults and 2,449 stakeholders across 13 states). The study looked at different forms of child abuse: Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse and Emotional Abuse and Girl Child Neglect in five evidence groups, namely, children in a family environment, children in school, children at work, children on the street and children in institutions.
["Study on Child Abuse: India 2007" (PDF). Published by the Government of India, (Ministry of Women and Child Development).]