At their debuts into Earth, humans inherit genes and names from their families. Then, society throws into us its eclectic mix of thoughts, based on culture and religion. Whilst our genes and names make us unique, culture and religion steer us towards our beliefs and values. They shape how we conduct ourselves, and how we relate and respond to others. Inherent in these beliefs is the mantra of retribution. We are taught that there are human and spiritual consequences for our actions, here and after life. So, in fear of punishment, we act in ways which we believe will aid our survival and enjoyment of life. I respect all that. However, it’s worth noting that unless we evolve our beliefs and values to connect with contemporary occurrences, we may inadvertently hurt others, especially children. A good example is how our cultural and religious beliefs impact on children disclosing sexual abuse, as well as our ability to safeguard them. Here are five examples…
Misogyny and patriarchy
Let’s start with the issues of misogyny and patriarchy. I’m yet to see any religion or culture that puts women in positions of strength. Even in western countries, misogyny peers through walls when feminism is mentioned. Most countries in Asia and Africa view the male child as superior and stronger. From an early age, male children are frowned at for showing any form of weakness. “Don’t be like a girl” always follows a cry from a male. So, when boys are raped or sexually abused, they find it difficult to disclose it to anyone. Even when they show signs of emotional trauma, they are overlooked, and their cry for help seen as feminine behaviours.
All cultures and religions have homophobic messages (disputable). Christians believe that gay people are abominably vile in the sight of God, and are bound for hell. Traditionalists want them killed. Muslims preach the same. It’s actually worst for gay men. Recently in Nigeria, a young man was allegedly “caught” having sex with another man. He was murdered by an angry mob. People cheered because “it was the right thing to do” based on cultural and religious beliefs. What people forget is that everyday, male children are raped and abused by male paedophiles worldwide. There are reported cases of boys being abused by older male students and teachers in boarding schools, male religious priests raping boys, and even family members and friends doing same. So, when we have homophobic conversations around boys, how do we expect them to report rape and sexual abuse by men? How would they overcome the fear of being stigmatised and being called names? How do we guarantee their safety if they speak up?
The flip side of the above is the case of the non-stereotypical abusers…women. Since most cultures and religions portray women as the weaker sex, it is unsurprising that women are overlooked in issues around the abuse of children. Women are believed to be quintessentially nurturing, so when a woman is seen with a child (male or female); the assumption is that she’s the mum, aunt or nanny…anyone with a nurturing role. Societal values are so tuned towards stereotyping women, that we never suspect sexual abuse when women are seen with children. When an adult man is seen in a public display of affection with a child, automatically, deafening alarm bells chime in our heads. Put a woman in the place of that man, our values evoke a deafening silence.
The price of virginity
On virginity preservation, what can I say?! In some African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries like South Africa, Iraq and India, a girl’s virginity is priceless. Occasionally, women carry out virginity tests on girls to ensure that their hymens are intact. A bride on her wedding night is supposed to bleed during intercourse, and the blood shown to family members as evidence of her virginity. In India, brides have been killed for dishonouring their families, because their hymens didn’t bleed on their wedding nights. Women now carry out aesthetic surgeries to ensure their virginity is “restored”, if they have been raped, or have engaged in any form of intercourse. This begs the question; how would a girl child in a society where bounties are placed on hymens report rape? How would she call out an abuser without fear of reprisals?
When respect hurts, we need to pay attention. I agree that children should be taught to respect people. All cultures and religions preach that. However, some cultures and religions do not permit children to speak up in the presence of adults. It’s common to hear people say “children are seen not heard.” So, when an adult abuses a child who has such beliefs, how would that child ask the person to stop, or even speak up against him/her.
We as adults have a responsibility to safeguard children from any form of abuse. Now, when our cultural and religious beliefs impact on this duty, we need to start having conversations. We need to find contemporary replacements for what we teach our children. The world is evolving and so are the tactics of the abusers. Instead of homophobic slurs, teach children to be non-judgemental. If condemning a particular sexual orientation prevents your child from reporting abuse to you, then you need to stop having prejudiced conversations around your child. Teach children a non-gendered way of showing emotions. If being macho prevents a boy from reporting abuse, then focus on empowering him to show his emotions. Eradicate misogynistic thoughts completely. Steer your thoughts towards seeing women as equals in everything, including the ability to abuse children. Checking a girl’s hymen not only debases her, it builds a wall around her ability to stop abuse. With rates of sexual abuse of children increasing in societies where the voice of the child is shut down, attitudes need to change. Children need to be taught be conditionally respectful. We need to empower children to speak up without fear.
Please, don’t allow cultural and religious beliefs inhibit your ability to safeguard children. Never underestimate the potency of childhood.
Image by Phoenix I