Can you teach 5-year-olds to protect themselves from bullying and sexual harassment?

The rate of sexual violence in South Africa is among the highest in the world and young children are its most vulnerable target, but according to Dr. Ayelet Giladi, a Consulting Educational Sociologist, we can empower children as young as 5 years to learn to protect themselves.

As South Africa grapples with issues of democracy, leadership and economic challenges, the toll of poverty and mental health issues relating to stress is seeing an escalation in abuse directed towards children, the most vulnerable members of society.

Crimes against children especially are a growing trend, with the most chilling facet the desensitization towards abusive acts within the greater society.

With almost daily reports of new dimensions of violence being unleashed across the country, including 2019 reports of four primary school boys raping four younger boys while at school, to reports of adult rape on an 8-month-old baby in Bonteheuwel, to the dismissal of a ‘coach’ at a top private school caught abusing several junior high hostel pupils.

“Sexual abuse can happen to a child of any race, socioeconomic group, religion, or culture, and it starts in the playground with children as young as 5 years of age,” says Dr. Giladi, who travels the globe as a speaker, author, and researcher.

“We see abusive behavior start to reveal itself in kindergarten playgrounds, and if left to develop will continue through the course of the child’s life. We see that adults in general and children, in particular, have difficulty identifying violence, including bullying and sexual harassment.”

Recognizing sexual harassment in the playground

“Sexual harassment between children occurs at the point where a child’s game crosses a line of behavior which then results in an abusive act – clearly defining both a victim and an abuser. It’s the #Metoo phenomena reaching down into children’s conduct at preschool age. This behavior can quickly develop into inappropriate relationships between peers, exploitation of younger children by older children or adults, and gang or group exploitation.”

According to Dr. Ayelet Giladi, often, educators and parents are unaware of what is taking place.

“If a child is having a hard time at kindergarten, some might tell their teacher or parent; but most don’t have a way of articulating it and we only hear about it months after the event has passed, or we pick it up only once we start to notice a change in the child’s behavior.

“All too often, I am seeing sexual harassment so socialized into our daily lives that even as adults, we have become so desensitized to it that we are not noticing when it is happening right in front of us.

“It might be a teacher explaining unwanted physical attention away between a boy harassing a little girl for physical contact as ‘he’s just being loving, let him give you a kiss’ or ‘he just wants to be your boyfriend’.

This “boys will be boys” scenario is typical in all childhood environments, but Giladi says it needs to change because it is sexual harassment. If that boy is told that this behavior is okay and that girl is told it is normal and she must welcome it, these patterns will continue into adulthood.

Other examples of child-to-child sexual harassment during playtime are witnessed when boys squeeze the private parts of another boy if he misses scoring a goal in sport, or girls touching each other’s breasts to guess the cup size when they get their first bra; all of these acts constitute sexual harassment.

Giladi says if children behave like this, it is usually about power, as sexuality is not yet in play. She mostly sees it in children who are in the middle of the social pecking order and want to gain access to the top of the hierarchy by doing something “illicit” or “brave”.

“As adults, we cannot be complicit in normalizing a situation of child sexual harassment, one which creates a culture of power and victim, where one child becomes a possession with no consideration for the personal feelings or wellbeing from the perpetrator.

Educating Educators & Parents

“As educators and parents, we can prevent these behaviours from developing,” confirms Dr. Ayelet.

“First we need to start recognising it at its start. Then, we teach children early values of respect, dignity, and equality in both their emotional and sociable development, so children can understand their rights and learn how to protect themselves,” says Dr. Giladi.

Having conducted international educator training for over 10 years and class facilitation for the prevention of the abuse of young children, Dr. Giladi says she understands it can be difficult for parents to have to tackle this issue so early on in their child’s life.

“Most parents want to keep their children protected from the evils of the outside world for as long as they can, but by remaining innocent, parents could be setting their children up for situations they are not able to cope with later on; one’s which could be potentially devastating.”

More than just child’s play

Explaining why she starts with children as early as 5 years of age, Dr. Giladi says that by age 5 a child has gone through the normal developmental stages of growth, including having an interest and awareness of their private parts and can understand the values of self-respect and respect for others.

“We empower children by teaching them to know their rights about their body. That no one should touch them if they don’t want them to, and to know how to protect themselves so that harassment doesn’t turn into sexual abuse.

“If we are not telling a child how to protect themselves, they become vulnerable to bullying and harassment. They need to understand that if they do not want a certain behavior, they need to have the voice to say no and the tools to take action to protect themselves.

Toxic behaviours in adult life

“If sexual harassment is left to develop in the playground, it can result in later life where this type of behavior seems normal for an adult, for example, it is deemed okay if the boss wants to touch someone inappropriately in the workplace.

“The emotional effects of sexual harassment, especially when buried in a victim’s psyche can become toxic and it can often take years for someone to speak out about their experiences.

“We are seeing this with the current #metoo campaign. In its most devasting form, especially where there are socioeconomic issues at hand as well, a child who experiences sexual harassment and then, without adequate support normalises this behavior, it can lead to toxic habits and lifestyles, such as sexual acts offered in exchange for drugs, food, shelter, protection, money, and other basics of life.

“When we arm children with the tools to value their bodies and those of others at an early development stage, we are nurturing the child to not be at risk of psychological manipulation during puberty, as a marital partner, and in their future careers.

Child Rights start with you

South Africa has entrenched children’s rights into the South African Constitution where all children have the right to protection; have the right to survive, to be safe, to belong, to be heard, to receive adequate care, and to grow up in a protective environment.

Dr. Giladi has made it her life’s purpose through Voice of the Child Association to bring her 19 years of research to parents, educators, and donors in shifting social trends and empowering the child with a voice for the protection of their rights as early as possible.

If you would like to donate to Dr. Ayelet Giladi’s Association goal of training educators worldwide for tools to protect our children; or have her present or train in your region or school, please email her at cayeletgiladi@gmail.com