End Child Labor: An Estimated 215 Million Children Still Need Alternatives

September:  Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal
September: Interviewing students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal

What do you say to a child who has experienced child labor? I found myself in this position in Nepal recently. I was interviewing a teenager, who I will call Shree.  He described how as a little boy he had worked with his parents in the brick factories of Bhaktapur, rising at 1 a.m. to carry mud and mix bricks. Luckily, when he was 7, a school opened in in his community to provide Shree and other children at risk of child labor a free education, as well as the chance for a childhood and a promising future.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) was launched in 1999 by The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities, to provide an alternative to child labor. Now, 14 years later, about 350 students are enrolled in grades pre-K through 10 at the school, which is located about an hour from the capital city of Kathmandu. Many of the students are from families that are low-caste, indigenous, or other marginalized groups.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 215 million girls and boys around the world are swept up into child labor, some into human trafficking. Children, like Shree, are engaged in work that not only deprives them of their rights and an adequate education, but also is hazardous to their health and commits them to a life of poverty.

The ILO launched the first World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to highlight the plight of these children. Observed on June 12, the day works as a catalyst for the growing worldwide movement against child labor.

When in his final year at Sankhu-Palubari, Shree, one of the best students in the area, passed his 10th grade School Leaving Certificate exam with distinction. When I met him recently, he was in his his last year of high school.  He likes to write poetry and listen to music. In the afternoons, he volunteers at SPCS, the school that changed the course of his life and where his two younger brothers now study instead of working in the brick factories. He helps the teachers in the classroom and encourages the students to study hard. When they get discouraged, he tells them, “Choose the road that makes your future very bright.”

The bright future Shree envisions for himself is to continue his education after high school and become a math and science teacher to work in rural Nepal with children who, without a school and teachers, would most likely work instead of learn.

So, what do you say to the young girl beading blouses with tiny fingers in a suffocating textile sweatshop in India? What do you say to the little boy in Gambia working in an auto-repair garage or selling items on the street? What do you say to the young girl who is working as a petite bonne (domestic servant) in Morocco?  To the child  sold into human trafficking?

Through his deeds and goals, Shree is telling these children that he is working to break this cycle of abuse.

For you and me, I say that we speak with a loud, unified voice today and proclaim, “We are committed to protecting you, the world’s children, by ending child labor.”

Then, we put our words into action.

Originally published in MinnPost on June 12, 2013.

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Petites Bonnes: Child Domestic Labor in Morocco

Today, on the World Day Against Child Labour, I am sharing this post that I wrote for World Moms Blog. Moroccan flag

While millions of tourists visit Morocco every year, very few are aware of  a hidden human rights abuse that is occurring behind closed doors in Morocco’s cities.   Morocco has one of the worst child domestic labor problems in North Africa.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that between 66,000 and 88,000 children between the ages of 7 and 15 – 70% of whom are under age 12 –  are working as domestic servants in Morocco.

These children work long hours for little pay and often suffer physical and other forms of abuse. Because domestic work is “women’s work” in Morocco, the virtually all of these child domestic workers are girls. In Morocco (a country with a French colonial history), these child domestic workers are called petites bonnes or “little maids”.

I had the opportunity to learn more about the petites bonnes issue during a recent trip to Morocco.  The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs describes the problem like this:

Young girls are sent to work as live-in domestic servants, often before they reach age 10. Parents sell their daughters or receive payment of wages in exchange for their daughters’ service. These petites bonnes (little maids) often face conditions of involuntary servitude, including long hours without breaks; physical, verbal and sexual abuse; withheld wages and even restrictions on their movement. Frequently, they are sent from rural villages to more urban areas, and find it difficult to make their way home. Most petites bonnes are denied an education, and illiteracy rates are high among this population.

The Difficult Life of a Petite Bonne

The situation of petites bonnes in Morocco results from a combination of poverty, gender inequality and lack of access to education.   Girls – some as young as my own  8-year-old daughter – are sent to work as petites bonnes to generate income to support their families.  They come from poor rural areas to work in cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, Tangiers, Agadir, and Fes.  Intermediaries generally broker the arrangement, receiving a fee from the employer. Petites bonnes interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that their employers frequently beat and verbally abused them, denied them the chance to go to school, and sometimes even refused to provide them with adequate food and sleeping facilities.

In a strange city, separated from their families and often speaking a Berber language instead of the Arabic spoken by a majority of Moroccans, many petites bonnes are extremely isolated and vulnerable.  The isolation, along with the privacy of the homes, increases the chance of sexual abuse by male members of their employers’ household.  In fact, several studies have found that many unwed young mothers in shelters in Morocco were petites bonnes when they became pregnant.

The difficult life of a petite bonne sometimes ends tragically.  The widely reported story of little Khadija, an 11-year-old petite bonne who was beaten to death by her employer in July 2011, raised calls for the government to take action on the issue.  In January 2013, a 17 year old petite bonne in Casablanca attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of her employers’ home.  Amateur video of the suicide attempt circulated on the internet shocked Moroccans.  Most recently, on March 24, 2013, a young domestic worker was taken to the hospital in Agadir with third degree burns on multiple parts of her body.  Only 14 years old, she died from the injuries allegedly inflicted by her employers, prompting a UN representative in Morocco to decry child domestic labor by girls as “one of the worst forms of child exploitation” and call on the government to take action.  Yet thousands of petites bonnes in Morocco continue to suffer in silence.

Gaps in Legal Protection

According to NGOs working to help petites bonnes in Morocco, part of the problem relates to gaps in and difficulties with implementation of Moroccan laws.   While Moroccan law prohibits employment of children under the age of 15,  Morocco’s Labor Code does not apply to domestic work.  Therefore, the Labor Codes’ protections for workers regarding hours worked (44 hours per week) and pay (2,333 dirhams or approximately $261 per month) do not apply. Human Rights Watch has documented that petites bonnes work long hours, often seven days a week.  They earn an average of 545 dirhams (approximately $61) per month, but some earn as little as 100 dirhans (approximately $11).

In addition, Morocco ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1993 and the ILO Convention No 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.  Both international treaties prohibit economic exploitation and employment of children in work that is likely to be hazardous, interfere with their education, or harm their health, safety or development.  Unfortunately, neither have been implemented in a way that provides adequate protection to the petites bonnes.

Some Progress

There is some indication that things are starting to change in Morocco.  The government and international human rights organizations report that the number of girls working as petites bonnes is declining.  This is due in part to the fact that public awareness about the problems faced by petites bonnes has been raised because of increased media attention to the issue and public education campaigns undertaken by the Moroccan government, NGOs, and United Nations agencies.   The Moroccan government has also taken steps to increase school enrollment and this has helped reduce the number of children engaged in child labor.

Yet still more needs to be done.  Since 2006, the government has been working on a draft law on domestic work that would for the first time establish a legal framework to better protect petites bonnes, secure rights such as a weekly day of rest and annual leave, and impose sanctions on employers.  The Moroccan government has said that the draft Law on Domestic Workers is one of its priorities, but the bill has not yet been considered and passed by Parliament.

Take Action on June 12 – World Day Against Child Labour!

The problem of child domestic workers is not unique to Morocco.  In fact, there are an estimated 15.5 million child domestic workers worldwide.  The widespread use of children as domestic servants is one of the most hidden forms of child labor.  The exploitation of children, particularly girl domestic workers like petites bonnes, is a serious violation of children’s rights.  It perpetuates inequality and inter-generational poverty, and deprives girls of their right to education, health, participation and protection.  It also prevents children from acquiring the life skills and education necessary to improve their future.

To draw attention to the issue of child labor, the United Nations has recognized June 12 as the World Day Against Child Labour.  In 2013, the focus is on child domestic workers like the petites bonnes of Morocco.  On the 2013 World Day Against Child Labour, the international community is calling for legislative and policy reforms to ensure the elimination of child labor in domestic work and the provision of decent work conditions and appropriate protection to young workers in domestic work who have reached the legal working age.  In Morocco, the government should:

•    Strictly enforce the minimum age of 15 for all employment (including domestic work) and ensure that all children (particularly girls) enjoy the right to free and compulsory basic education;

•    Adopt a domestic worker law that ensures compliance with the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers

•    Create an effective system for identifying, removing and rehabilitating child domestic workers from illegal or abusive employment; and

•    Criminally prosecute individuals responsible for violence or other criminal offenses against child domestic workers.

In addition, the World Day Against Child Labour provides the opportunity for all of us to take action to build the worldwide movement against child labor.

Take Action to end child labor.  Learn what you can do to inform yourself and raise awareness in your community.  The ILO’s SCREAM (Supporting Children’s Rights through Education, the Arts and Media) programme has factsheets, presentations, postcards, poems, and more. The SCREAM education pack is available in multiple languages.

Join the 12to12 to End Child Labour community.  Learn more about the issue and join the 12to12 Community Portal, which provides a common platform for experience and knowledge sharing on research, activities and events  related to the World Day Against Child Labour.

Find out what kids and teens can do to help.  The ILO’s Youth in Action against Child Labour campaign has ideas, information,  videos and other resources to help young people take action to end child labor.

Make a pinwheel with your kids.  The pinwheel has become the symbol of the international fight against child labor.  The pinwheel campaign to raise awareness about child labor began in Brazil in 2004. The five blades of the pinwheel represent the different continents of the world and the wind that makes the pinwheel spin is the will to act and to pass on the message until all countries take adequate measures to end child labor. Download a kit to make a pinwheel to keep the movement going!

 

Regrets

A couple of days ago, my  daughter asked me, “Do you ever have regrets?”

She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair.  No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame.  The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore.  And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of  their young minds.

I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret?  In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.

“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.

After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”

“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll.  Maybe the message would sink in.

But for me,  a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.

What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?

The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context.  Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.  It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work.  I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them  had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss.  One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office.  Sometimes there was power for the ceiling  fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not.  Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war.  (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)

Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them.  Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams.   Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying.  Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.

There was one woman who has always stayed with me.  She was middle-aged, calm and collected.  She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact.  Clearly, she had relived the events many times over.  She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.

At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”

This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:

We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by.  They attacked a village there.  They didn’t see us, but we saw them.   They killed a lot of people.  We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us.  There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother.  The baby kept crying and crying and crying.  I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do?  I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long.  And then it stopped.  I knew that the baby had died.  In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place.  Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.

Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice.  Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby.  Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.

I knew I could not save that baby.  I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not.  Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.

I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.”  I can’t change the world.   I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret.  I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.

But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness.  I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me.  There is a value in simply listening,  and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

It may seem insignificant, but it is not.  And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.

So do it.

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part II “Freedom To Game Is Important”

This is the second in my series of CALL OF (Parental) DUTY posts about the discussion we are having in our house about violent video games. Today is my 13 year-old son Sevrin’s chance to share his point of view.  Below is a letter that he wrote to us (his parents) about his frustrations with not be able to get Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

I’m proud of you, Sev, for expressing your feelings so eloquently and – especially – for putting the time and effort into writing them down for us. When I read this, I remember precisely how frustrating it is to feel that you are no longer a child but yet are not allowed to make many choices for yourself. Thank you for writing this and allowing me to share it with others. 

Freedom To Game Is Important

I want you to imagine, for a minute, that you are in a library. Or maybe a book store. There are rows and rows of books. Each book holds a story, unique and special in its own way. In this library filled with books you have the Fantasy row, the Action row, the Poetry row and then you come across the Childrens section. The library lady (or man) says that you are only allowed  to check out books from the Childrens row because she (or he) doesn’t think that you are “ready” for the big boy books. Now I ask you, how would you feel? You have rows and rows of books and yet you are restricted to the small corner and you’ve just been told to deal with it. If you were me, you’d probably feel sad, maybe a little frustrated, and a little bit confused on why you have to read Elmo and Barbie when you could be reading Shakespeare and anything you could possibly dream of. Alas, this brings me to my point. Of course I am exaggerating when I say all I can do is read Elmo but I’m trying to make my point clear. Why is gaming any different from reading in terms of age restrictions?

If it’s because M games are too gorey then I wonder why I’m allowed to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The true horrors of war seep from that book. Kids get kidnapped, hopped up on drugs, and told to kill anybody who opposes their “Dad” (The General of the RUF). In the book, the character sees people get stabbed and shot all the time. He sees people with their fingers chopped off and the letters RUF scorched into their backs. He’s seen women running from the fight with babies on their backs, not knowing that their kin had just taken a bullet and saved their parent’s life. So now I’ve seen it too. And I know what war is like in real life. I know what war does to people and I understand how terrible it is. But I don’t see a problem with shooting a blob in the form of a human that is really just something on the screen. I’m not hurting anybody by playing an M game. That’s like saying that I can’t shoot a target at a shooting range because I might hurt the wooden carving of a person. Besides, do you really think that I’ll become some sort of stone cold killer if a kill something in a digital world?!

If you are concerned about exposing me to bad language then you’re going to have to do a lot more than not allowing me to play M games. Say we are to watch a movie like umm… let’s just go with Band of Brothers. Swearing in that series is important in the plot. It gives the viewer a really good sense of WWII and war in general. But it’s not just from movies and books, it’s also from people around me. Take you/Dad for example. If you/Dad get angry, really angry, you tend to have a fairly large potty mouth. But sometimes swearing is required to get it into my head that “Yeah, I do need to stop complaining about bedtime.”  Plus, there is no doubt that there is swearing in T games, too. On top of all of that, I don’t think that just because I hear people swearing in a video game means I’m going to repeat the words I hear to other people say or mouth off at you/Dad. Like I said, I hear swearing all around me.Now, if the problem is that I’m just not old enough to be able to have the freedom to choose any game I want well, I disagree. I’m turning 13. That means I’m a teenager. I am both physically mature and mentally mature.  I am shaving and my voice is dropping, no, plummeting like a giant rock. I am also taller than Mom (Mocky!) and catching you, Dad. As for mentally, I’ve been trying to keep all A’s in part because of this. I am smart and know I can handle M games but have not been given a chance for three years. I made the mistake of asking for Deus Ex. But once again, I was ten and had a squeaky voice. I need freedom and choice instead of getting advice (although, sometimes the advice is helpful). I’m asking for a chance to try it again.

The bottom line is, I think that I can take it. If I don’t get to play M games now, I will probably have to wait two or three more years! We have no solid date or age in which I can play M games and I think that 13 is the perfect time to start. I want the ability to choose what games I should and shouldn’t play. And believe me, I know what games I want to get and don’t want. I sit here and search and search and search. I research games all the time and the reason I chose Black Ops II is because I honestly think that it would be fun. I didn’t choose this game just to be with the Kewl Kids. I’m not, as you may well know, a “hop on the bandwagon” kind of guy. Maybe one of the reasons the Call of Duty franchise got so big is because people had a really good time playing them. One other thing about Call of Duty is that Treyarch is the company making BLOPS II and they are known for making a much better story than Infinity Ward and with the futuristic setting, they have opened the floodgates to creative ideas and lots of options. I hope you at least consider what I’m asking for and thank you for reading.

Read the introduction to the CALL OF (Parental) DUTY series here.
For more of the Weekly Writing Challenge: Just Do It!, click here.

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part I

Target PracticeIt’s pretty rare that a national debate mirrors so exactly one that is raging within my own family circle.  But in the wake of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary – and subsequent comments by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre blaming gun violence on video game makers – a public discussion has been reopened  about violent video games and their impact on society.  It is the same discussion that has been going on, on a micro level, all fall in our household.  Although, frankly,  “discussion” is too mild a verb to capture the emotions surrounding the debate between the parents and the teenager about whether he can have CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.

My oldest son turned 13 years old in October.  He is a great kid, the kind of kid that other parents want their own kids to hang out with.  He’s smart and self-confident, has good friends and does well at school.  He is, I think, exceptionally mature for his age.  And he likes to play video games.  He has always liked to play video games, going way back to when he would choose to play Freddi Fish rather than watch a movie for his screentime.

His father and I don’t enjoy playing video games, so we start from a position of divergence.

Allowing for a difference in entertainment preferences (which I do), there is a second preliminary point that we don’t see eye to eye on: I don’t understand why it is fun to shoot at things.  We’ve got a couple of BB guns at the cabin, and the kids are allowed to shoot them at targets.  I’ve tried target practice and found it completely boring.

When my son was born, I was very clear that we would never have toy guns in the house.  Then one day, when he was about 20 months, he saw a kid at the coffee shop make a gun with his thumb and index finger.  The kid pointed his finger at Sevrin and said,”Pew! Pew!”  And that was all it took.  Fingers, sticks, Duplo legos – it seemed like everything was turned into a “shooter”.  Before long, I had caved in to the reality of nature over nurture.  Over the years, I not only allowed, but I myself purchased, a vast assortment of Nerf gun products for birthday and Christmas gifts.  I didn’t understand it, but I saw no harm in it.  So again, I have to acknowledge that others, including my son, might find it entertaining to shoot at things.

But all of this seemed was a long way off from first person shooter video games like CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.   So when he asked for it for his birthday, we immediately said, “NO!”

Then I realized that, my general prejudice against video games and shooting things aside, I didn’t know anything about video games.  I didn’t know what standards were used for rating them or whether there were parental controls.  I realized that my son is a reasonable, intelligent person, even if he is still only 13 years old.  I thought that he did have a point – it wasn’t fair that we were banning the games without knowing anything about them.

So in November, I began to dig deeper.  My son and I both did research on violent video games and the impact on the brain.  We shared our findings with each other, emailing back and forth.  I spent hours not only doing research, but also reading comments by both parents and teenagers on the pros and cons of letting your kids play violent video games.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II is not appropriate for my 13 year old.  My son was bitterly disappointed, and I am truly sorry for that.  Sometimes a parent has to play the ultimate trump card, but I think it is important that we went through this process together.

This week, I will be writing about our experience in a series of posts I am titling CALL OF (Parental) DUTY.  I think my son deserves the opportunity to voice his opinions to a wider audience, so he will contribute his writing to the series as well.  Stay tuned!

Here are the links to other posts in this series:

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part II “Freedom to Game is Important” (in which my 13 year old son expresses his point of view).

(I’ve been thinking about doing this series for some time, but it took a Weekly Writing Challenge: Just Do It – and a weeklong holiday – to get me motivated to actually do it.  That, and a promise to my son that I would try to be fair and accurate.)

Assault In The Second Degree Grade

Me at age 7

I picked up my seven-year old daughter early from school one day not too long ago.  “How was your day?” I asked, as she buckled herself securely into her booster seat.  The key was in the ignition, and my brain had already sent the signal to my hand to turn it, when she replied,

“OK. Except that X touched me inappropriately this morning.”

We were running late for the appointment, but I did not start the car.  Instead, I turned around and looked at her.  She sat placidly in the backseat, the afternoon sun backlighting her golden curls like an angel’s aura. She gazed at me innocently with her big blue eyes. She didn’t look at all upset.

“Tell me what happened,” I said.

My voice sounded much calmer than I expected.  It certainly didn’t convey what I was feeling. When you are a parent,  and your most important job in life is to protect your kid, it is terribly disconcerting – not to mention heartrending – to hear her say something like this. I wanted to scream, “Who in the world would have the audacity to touch MY CHILD inappropriately?!?!”

Somehow, I stayed calm and delved for facts.  She answered each question fully and calmly. Here is a summary of what she told me and what I wrote in an email to her teacher later that night:

My daughter told me that X has been touching her a lot and making her feel uncomfortable.  She said on Friday that he was rubbing her upper thighs and touched her briefly in the bathing suit area.  She said that it is usually during circle time that this happens, so she tries not to sit near him.  I told her to tell you immediately the next time it happened, but I would appreciate it if you could keep an eye out for this behavior and help her avoid it.

I did not include this in the email, but she also told me that she always asked her friends to sit around her at circle time, a perimeter of girlfriend protection.

Up until last year, I think my reaction might have been different – more anger than the deep sadness that I was feeling. But after I wrote (and Time published) the How to Raise Boys Not To Be Total Jerks piece about my reaction when my son told a sexist joke, I heard from dozens of women about their experiences with inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.  Women of all ages, ethnicities and occupations, shared their experiences from all over the world.  A couple of medical professionals even told me about patients who had touched them inappropriately during medical examinations.  The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world.  I realized, sitting there in the car with my key in the ignition, that this was only the beginning for my second grade daughter.

In those few seconds before normality returned and we drove on to the orthodontist, I saw an image of myself in the second grade.  An image, like I was watching from above, of myself at the age of 7, pinned down in the dust on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School by a boy who easily weighed twice as much as me.  I had not thought of it in more than 30 years, but now I had a sudden, strong remembrance of the feeling of being panicked and trapped, as he sat heavily on my chest and held my wrists down on either side of my head.

I had thought that we were playing chase at recess; HE told me that we were playing kissing chase.  He demanded that I hold still so he could kiss me – he caught me, so it was his right.  A kiss was the price of my freedom.  I remember thrashing, kicking, rolling my head and arching my back, all to no avail.  A crowd of first and second graders gathered to watch. I think they were  cheering him on.

The school may have taken its name from magnolia trees, but I frankly don’t remember any.  There were crepe myrtle trees all along the walkway where we second graders lined up to enter our classrooms.  Small tree frogs congregated there; they seemed to have no purpose in life other than to sing happily and spit down on us.  A certain times in the year, the crepe myrtles’ strange, pink blossoms – which looked like something right out of Dr Seuss – covered the trees.  Pink petals blanketed the sidewalk where we second graders lined up.

As I struggled to break free from this boy, oh how I longed for the crepe myrtle trees and the safety of my classroom door!  I pictured myself running, as fast as I could, to that safe spot. Instead, I lay on my back, trapped, in the dust on the playground, trying not to see the boy’s face hovering inches above me. Looking instead for the freedom above me, in the bright blue of a Louisiana winter sky and a canopy of towering swamp oaks.

I have no complaints about the way my daughter’s school responded.  The teacher replied within a few hours and forwarded the information on to the school principal and social worker.  First thing on Monday morning, the social worker interviewed both students.  By Monday afternoon, they had put place a six point plan of strategies to ensure the safety of all of the second graders.  The school social worker laid it out for me:

1)      I will  speak to all of the 2nd grade classrooms about appropriate interactions.

2)      All students will be reminded to tell an adult as soon as something happens so we will be able to address it.

3)      Teachers will be vigilant and observant in the classrooms for appropriate student interactions.

4)      The playground staff will closely monitor for concerning behavior.

5)      Seating assignments will be made based on student needs.

6)      Students who cannot follow the rules will be seated next to the teacher.

The school social worker also said, “Please acknowledge your daughter for telling you, so you could inform us.”

When my daughter got home from school the next day, she reported that all six points of this plan had already been implemented.

“I’m proud of you for telling me. It was the right thing to do,” I said.

“I know,” she sighed.  “Everyone keeps telling me that! I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about it.”

But here’s the thing.  Statistics on sexual abuse in children are hard to come by because the majority of cases are never reported to authorities (estimates on reporting range from between only 12% (see Hanson, 1999) and 30% of cases (Finkelhor, 2008)). Based on reporting percentages, the real number of cases of sexual abuse could be anywhere from 260,000-650,000 kids a year.  To put it another way, as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys in the United States will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.

I’m not suggesting that what my daughter (or I) experienced was sexual abuse.  But it was an assault – and definitely a wake up call to my daughter’s vulnerability to the potential of something much worse. I don’t know the little boy who I call X here. I’ve also been around kids enough to know that second graders get squirrelly.  Sometimes, especially in close quarters, they have trouble keeping their hands to themselves.  I’m not willing to make any assumptions about this kid or speculate that his behavior is a sign that he will grow up to be a sexual predator.  But research shows that 40 percent of child sex abuse is committed by other children or adolescents. In fact, as many as 50 percent of those who sexually abuse other children are under the age of 18. These are facts that I did not know before.

When the recess bell rang and that boy got off of me, I sprinted for my second grade classroom door.  I got there before any of the other kids and put my face against the glass window to cool my cheeks, which were burning with shame and embarrassment.  For the next week or so, I spent recess in different part of the playground, doing penny flips on the monkey bars.  When I finally went back to playing chase, I made sure that I ran as fast as I could so I would never get caught.  For the rest of my time at Magnolia Woods, I was careful to keep away from that boy.  But I never told a single person – not my friends, not my teacher, not my parents – about him holding me down and trying to kiss me.  Not even when I saw him do the same thing to other girls.

So I’m thankful that my daughter told me about what happened to her.  And I’m thankful that the school took quick and decisive action, reinforcing the message for all of the kids and staff that school is a place where everyone has a right to feel safe. I’m especially thankful that something worse did not happen to my daughter, but also that this experience has left her better prepared for the future.

Child sexual abuse happens in all racial, religious, ethnic and age groups, and at all socio-economic levels.   Talk to your daughters and your sons about appropriate v. inappropriate touching, as well as what to do if it happens to them – or if they see it happening to someone else.  If you’ve talked to them about it once, then do it again.  Kids need to hear it again as they move through their various developmental stages. If you feel uncomfortable, just remember that what you are doing is preparing your kids to protect themselves, something they will have to do for the rest of their lives.

Resources about identifying signs of and avoiding child sexual abuse can be found at Stop It Now.  If you know of other good resources, please feel free to add them in the comments.