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Telling secrets: A dramatic fight against child sex abuse

Educators across all sectors of Israel are using theater to revolutionize the fight against child sex abuse

One evening last week, I was listening to the radio while driving and heard the usual dispiriting talk about Breaking the Silence, updates on the Regularization Law and yet more details about Milchin’s gifts to the prime minister of champagne and cigars. And then I reached my destination, a Jerusalem hotel conference room, where Noa Ariel was declaring a revolution. “This is the most important headline of our time,” she told an audience of teachers and supervisors who had come to check out her show for their schools.

“This is a process – like the exodus from Egypt. It’s a transformation, from slavery to redemption. We are fighting the plague of sexual abuse. We are saving our children. We are cleansing the world from utter filth. It’s historic. We are switching gears in the real and positive relationship between parents and children.”

Ariel has been working in theater for decades and lives in Yitzhar, where the community’s rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, has, as she explained to the audience, told her “to turn the world upside down, to remedy it.”

“I have plenty of nice shows for Tu B’Shevat and Hanukkah, but this show – I’m begging you to book it because it can save lives. Let’s make the world a healthy place again.”

And then she begins. Her show, “A Little Bird Told Me a Secret,” uses puppets to tell a story of sexual abuse. Theater enables her to touch on difficult dilemmas with sensitivity. The plot describes a curious little bird who gets invited to the house of the big and most respected bird in the forest, and there the big bird starts playing nice yet confusing games with the little bird, and in the end she abuses the little bird.

Ariel chose this kind of story because most cases of child abuse occurs close to home, in familiar territory, and is perpetrated by someone whom the parents know and sometimes even admire. The well-worn parental rule to “never go with strangers” is really inadequate. As time passes, the little bird begins to feel that something is not right, but doesn’t understand the gravity of the problem. Most importantly, she is embarrassed to talk about it. The big bird also swears her to secrecy. In the end, the little bird decides to tell her mother, who gives her emotional support. The show ends with a song: “I’m very happy that I told my secret, I told someone what happened and now I’ve gotten help. We don’t hide things from parents, nothing at all. We tell them everything, that’s the rule.”

The lights come up and Ariel is bombarded with questions from her viewers, which she answers. It looks like everyone who was there wants to book her for their institution. Her calendar, by the way, is fully booked. She appears three and sometimes even four times a day in public schools, religious public schools and haredi schools. The show changes the way the subject is talked about in school. There are children who, as a result of the show, have gone up to their teacher, school counselor or parent and said, “I’m a little bird and I have a secret.”

“There’s a phenomenal message here,” Ariel attempts to encourage her pensive and dispirited audience. “The attacker doesn’t usually just attack and go on his way. He creates a process, he builds trust. If we teach our children to talk to us at the very beginning of the process, the very first time they feel confused – we’ll be able to put a stop to it. We also need to pay attention to worrisome signs. In the show we see the little bird displaying illogical behavior – and this should arouse parents’ suspicion – the little bird goes to sleep without talking to anyone and she’s disrespectful. I learned about an important concept from professionals in the field – “approachable parents.” We need to be approachable parents, the kind that can be approached and asked questions.”

* * *

The next day I met Ran Yehoshua and Tali Gildin, two Jerusalem educators, together with therapist Shneor Walker, are also trying to force the educational system to deal with this loaded topic through theater. Their program is called “Dare to Share.” Why? Because they say that the attacker is like a predator on the lookout for that vulnerable child, the quiet one who won’t talk, the kind who looks like he won’t breathe a word to an adult. He’s an easy target for abuse. In their workshops and performances they try to encourage these children to “dare to share” in order to prevent abuse but also to enable parents to speak up so they know how to react and cope. I asked them to share with worried parents some practical tools from a booklet they will soon distribute about child sexual abuse prevention programs. Here are the most important principles they us to know:

1. Normalize open conversation

In order for children to talk about abuse, they need to feel that they’ll be believed and not judged. They need to feel sure that we’ll be on their side and that they are unconditionally loved. Adults are the ones responsible for creating this feeling. With this in mind, it’s necessary to initiate appropriate and open discussion within the daily routine. For example, “I read an article this morning about unpleasant games being played by children in different schools – does this happen in your class too? And if it did happen, what would you do?” If when we’re together, we hear someone using vulgar language or cursing, it’s an opportunity to talk about the fact that our body belongs to us and that it’s important to maintain clean, respectful language.

2. Send out good vibes

A child who wants to approach an adult about these topics will first put out feelers to check if the adult can contain him. If he doesn’t get good vibes, he’ll remain silent. It’s important to give the child the feeling that he can approach us about any topic. If in the past we showed distance and closedness, it’s important to change that.

3. “Say no; Get away; Tell someone”

The most basic rules if child abuse happens are: Say no. Get away. Tell someone. It must be stressed that it’s sometimes very difficult to say no and walk away, but it’s always possible to tell someone, and it’s never too late to tell, even if it was a well-kept secret for a long time.

4. Avoid scare tactics

There’s no point in scaring kids and telling them that there are pedophiles everywhere, everyone is perverted. You need to communicate trust and confidence: Our body belongs only to us and we tell our parents about things that bother us. The basic assumption is that our body is wonderful and our private parts are good and important, not bad. Appropriate touching is important and connects people and that’s precisely why it’s important to set boundaries and to protect ourselves.

5. The importance of a “potential guardian”

According to Australian research, if a child has a “potential guardian,” meaning an adult who has spoken with him or her about sexual abuse prevention and is someone he can approach in any situation, the chance of him being abused is dramatically reduced. Such a child conveys the message that it’s not worth starting up with him because he has someone to tell.

6. The importance of role-play

Sexual abuse prevention is not a theory – it’s something that needs to be practiced. Crossing the street at a crosswalk is also something we practice with our kids. That’s why we need to role-play with our kids. Not under pressure, not in a panic. Calmly. What happens if someone comes up to me on the bus? If someone starts chatting with me online? If a teacher or counselor gets too close to me?

7. How to react

If, G-d forbid, the child tells you about abuse, the desired reaction is: “It’s good that you told me, good for you, I believe you and we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to get through this together.” This is not the time to question or judge, and the adult also needs to seek the advice of professionals in the field in order to decide how to proceed. Research has shown that if a correct response is given and if we are able to “be there” for the victim, the recovery process already begins then.

Translated by Shoshana Silver

Sivan Rahav Meir is an Israeli television and print journalist, author and radio and TV host.

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is an Israeli television and print journalist, author and radio and TV host.
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