A father was detained recently by an airline after cabin crew accused him of touching his son inappropriately. He was travelling with his five-year-old son and was stopped while getting off the flight following a complaint by a crew member about the way he had laid his arm across the lap of the boy.
He was detained for almost an hour and made to feel like a criminal in front of other passengers, he wrote on Facebook. The airline has since apologised for the incident. But the harm has already been done. Parents who have read the article might be wary of any display of affection in case it is misconstrued and for fear of being hauled up by the authorities for abuse.
Growing up, I do remember some adults getting too close for comfort and invading one’s personal space. But although we might have found the experience uncomfortable, we knew better than to voice our misgivings to our parents. Those were the days when child abuse was not something that everyone was aware of and even if we had told the adults about our feelings, they would have been laughed off and we would have been told that the person was just being affectionate. So, we refrained from confidences and told ourselves that perhaps our imagination was getting the better of us.
As true stories abound of adults taking advantage of the innocence of little ones, I am glad that parents today are more alive to the danger of abuse and, accordingly, advise their children to let them know of any untoward incidents. It is better to be safe than sorry.
However, the incident on the aeroplane seems to be a case of taking things too far. Did the people who reported the father see that the boy was disturbed by the action of his father? If that is the case, then their action might be justified. But if a normal display of protectiveness or affection was misunderstood, I can understand why the dad was so upset.
Living in a time of horrific news flashes by the minute, are we prone to misread situations? Should we give people the benefit of the doubt instead of rushing to conclusions? But what if our inaction results in an innocent child being abused? So many questions and no clear-cut answers.
I think today we have become suspicious of the motives of people and are inclined to question even what might be a completely innocent gesture. But is playing safe the answer or should we follow our gut instinct? Should people be given the benefit of the doubt or should we act on our impulse and make sure that what we dreaded or suspected is not given a chance to materialise?
It is a hard decision to make. There is the possibility that inaction on our part could lead to perpetration of a crime or injustice. Where does one draw the line?
I remember a classmate coming to school one day with the clear imprint of five adult fingerprints on her cheek. The results had come out the previous day and she had possibly not lived up to the expectations of her parents. We were appalled by what we saw and yet we never thought of reporting this to a teacher.
In our eyes, although what this parent had done was reprehensible, it was clearly something we could not question as it was a family matter. If this had happened today in any country where child abuse is taken seriously, the matter would have been reported and appropriate action taken.
There is a fine line between interfering in what happens within a family and behind closed doors and ensuring that you have not missed signs of abuse on an innocent child.
Vanaja Rao is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad, India.