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Why Kids As Young As Three Need To Be Taught About Their Body And Sexual Abuse

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We Indians love to make noise; yelling at the fruit vendor, honking on the streets, singing loudly at weddings. It’s what we’re good at. Making ourselves heard whether anyone is willing to listen or not.

But when it comes to initiating constructive conversations about sex, suddenly there’s a hush. This misconstrued notion of Indian values insisting upon a conservative approach to the subject is impacting a generation of children and teenagers growing up with the perils of misinformation, peer pressure and unrealistic expectations of sex and sexuality depicted in the media.

According to a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, there is a lack of comprehensive sexuality education in India. The report also emphasises that well-informed teenagers become sexually active much later.

As a mother of a 3-year-old girl, my nervousness has already begun. She is away from me for many hours in a day and it is important that I begin teaching her about her body, how to protect herself and know when something isn’t right. The problem is, like most parents, I’m stuck on where and how to start.

So how do we do this? How do we shift the paradigm from viewing sex as an awkward subject to building a two-way communication that facilitates empowering children through openness?

I spoke with Reema Ahmad, sexuality educator and co-founder of Candidly, a platform that focuses on generating awareness on child abuse, sexuality and other gender-related issues for children and adults. Their motto is – “Silence fuels misconceptions and stereotypes. The only way forward, is candidly.”

Sangeetha Bhaskaran (SB): What motivated you to start Candidly?

Reema Ahmad (RA): I’ve been conducting abuse awareness workshops for three years now. I started doing this because I am an abuse survivor myself and that experience and my responses to it shaped my life in ways that can’t really be called positive. This made me want to do something positive in this space. When I became a mother, I wanted to be better prepared and decided to teach myself. That journey of self-education and learning opened my eyes to the layered nuances of sexuality education and I was hooked. Candidly is a recent addition to this field of work with a friend to explore more areas like gender, sexuality and the way they’re reflected in culture and media.

SB: Can you tell us a bit about the age groups you deal with and your observations based on their responses?

RA: I have worked with two age groups, dividing them into groups of ages 4 to 6 and 7 to 11 to deal with age specific issues and also to make sure that they were exposed to material that was age appropriate.

Younger children are often a little confused about recognising potential danger and they have to be taught very specific body safety rules limited to naming body parts and learning to say ‘no’. Their responses vary from amusement to discomfort and we always make it a point to normalise the topic by linking it to everyday events.

Older children have often responded with more complex questions of how to identify danger when it seems friendly and innocuous, how to identify and deal with guilt and shame and how to talk to parents without fear.

In both age groups, the common factor in children’s responses is almost always a natural tendency to ask questions and be curious, which I think must never be thwarted with judgement or ridicule. That way, it is easier to maintain open communication with children.

SB: What are the challenges you face in India? Is the taboo eroding or is there still something people tread on eggshells about?

RA: The biggest challenge regarding this subject is a cultural tendency to view it with some amount of horror and suspicion – as something which should be avoided and shut down. I think there is some change regarding taboos in families and communities, with some access to education and awareness. But as far as the general population in rural and semi-urban areas goes, there is tremendous scope for improvement and awareness.

SB: What is the current system in the curriculum for sex education?

RA: As such, there is no set school curriculum for sexuality education and the schools that do adopt body safety measures do so of their own volition. Some states have begun to implement consent and body safety awareness for both boys and girls in government schools at the senior secondary level. In my opinion, guided sexuality education free of moralistic right-wing standards should be made compulsory in all schools.

SB: What pointers can you give anyone who is keen on empowering children and young adults on this subject?

RA: Start early. The dialogue should begin at an age as early as three, especially when kids start asking questions about their bodies and in general. They should be given age appropriate answers to encourage conversation in the future. It is incorrect to use terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch because it colours the experience of physical touch – a dentist’s touch feels bad but is good for you. Similarly, a sexual touch may physically feel good but is bad for kids. Use ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ touch instead, linking sexual safety to everyday safety in younger children. It is an ongoing conversation, not a one-off ‘sit down and let’s get this over with’.

Comfort and consent: Cultivate a healthy and respectful attitude towards intimacy in the family as it goes a long way in creating comfort around issues of sexuality. It is important to maintain a culture of consent in families for non-sexual activities as well, like hugging, hitting, respecting privacy and when someone says no, especially when young children play. These everyday practices help to lay the groundwork for healthy, consensual relationships.

Be prepared: Often adults react with shock and disbelief when curious children come with queries. While this can be a reflex, it also has the potential to shut them out by inducing shame and guilt. Today there are several resources available easily. TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive & Sexual Health Issues) is a Delhi-based NGO that offers tremendous support through online resources that are free to download (the Red Book, the Blue Book and the Yellow Book cover all ages from young adulthood, to teenage and for parents). The YouTube Komal animated clip is also a popular video that is safe to watch with children.

Be attentive and approachable: Make a conscious effort to listen to children. This helps create an atmosphere of trust and goes a long way in encouraging kids to talk about their issues. Creating a clear understanding of happy and unhappy secrets in the family is also a factor that can discourage people from taking advantage of a child’s innocence.

While governments and educators continue to debate the spectrum of sex education required, it is clear that we cannot depend on the Indian schooling system to provide comprehensive sex education. As a developing nation, we are grappling with some serious issues – alarming rape statistics, unreported marital rape, rampant child abuse, intolerance towards homosexuals and transgenders, – that have their roots planted firmly in a lack of holistic understanding of sex and sexuality. We can no longer afford to be squeamish and live in denial.

It’s time we talk about sex, sexuality and body safety.
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Image source: Overseas Development Institute/ Flickr
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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