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For Over 20 Million Indian Children, Sexual Abuse Is A Haunting Reality

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STC logoEditor’s Note: With #TheInvisibles, Youth Ki Awaaz and Save the Children India have joined hands to advocate for the rights of children in street situations in India. Share your stories of what you learned while interacting with street children, what authorities can do to ensure their rights are met, and how we can together fight child labour. Add a post today!

She is a vile little girl always looking for excuses to gain attention. Don’t trust her words madam, she is a liar.

This is what the father of a seven-year-old girl said when his daughter tried to tell him that she was being abused. She went quiet after hearing her father’s voice. However, my friends and I, who had been helping out in the neighbourhood slums for some time, decided to investigate the matter.

They were a family of four – parents and two daughters. Once the father left for work, a friend of his visited them frequently and played with the girls. Away from the prying of neighbours, he touched them in inappropriate places. But since the girls were unaware of what constituted sexual abuse, they did not talk to anyone about it.

It so happened that when I visited the house where her mother was employed as a domestic worker, on a Sunday morning, the little girl also tagged along. I was having a chat with her when she mentioned these ghastly incidents. Later, as we cajoled her, she mentioned that she felt ‘uncomfortable’, and in sheer innocence, narrated various incidents to us in the passing.

Luckily, the entire neighbourhood got involved, questioned the family and the accused, and discovered that the actions of this family friend who was so ‘nice and friendly’ were indeed suspicious. They convinced the parents to refrain from interacting with him, and eventually the family was shifted to a new locality and the accused was barred from meeting them.

Although the case has been brought to the police, investigations are still going on due to lack of evidence. It seems that the pleas of a seven-year old don’t suffice, and so many such incidents never come to light.

A report by the non-profit organisation, ‘Save The Children’, has found that 94.8% of such cases saw children, both on the vulnerable streets and those inside comfortable homes, being abused by someone they knew, and not strangers. It so happens that often the abusers are acquaintances or relatives whose public image is sometimes hard to question on the grounds of children’s complaints.

The Psychological Scars

A teenage girl, who had been repeatedly raped when she was 12 years old, opened up to me and shared her fear of being disregarded in the society because of her ‘shameful’ past. She confessed that the people around her make her feel like a criminal who has been branded for immoral deeds. Her plight came to the knowledge of her family only after she turned 16, when she was old enough to understand the gravity of the abuse meted out to her by her father’s co-workers.

But as she narrated her story, her shaking hands and silent sobs told me that she has not yet healed. Her mother shared that it took two years of rigorous counselling to inspire her daughter to join college for further studies. The fears have not left her completely and she still has to resort to antidepressant injections to cope up with dreadful memories.

Not Just Girls

These heart-wrenching accounts of sexual harassment that leave a child mentally and physically disturbed are not gender specific. A boy of 10 reported that the owner of the dhaba where he works, constantly abuses the child workers who shake with fear under his tight reign. Verbal insults and lashings are routine acts of the despotic rule here. Sometimes, these children also serve as satiating meals for sexual predators.

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2015 data, of the 8,800 child rape cases registered using The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 25% of rapes of children were found to be committed by their employers and co-workers. But since these children have no home and virtually no family (as most of them are orphans or runaways), their cries often go unheard. The image of these children as ‘troublemakers’ also puts them at odds with the police and hence worsens their situation. At times, even the law enforcers turn abusers.

Smashing The Stigma

The sexual abuse of children living on our streets, is a grave social evil that remains untold due to the pressing effects of poverty, ignorance and prejudice. The handful of survivors who grow up to tell their tale reveal the darker side of childhood that is often overlooked.

These survivors remain marred for life and their experiences affect their mental health and hinder their growth. As more incidents of sexual abuse come to light, the Delhi police has launched a rigorous campaign to check child labour and sexual abuse in workplaces as well as orphanages.

With various organisations and departments realising the need to ensure a safe childhood for all, the fight against child abuse has taken its first steps. The power of individual efforts and self-realisation becomes evident from the story of Amod Kanth, a police officer turned activist and founder of the child protection NGO Prayas, who helps survivors of sexual abuse fight their perpetrators.

But, as members of the society, it is the responsibility of each one of us to shun the social stigma about sexual abuse, so that the survivors can come out to share their grief without the fear of being branded as outcasts.

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Image Source : Lance Shields/Flickr

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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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