By Shivakshi Bhattacharya, Swaranjali Agrawal and Suvangana Agarwal:
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.”
– I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Sometimes, in fact, most of the times, life is harder for a child. There is only so much they can make sense of, only so much that they can understand. For most of their childhood, they struggle with the concept of right and wrong. “Is it okay to eat ice-cream in the middle of the night? Is it okay to go to sleep late on a school night? Is it okay to not want Uncle Creepy to touch me anymore?”
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, children between the age group of 5-12 are at the highest of abuse and exploitation. The survey found that out of 69% children physically abused in 13 sample states, 54.68% were boys. It is a family member physically abuses 59% of the children across the country who live in a family environment and don’t go to school. As huge as these numbers are, not enough is being done to reduce them, and that is what inspired us to start a movement.
We feel that talking about sexual abuse and harassment will remove the stigma surrounding it and initiate conversation. So both of us, 4th year BA LLB students of Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, began a Sexual Harassment Prevention Program, “Make India Bold”, attempting to provide students with information about sexual harassment to reduce such incidences. We started as two but to have a greater impact we needed more people with a similar vision and passion for this issue. Suvangana Agrawal, our batchmate, joined us to make a difference. We aim to encourage students experiencing such harassment to get help by reporting to adults, promote respectful behaviours among peers, and help out friends experiencing the same.
We knew that it was at the grass root level that we needed to work – speak to children, parents and even teachers about what abuse and harassment is. They need to be aware of these things to realise what is happening to them, or even, what they may be doing to someone else. Our intention is not to tell children what is right or wrong, good or bad. We intend to inform them what various forms of harassment are, how it makes the other person feel, and how they can deal with it. A lot of times, what kids think is teasing and playing is not that. A ‘fun’ nickname at the expense of their friend’s self-esteem issue is not worth it and it is important to understand and take into consideration how their friend feels about the nickname.
We have done these sessions across Katni, Madhya Pradesh and Faridabad, Haryana. At our sessions, we often see students dealing with various problems and not know whom to approach for help. They understandably don’t know how to handle some situations themselves, and sometimes it is not easy, or enough, to confide in and consult parents. At our first session in Holy Child Public School with class 6th students, we asked them what they understood by harassment. A girl answered by saying “Didi, harassment ka matlab to nahi pata. Par meri mummy doctor hain, unke pass bahaut saare patients aate hain mental harassment ke liye. (I don’t know what harassment means, but a lot of patients come to my mom complaining of mental harassment).” At another one of our sessions, we found that these class 6 kids had been getting repeated invitations like, “Chalegi kya jhodhe mei?” These invitations had become an everyday occurrence, and had thus, become acceptable behaviour. When taken for granted, something like this has the potential of snowballing into bullying and sexual abuse very fast.
As students, it is sometimes very tough to prove your credibility. It becomes further difficult when you are three unknown girls walking around to schools with a dream to make a difference. We are often stared at by the principals and given ‘advice’ as to how sexual harassment is an inseparable ‘natural’ part of a woman’s life and hence, a sexual harassment prevention program is worthless. Despite all the on-ground struggles, we walk to make a change.
To have a greater impact, we have also come out with a fictional book, “The ‘Other’ Four”. It talks about isolated and ‘misfit’ kids. We want to be able to reach out to all the kids who cannot attend our sessions. Sometimes, children do feel comfortable approaching us to talk about these issues, so the intention is to be able to reach out to them and find a way to connect to them. The book is written from the perspective of four school-going children who talk about the problems they face to create relatability. We aim to come up with as many stories as we can so that we can cover as many issues as possible. If we could create relatability and awareness, we would consider this a success.
Often parents think that they are alone and their child is the only person facing some problem, but in most cases that is not true. We also plan on creating a forum for parents to come and discuss the problems that they see their kids go through as reassurance from someone who has faced similar challenges always helps more.
Our journey so far has not been easy. We have been struggling with the initiative as we are in the fourth year of law school. The only thing that has kept us going is the support of our professors and family. They have helped us grow from day one, making our dream into a reality and taking it further to achieve the larger goal. As we currently have no source of income as students, we have started an online crowdfunding campaign so that we can reach out to each child in this country through our workshops and books. We already operate through Facebook and Twitter, but our next immediate step is to come up with a website where people can contact us, and buy “The Other Four”.
In a country like India, dissolving stigmas and breaking age-old taboos is imperative. This is what we fight for. This is our mission.
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 [email protected] You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.