I teach 60 enthusiastic third and fourth graders at a low-income private school in Mumbai along with my co-fellow, Kaushalya. At the beginning of our teaching journey, we came to realize that the kids were exposed to violence in their communities. They were replicating behavior that they saw— acts like hitting each other, punching each other, holding up each other’s collars were normalized. Their reaction to conflicts and tensions was to violate the other’s physical space.
And with the technology, the children now have access to inappropriate content on the internet; content which tends to normalize a lot of problematic ideas around sexism, violence, rape culture etc. Neither online nor the offline spaces seemed to offer much-needed alternatives to the children.
We realized that we needed to create a consent-positive culture that could inform them about inappropriate behavior that could be inflicted upon them or that they could be perpetrating, maybe unknowingly.
Consent Positivity is about having or promoting an open, tolerant, or progressive attitude towards consent, boundaries, personal space and bodily autonomy.
Kaushalya and I decided to make personal space and consent as the primary value for our classroom. I drew a stick figure on the whiteboard with a circle around it and told our students that, that circle represented my personal space. This personal space could also include everything that belonged to me, such as my bag, my dupatta, my phone, and so on. We translated this idea into concrete actions like no one can touch didi without didi’s permission or no one can touch didi’s phone without taking didi’s consent. I told them that each one of them had their own space. And nobody can enter that space without their permission.
We began discussing and sharing instances where all of us might have violated someone’s personal space at some point and tried to think of ways in which we could’ve acted differently in that situation. Children discussed and debated on consent. That helped them understand their agency and the limitations of their agency as well. Like they can’t vote, they can’t consent to sex, there will be certain decisions that will be taken by their guardians. We discussed the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of consent and everything that falls in between.
Along with this, we informed them about what it would mean if somebody says no and how it should be taken seriously. We made it very clear that there could be no persuasion after someone said no to them. This was tricky. Once a kid said ‘No’ to attend a special class, and when asked to come anyway, he told us we are not respecting his consent. We realized the need for reiterating the idea of personal space and teaching consent in association with that.
We made a new classroom rule that is called ‘Respect my personal space’. We made them look at various situations where they could practice consent and if that was related to their personal space.
They used to play a game called “Tops and Bets” where they would hit each other on the forehead during recess. We asked them if the personal space is being respected in that game, and if not, what should they do? Most of them eventually stopped playing that game as they realized how that violates their boundaries.
We discussed the importance of asking for permission before playing any game which involved touching and contact. In other scenarios where they would say no to eat healthy food or attend classes, we would ask them if that is related to their personal space.
This exercise made it easier for them to differentiate between different situations and where their consent is important.
Our kids are still young and trying to link all these concepts and many of their overlaps. Week after week, we kept on discussing the idea of consent while our kids themselves started telling us why taking about consent is important. They now hold each other accountable for not taking consent before touching somebody’s belonging or body.
“Didi, she touched my hand without my consent.”
“Didi he took my water bottle without my consent.”
“Didi, I’m feeling bad because the PT teacher hit my friend without taking his consent.”
Now, some of these might seem insignificant actions, but these are part of their growing ability to critically think and act in a situation. With age, they will know the important situations where consent needs to be practiced strongly. But at least they won’t have to struggle with the vocabulary and the concept of bodily autonomy.
We have always treated consent as something that came intuitively to us and needn’t have to be taught in particular. However, we forget to acknowledge how important the role our social environment plays in building our value systems. Since we are living in a patriarchal society that tends to ignore the very concept of consent and tends to permit only cis-gendered men to have agency, our future generation will continue to grow up and perpetuate the same idea unless taught otherwise.
As a teacher, and in general, it is extremely difficult to censor what each child is getting access to. It is not in our hands to edit out problematic scenes from a movie, check all contents they are exploring online or keeping an eye on their interactions with other people. What is in our hands is to educate them so that they make more informed choices. Children learn best when logic and not heavy words drive the values we teach them. Values are not formed overnight, especially when we are surrounded by mediums that communicate the opposite. It is a tedious and long task. However, it’s a very important step in our journey towards creating safe spaces for everyone.
Article written by Apoorva Sekhar.
Apoorva is a Teach For India Fellow. She did her bachelors in Sociology from Xavier’s Calcutta. Now she isalso interested in gender, conflict resolution, educational inequity and human rights. In her free times shebakes, reads books and make random playlists on Spotify.