On a Tuesday morning in early April this year, over a thousand teachers and students at a Kilpauk school were part of an interactive, fun-filled session, that was unlike any other they had ever taken part in. For, while there were fun and games and audio-visual presentations, as there might have been during other school events, the focus on this occasion was different. It was a session meant to raise awareness among those present, as well as break the silence around one of the greatest social evils of the times – child sexual abuse, or CSA.
Much as we would like to live in denial, the statistics on sexual abuse of children in the country are staggering. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2015, based on the cases registered under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) show that sexual offences and kidnapping account for 81% of the crimes against minors. Tamil Nadu with 1544 cases has the third highest number of child abuse cases, while the state is right on top when it comes to the number of child workplace sexual abuse cases.
The Kilpauk session was just one in a series that has been sensitising thousands of children in the city, and even across the country, over the past few years, ensuring that they know how to protect themselves from threats, keep themselves safe and urging them to open up and maintain steady communication with their parents.
The programme under which these interactions take place, called Project Masoom, is an initiative of Young Indians, a part of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Formed in the year 2002 with the objective of creating a platform for Indian youth to realize the dream of a developed nation, Yi also works with schools and colleges to develop leadership amongst students through project Yuva.
Sharing important information
It has been seen that child victims of sexual abuse often suffer in silence. The reasons for this could be several, including lack of awareness of abuse forms, not knowing whom to trust and confide in, or even the fear of being reprimanded upon reporting. The primary objective of these events is to share information that will enable them to keep themselves safe, cope with untoward situations, and communicate with a trust circle without any threat or feeling of guilt.
Through light and entertaining activities and age-appropriate explanations and interaction, the children are made aware of forms of CSA, situations to avoid or be wary of, whom to talk to and even helplines they may call in the event of any violation or abuse. This instils in them the confidence and the right knowledge to stay safe and raise their voices if necessary.
The journey of course has not been smooth throughout. Initially, there was some resistance from many parents and schools who considered this a taboo topic that could disturb kids or ‘spoil their innocence’, but as an increasing number of sessions got completed, the real value was perceived. Many schools have now voluntarily come forward to host these sessions.
The questions they ask
What many trainers and resource persons have also realised along the way is that children are very quick to learn and have many questions that need to be gently but honestly answered.
Sometimes their questions or responses in turn inform us about the approaches to be adopted. Many of them ask what they should do if their parents or people they talk to do not believe them, or what they should do in situations when their parents are not around.
In the Kilpauk school session, for example, when the children were asked why some of them choose to hide unpleasant and uncomfortable situations in general from their parents, most responded saying that they were afraid and kept such secrets to avoid being scolded. This reinforces the need for parents to reassure their child of their support and availability in all circumstances.
Schools can send an email to Yi.firstname.lastname@example.org to request an awareness session for students, parents or faculty.
Parent can organize a community session in the neighbourhood with 50+ kids and send an email, the organisers will conduct a session for neighbourhood kids.
There are regular ‘train the trainer’ sessions to induct volunteers. The next set of sessions are planned to start from July 2017. Interested individuals can mail the organisers.
Pointers for parents
A key point to remember is that children do not like to be questioned. Nor are they comfortable with isolated, pointed, repeated questions such as “How was school, did any thing bother you today?”
What is important, therefore, is to start building a platform for communication. This entails allowing children their space, and then gradually building the trust in them to share their deepest thoughts and concerns.
Sometimes, you may just need to tell them, “You know what happened today? I faced this situation and this is what I learnt…” The communication could either start with the child or with adults creating an opening of dialogue, but it has to be meaningfully engaging rather than through monotonous, unimaginative questioning.
Moreover, as adults we often rush to give our opinions and decisions, even as the child is trying to convey something and is in the middle of a conversation. It is absolutely essential to commit to listening fully and then offer suggestions.
Finally, it is important to find other activities that children may be engaged in beyond studies, and participating in those with them. There should be routes of bonding with them as a parent, for example through walks, cycling, board games, craft, gardening etc. These could open up the time and space for them to share things with you, which they otherwise may have just ignored or kept to themselves.