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'Hanging up' for good

Last updated: 22 July, 2011

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Posters on child sexual abuse hang from the walls of several classrooms in Chennai. These mark the first time government schools have opened their doors to spreading awareness about child sexual abuse for the children to see and talk about, observes Paromita Pain

COMMUNICATION IS KEY Thanks to the posters on child sexual abuse, a significant number of children, particularly girls, are asking questions and talking about  situations where they don't feel safe. PIC/ Tarannum/WFSThe sketches are simply done and the messages are written in Tamil in some schools; English in others. “No one can touch me and ask me to keep it a secret”; “If someone touches me and asks me to keep it a secret I must tell a grown up”; “My body belongs to me.”

Schools and civic leaders in Chennai don’t shy away from warnings about child sex abuse. Many schools conduct awareness raising workshops and, on the International Day for Prevention of Child Sex Abuse, the city never fails to organise rallies and media programmes on this concern.

These posters, however, mark the first time government schools have opened their doors to permanent wall hangings about child sexual abuse which are meant for the children to see and talk about. They began going up in February and can now be found in the busy entrances and front offices of 281 government-run schools that either charge no tuition or very little and cater to lower-income families.

The posters also send a warning to faculty members, since schools are considered a place where children risk abusive contact. Last year, a non-governmental organisation was reported to have teachers who abused students in one of the schools it ran. Students had complained that sexually abusive teachers threatened them with failing grades unless they kept quiet.

The poster campaign is a joint effort of the state government, an advocacy group called Tulir and UNICEF. Tulir — or the Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse — conducts training sessions and awareness campaigns on child sexual abuse. During one such session, Tulir organisers say they kept hearing complaints of child sex abuse in schools and that schools should be turned into places of safety and awareness. This led them to think about how to make sure that children were getting the message on a daily basis rather than just through a workshop session.

Lois J Engelbrecht, a researcher on child sexual abuse and the founder of the Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse in the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, says the sexual abuse rate in India is far higher than in any other country. One study, conducted in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, indicated that just over 50 per cent of children reported having faced sexual abuse. It looked at almost 15,000 children and young adults across 13 states in India.

Unlike students in private schools, many children in government-run schools work as domestic help after school, exposing them to another arena of abuse.

One of them, Vasanthi (name changed), occasionally fills in for her mother as a domestic worker in a household that requires her to stay out of the kitchen when she is menstruating. On those days Vasanthi washes clothes and performs other tasks outside. “An uncle in the family keeps asking me about what’s happening to me,” she says.

The posters at school made her feel it was okay to raise the matter with her teacher, who told her to avoid being alone with the man and to immediately tell an adult if his behaviour toward her worsens.

In feedback sessions with teachers at the 281 schools, campaign organisers have found that a significant numbers of children, particularly girls, are asking questions and talking about situations where they don’t feel safe.

Take young Karuna. She says her mother had warned her about men, but hadn't offered any details about what she meant. When she saw a poster with the message “my body belongs to me” she sought out a teacher to help her understand it better. She took the message beyond molestation to the sphere of bullying as well. Now Karuna says she doesn’t allow older boys in her neighbourhood to push her around. “If they don't like me playing in their space they can tell me so. No one is supposed to hurt me,” she says.

The initiative began with a pilot project in 23 corporation schools, which are government-run schools, and included trainings for parents and teachers on how to field the questions students were raising.

One school hung a poster outside the principal’s office in a part of the school the children pass every day on their way to morning assembly. When the board was put up, the children were taken class by class to see it and its message was explained.

“Once a child knows that an adult is aware of what can happen, that someone might touch them or behave inappropriately, they are immediately more confident about expressing what might be troubling them,” says Nancy Thomas, an activist and educator with Tulir. “Also when a teacher, a trusted adult, shows them the boards, their confidence that someone is at hand to help gets an enormous boost.”

Thomas adds that the posters are acceptable for children because they avoid such words as ‘sex’ and ‘abuse’. “This makes it more palatable for school managements to get involved,” she says. “We are not avoiding realities here. It’s just about giving information to the child and conveying that sex and abuse is one part of a larger context children should be made aware of.”

Private schools have not embraced the poster programme. Administrators at these schools say they might convey the impression that child abuse is prevalent in their schools, says Vidya Reddy, another activist and educator with Tulir.

“We believe every child is vulnerable to abuse. A child in a corporation school will face the same kind of abuse that a child in a well-off home might face, although the situations of abuse might differ,” Reddy says.

By arrangement with Women eNews WFS

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