On Sep 19, 2011, Vyjayanti and I had been requested to do the Menstrual Hygiene Awareness talk for about 180 girls from std 8 to I PUC, at St. Antony’s School in K.R.Puram, Bangalore. The children studying here are mainly from the nearby slums, and their parents are most often construction workers.
Along with our regular talk, and the usual queries that followed it, the school also made a special request – To speak about child abuse. Or more specifically, sexual abuse. The reason – most of these children’s fathers are drunkards, and cases of abuse aren’t uncommon.
Although we have touched upon similar topics in the past, the schools haven’t usually been very welcoming. So in this case, we were quite pleased that the school teacher insisted we do this talk. This meant freedom of speaking on such a topic without any restrictions or inhibitions. So we began……
We touched upon the meaning of a “Good Touch”, a “Bad Touch” (Physical abuse) and a “Sexual Abuse Touch”. We spoke about why the child is never at fault no matter what the abuser or anybody else tells her; we spoke about how abuse is very confusing since physical pain may not necessarily be associated with it, unlike in case of a bad touch; we spoke about the need for an abused child to immediately report the case and speak up, even if it is a person known to the family; we spoke about it never being too late to speak up; we tried to explain how a child is often tricked or forced into an abusive relation; we told them that Vyjayanti and I are trained lay counselors and can guide any person in such a situation through Prasanna Counselling Centre………we spoke.
There was pin drop silence.
As with all our talks, we needed to hear from the girls, but we knew that it may not be as easy for them to speak up. So we asked them to write any questions they had on a paper and give it to us, anonymously. We didn’t realize or expect the impact….the girls began handing us different sizes of papers, and they didn’t seem to mind that we know who had written the question. Some of the questions they wrote:
1. What is the repercussion of a sexual touch?
2. If abuse happens only by being in touch with boys/men, then is it better that we completely stop talking to boys?
3. Some Sirs’ touches are not good. How can we avoid them?
4. If boys who are in our class behave “close” to us, is it right or wrong?
5. Is pregnancy the only “bad thing” that can happen from a sexual abuse touch?
Worse still – It was time for the college students to leave for their tests, and they came to us and said “Ma’am, can you quickly tell us just this much, since we badly need to know, and don’t have much time to wait for you to read all questions -“What is the repercussion of a sexual touch?”
With very little choice, and faces full of expectation staring up at us, we stood in front of the crowd of 180 odd girls. Yes, we touched upon what causes pregnancy, we touched upon HIV/ AIDS being a risk, and we did tell them about the use of contraceptives. But we didn’t want to leave them with thoughts that if they avoided pregnancy or even HIV, the rest is OK.
The truth is, in the society we live in, girls will be humiliated, girls will receive no support, they end up missing out on basic education, and they stand a chance of being made an outcast if they indulge in a sexual relationship with a man without realizing the consequences. And we could tell these girls were at an age where they just wouldn’t realize the things they are putting at risk, or what they might be getting into. And it is not their fault, it is just the age their in.
So we explained how they need to focus on their studies and future at this stage of life; they have to think through every such situation and realize what the consequences could be; they had to understand that its not just about getting pregnant, or HIV, but about the guilt, the shame, the ridicule, the blame that society will pile on them in the event of such a thing happening. At the same time, we told them how they can interact with boys; they can be study partners, sports partners and just plain friends. We told them that there is a time for everything in life, and now is the time
for them to think of studying, and being in a place like Bangalore, opportunities are a plenty even for women.
We were wondering if we had conveyed the correct message, but the school authorities put our mind at rest when they thanked us for talking so openly to the girls and said that it was badly needed. In fact, the school requested us to do a similar session for the boys as well.
By the way, did you know, in India 1 out of every 3 girls, and 1 out of every 10 boys are sexually abused in childhood. And in 70% of the cases, the abuser is known to the family. If you wish to know more, check this link
Stories of young girls from government schools, some as young as 12 years, running away with much older men (auto drivers, cobblers, etc) who stand outside the schools, aren’t exactly rare. I have myself come across such a case when I was teaching in a government school. I guess they’re just not spoken about as much.