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Talking sexuality with Indian school children

Oct 23, 2013

Bengaluru-based Enfold Proactive Health Trust is holding classes for school students on sexuality, imparting children with knowledge about protecting themselves and distinguishing between a safe and unsafe touch. The initiative is important considering the fact that a Government of India study revealed that 53 per cent children have faced sexual abuse.


Bengaluru: It happened more than three decades back, but Vanitha Mathew clearly remembers the shock, fear and the frustration that engulfed her every time an ‘uncle’ came home to take her to her grandmother’s house. “My mother would scold me if I protested, saying that I was being disobedient by refusing to go with her cousin who had taken the ‘pains’ of coming to pick me up. Uncomfortable as I was with his behaviour towards me, I was even more perturbed by the fact that my mother could not understand what I was trying to tell her,” shares Mathew, now in her late forties and the principal of a school.

It was only much later that she realised that she had been a victim of child sexual abuse, and that not only was this threat common, it was also unfortunately hardly ever talked about in public. Determined that no child should have to experience what she had to, Mathew has ensured that the students of her school are made aware of such potential dangers, and they know how to protect themselves. “Sexuality education for school children, with a focus on personal safety, is the need of the hour. Students sometimes confide in us about certain ‘disturbing’ incidents. There is no point running away from the fact that children, from an early age, are at risk,” she observes.
Mathews has roped in Enfold Proactive Health Trust that works on the issue of child sexual abuse, to hold classes for students from Classes 5 to 7 on understanding sexuality. “Today, girls attain puberty as young as 10 years, so it’s important to empower them as well as the boys, with the knowledge of how to protect themselves, and of knowing the difference between a good (safe) and a bad (unsafe) touch,” she says.
The incidence of child sexual abuse in India is alarmingly high. A study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, along with non-governmental partners, in 2007 revealed that a shocking 53 per cent children had reported sexual abuse. These children - girls and boys - came from all strata of the society, and a large proportion had reported that they had been abused by someone they knew.
Sangeeta Saksena, a gynaecologist by training, is one of the founders of Enfold, which was set up 13 years ago. “Back in 2000, as gynaecologists, both my colleague Dr Shaibya Saldanha and I, noticed that we were getting a lot of cases of teenage pregnancies and child sexual abuse, which we thought could have been prevented had the children been aware of such dangers. But there was no such prevention mechanism in place at that point,” she recalls.
The beginning, however, wasn’t easy. Based in Bengaluru, Saksena says that when they approached schools on spreading awareness on the issue, the idea was met with apprehension because the general sentiment was that such subjects could ‘corrupt’ a child’s mind. But Saksena and colleague did not give up, “We kept insisting that there is no age bar on when abuse can happen – it has happened in children as young as five. So prevention has to start early.”
Since there were no guidelines and no curriculum at the school level to deal with such issues back then, the organisation got in touch with child psychiatrist Dr Shekhar Sheshadri at NIMHANS, to help develop one. “When we visited schools and colleges, and conducted workshops, principals and teachers would sometimes argue that this was against Indian values. The children on the other had gave us a strong stamp of approval, and later parents and the school staff came around to our viewpoint,” Saksena recalls.
A crucial step in this endeavour was the development of workbooks for school children, which dealt with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of personal safety. In addition, it was decided to make the books more wholesome, by including exercises on building self confidence, improving self image, and general health and well-being.
“We approach the subject in three steps. The first is to make the child understand that he or she is unique because of their skills and behaviour. The second is to make them realise that they should be proud or ashamed of what they do; that it was more important to focus on how they behave rather than how they look. Our aim was to improve self image and boost self esteem. Through such conversations we also touched upon the topic of bullying,” says Saksena.
The third step is for the child to understand that since the body is special, s/he should keep it healthy and safe. That includes eating right, exercising and playing games, and not buckling under peer pressure to adopt practices like smoking and drinking alcohol. Learning to say ‘no’, was important. In other words, personal safety was seen in a holistic manner.
Role playing, in which a child is given a situation and asked to respond, was also an important part of the exercises given in the On Track workbook series developed by the NGO. For instance, if you are alone and your uncle tries to invade your personal space, what do you do? How do you say ‘no’ to an adult who you have been taught to respect?
Created for children from Classes Three to Nine, the workbooks come with a manual for teachers and parents that guides them on how to recognise signs of child sexual abuse, and respond if such a situation arises. States Saksena, “This is a subject that needs urgent attention, and children need someone with whom to discuss such issues openly – as was made apparent by the deluge of feedback we received from school children.”
Scores of children that Enfold has interacted with admit that after going through the workbook they have developed a more open relationship with their parents, and are more confident about confiding in them. One of them has written how she spoke out against being touched in public by a stranger, resulting in onlookers coming to her rescue and helping her lodge a case in the police station.
The workbooks, according to Saksena, are now also a part of the curriculum in several schools across India — including Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Delhi, and Kolkata — and are being used to teach the subject of life skills.
According to Bengauru-based Priyanka Sharma, 14, of Class Seven, “These workshops are important because we learn how to take care of our bodies and protect ourselves.” Her friend Pooja adds, “We are taught to always remember No-Go-Tell, meaning if someone tries to invade my personal space I should say ‘no’ and then go and tell an adult about it.”
Saksena emphasises the importance of the involvement of parents, “We conduct sessions for parents wherein we tell them ways to create an atmosphere in which a child is comfortable to share such incidents with them. For example, while teaching parts of the body, don’t stop at the navel. It’s not necessary you say ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ next, but at least say, ‘this is the potty tract’. Or don’t reprimand him or her with ‘shame’ if they are nude, say ‘put on your clothes’. These are small but significant ways of breaking the silence and guilt around sexuality, otherwise if they were to be taken advantage of, they would somehow feel ashamed or even guilty about the incident, and not muster the courage to tell you about it.”
These are important insights that need to be more widely known. After all, isn’t a safe and secure childhood every youngster’s right?


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