While India has made progress in certain aspects of combating child sexual abuse – with special courts, stronger laws, child protection agencies, etc – one area where the country, and this includes Meghalaya, finds it hard is in talking about the subject.
One organisation that has been at the forefront of working for the respect and rights of children has been Faith Foundation, which is based in Shillong.
April 3 (also the 10th birthday of the organisation) saw the launch of a Faith Foundation campaign called ‘My Safe Space’, which has seen the NGO’s team members interact with children at schools (from Class 7 upwards) and colleges as well as members of neighbourhood Dorbars.
The campaign theme is ‘Why are you still silent?’, a direct question of a society that still has much to do in accepting the reality of child sexual abuse; according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, Meghalaya is ranked third in the country for cases of child sexual abuse.
“Society is still not open about talking about child sexual abuse (CSA),” Faith Foundation programme associate Sylvereen Snaitang said when Highland Post called in at their office. “Children are vulnerable and we need the collective action of adults.”
In its campaign, the foundation has used an immersive art installation, posters, pamphlets and comics to spread the message on the myths and realities of CSA and how to report cases of it. Students were taken on a guided story and then asked to paint and draw and how this was related to safety. In the communities, the experience has been mixed – Faith Foundation’s Wynona Nongrum explained that there was a good response in places like Mawprem, where there were several men and women who came for the event and interacted enthusiastically, but some other neighbourhoods were not as forthcoming.
In addition, Faith Foundation has embarked on a renewed push to gather signatures for its petition calling on the state government to make ‘personal safety teaching’ in schools mandatory. So far, the petition has gathered 43,000 signatures but the organisation is aiming for at least 50,000.
A personal safety curriculum teaches life skills on safe and unsafe touching, understanding the body, how to relate feelings and the body, early warning signs and signals, trusting one’s gut instinct, reproductive health, gender, dating, the internet and how to report CSA.
It’s a hugely important yet delicate subject and in a country that often reacts negatively to any suggestion of sex education, this issue can put off the powers that be.
Things are changing, though. Dorbars are forming committees specific to dealing with CSA, teachers often welcome outside experts coming to tackle this subject rather than having to do it themselves and schools and even the police are reaching out for training. “But we have had schools living in denial and not wanting the teaching,” Faith Foundation co-founder and director Shannon Dona Massar said. “Even communities need change. As soon as sexual abuse is brought up, the issue of [girls’] clothing arises. And those in urban areas feel that child sexual abuse only happens in rural places.”
Although Faith Foundation, now numbering 11 members, has built up its expertise in this field, it did not start out this way in 2013, Massar explained. She and the three other co-founders were passionate about social development and wanted to do something positive for the community and they began working on human trafficking, HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. CSA is linked to the issue of human trafficking and, in time, it became the foundation’s core focus.
The organisation’s team members have received training in creating a personal safety curriculum and have come out with books on the subject aimed at students. Up until now the teaching has begun at Class 3 but Faith Foundation has now created one suitable for Class 1 students.
While the courts, laws and child protection agencies deal most with the punishment of CSA, much of Faith Foundation’s focus is on the prevention of it in the first place. Prevention of CSA not only spares children from the harrowing crime but also potentially avoids years of legal proceedings.
“Prevention is the best because when child sexual abuse happens parents don’t want to get into the system,” Massar explained, citing the emotional, psychological and financial toll. Faith Foundation also has experience of working with the system as the child welfare authorities approach it to act as support persons for victims of CSA and help in court cases, counselling, etc.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix and Faith Foundation will certainly still be needed in this field in another 10 years from now. “In 10 years we want the state to take this up and we are willing to work with it but we don’t want to lose our connection with the children. We want to keep improving ourselves as an organisation and build community capabilities because we can’t be everywhere,” Massar said of her hopes for the future. “We really want to be able to bring children into the organisation because they know better about the issues they face. And our hope is to give them a space where they can voice their rights themselves.”
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