In the year 2000 I moved from my secure, joint-family, small-town setting to become a student of a reputed college in New Delhi – raring to go, promising to make the best of hostel life and continuing wide-eyed in this big city with flyovers, McDonald’s and something called pubs.
As a part of Delhi University rules, every student enrolled in the Bachelor’s programme had to give a certain number of hours to social work to get their degrees at the end of 3 years. This idea was run under the National Service Scheme (NSS) and while some colleges simply handed over the certificates, mine made us do our bit, every minute of it. Most of us cribbed. It involved our meagre pocket money being spent on commuting to far flung places and spending free time earning good karma - something which we considered ourselves too young for. Out of the array of activities, I picked teaching in a Jhuggi Jhopri Shishu Mandir about 8 kilometers from my college hostel in South Delhi. And 40 hours in a month is what I had to complete, which meant going everyday for an hour.
Once I got over the idea of being stared down as I entered the slum cluster and learnt to ignore the catcalls welcoming ‘madam ji’, I started enjoying the teaching greatly. A class of about 60 students, all 4-6 year old in their dark blue and white uniforms would welcome me with a sing-a-song ‘Good morning’ and repeat their letters and numbers after me in the same sing-a-song voice. It was tough, to make them sit still on the mats and listen. All they wanted to do was dance to songs they sang themselves. A few days into it, and I started a story telling session, where the last 15 minutes of every class were to be spent in sharing personal tales. I had noticed a few children never participate and while I did not want to force them to, I thought this activity might interest them.
I was not prepared to hear what I heard.
“I don’t talk to him because his father came to kill my father with a knife one night, because my father stole a fish from his stall” – said a boy with an Om tattooed on his wrist, telling me why he refuses to sit next to the other boy.
“Her mother is a prostitute. Everyone knows that. Other women are saying she is a witch too.” – said an older looking girl pointing at a little one sitting in the back row with an angry scowl permanently etched on her brow.
A series of real stories shocked me awake from my small-town-to-elite-college-comfort. Were they pulling my leg to unnerve me? I was still wondering if I should let this exchange go on when out came this –
“You see that girl in the corner? We don’t sit with her. Her father does dirty things to her. She is very dirty and if we sit with her, our father will also do those things to us. So our mothers told us to keep away from her. Maybe she also does dirty things to her father.” – giggled a couple of boys and girls together, completing each other’s sentence with a misfit excitement punctuating their sentences. I looked at her, as she fixed her gaze on the floor with a steely tenacity. That explained why she always sat alone, opened not her mouth and did not participate at all. She sat right there and her moving shoulders told me she was sobbing, something I had noticed so many times before without realising that this little 4-something girl has been crying all this while, even as the rest of the class sang ‘A sey Anaar Aa sey Aam’.
My class was suddenly transformed into a very disturbing reality that I had no idea about, that no one had told me about before this day. I dismissed the class and waited for the principal of the school to come. The girl, Sapna, kept sitting where she sat. I asked her to go home and she nodded a no, saying "mummy has told me to stay here till the building gate closes at 4pm." I approached the principal and told her what I heard, showing her the girl insisting on sitting here. I could not believe my already numb ears when she said this to me:
"I know, beta. It has been going on for a very long time. We can’t do anything about it. These slum dwellers are like that. Let’s just do our jobs and not get personal. It’s none of our business. Plus, we have so much to worry about anyway. She sits here till I close the premises to leave around 4 pm. Then she goes home too. She is usually the first one to arrive." I wonder what shocked me more. The reality of the girl’s sexual abuse at the hands of her own father or this principal’s complacency and acceptance of it as something we cannot and should not do anything about.
Back in college, I related the story to a professor who took it as seriously as it was supposed to be taken. She visited the Shishu Mandir with me, called the girl’s mother and asked her what this was all about. The mother, shuttling between sobs of helplessness and determination to not let us interfere in her household matter told us this – "Yes, he does dirty things to her. Every day. So, what can I do? He’s the father. We have nowhere to go. If I leave him, this girl will die of starvation. At least this way she is fed and even studying to become successful one day. I just look away, even if she calls me for help. What can I do? The neighbours saw him fondling her once and the word spread. Thank God we were not excommunicated from the jhopris. Where will we go? Maybe it’s just a bad habit of my husband’s and it will pass. I hope it does. I do want it to stop. I have told her to stay in school as long as possible. I hate it too. I try to stop him. But then, he is feeding her, educating her and getting her new dresses too. What more should I ask for?"
And the girl still sat in her favourite corner, with her shoulders moving, knowing what her mother was talking about, re-living it in her mind as she did on her body, day after day. My professor contacted an NGO which worked for the rehabilitation and care for the girl child. After many meetings and even a little force, the father admitted to his crime and agreed to undergo counselling, between bouts of crying.
My 40 hours of teaching were over, but this horrific story became a permanent chapter in my book of learning. I remember asking after Sapna from a junior who was assigned the same Shishu Mandir for NSS but she had no such student in her class. A year had passed already.
This is the first time I share this story. Thanks to Rekha’s and Roshni’s blog posts spreading awareness about Sexual Abuse and the Girl Child, as part of Time to Sound the Red Siren Campaign by UNICEF India and Protsahan. As I look back with the eyes of a 30 year old mother and not a 17 year old teenager lost in a big city, I understand so much more than I did then.
I see and read how sexual abuse is usually at the hands of a person known to the victim, say the father of the girl in this story. How, knowingly or unknowingly, we become abettors in the crime, like the girl’s mother, the principal, the whole jhuggi community and even those little children. Most importantly, I see how there is always recourse and hope, considering that Sapna’s father shamefacedly admitted to the crime and willingly sought counselling to stop his ‘habit’, something that seemed to be a burden for him to carry too.
Be it making noise on public forums or whispering it in responsible ears, anything can help in stopping sexual violence against the girl child, or any child. It takes very little, and what it takes is well worth it!
[This post is in collaboration with Protsahan and UNICEF India‘s Time to sound the Red Siren campaign. Sexual abuse cuts across class, ethnicity, religion and origin. Millions of girls in India face obstacles in their lives, experiencing various forms of discrimination, exploitation and abuse on account of their age and their sex. Each year, an increasing number of children in India face sexual violence. Recently, there have been cases of rape that have galvanized global attention and sparked mass demonstrations and widespread debate on the issue of sexual violence directed at children. However, there are many cases that go under reported. Fear of social stigma and victimization often stop children and their families from reporting these crimes. Since much abuse is hidden from public view – and because it is too often tolerated – the numbers do not reflect the true magnitude of the problem. When violence occurs, the physical wounds or bruises may disappear but the mental scars may not.]