When 15-year-old Sumithra* stepped into a session organised by a child rights NGO in her government school, she did not anticipate that it would give her a shattering perspective on what had been happening to her for a year.
The awareness session, which talked about child sexual abuse, made Sumithra realise that what her neighbour had been doing to her for a year was, in fact, sexual abuse. The NGO’s program not only helped the teen identify the abuse but also led to the alleged abuser’s arrest.
The class 6 student approached her teacher after the session and told her about what her neighbour, a 32-year-old man named Vimal, had allegedly been doing. The teacher, in turn, reached out to the NGO who conducted the awareness session and informed them. Sumithra was then taken to the Yelahanka Police Station to file a complaint.
After her complaint, Vimal, a Bihar native who was working as a carpenter, was arrested by the police on Thursday.
Vimal used to help out the family financially after Sumithra’s mother, a housekeeping staffer at a private firm, separated from her husband a few years ago. This helped him gain the family’s confidence and had routinely been sexually assaulting Sumithra over the past year.
It has been observed that abusers groom children in a way that they feel compelled to keep the abuse a secret. They can do so by embarrassing and/or scaring the child. The abuser may also confuse the child by intermittently showing them affection and giving them attention, which makes the child wary of recognising the inherent manipulation in the abuse and subsequently reporting it.
In this case, the police told The New Indian Express that Vimal had threatened Sumithra to keep quiet about the abuse. Sumithra, too, did not open up about the abuse as Vimal was giving the family much-needed financial support.
Vimal and Sumithra underwent medical tests, and the former was handed over to judicial custody.
Social workers and experts have pointed out on many occasions about how personal safety education can help children assert body autonomy and also be better equipped to report instance(s) of abuse to trustworthy adults.
However, Indian parents continue to be squeamish when it comes to such sessions being held at their children’s schools. They are also uncomfortable speaking about sex, sexual organs and so on. Taboo around the subject and limited knowledge stops children identifying as well as reporting abuse.
Former National Child Rights Committee chairperson Nina Naik believes that such awareness and personal safety sessions are extremely important for children.
“What happened here is not unheard of. Once, when I was conducting one such session on child sexual abuse at a summer camp in Malleswaram, I saw a 12-year-old boy’s expression change as the talk progressed. It was as if he had stopped listening and was just processing something,” she recounts.
She has seen the expressions of many children change during these sessions. Many of them come to terms with the abuse for the first time during these programs.
Nina points out that these sessions must be taken by someone who is sensitive and trained, and that the dissemination of information about Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and its provisions is actually the state and central government’s responsibility too. But more importantly, if a child chooses to open up about the abuse after such a program, there needs to be a proper follow-up system to help him/her and the family.
“The NGO or people conducting such programs should immediately provide counselling to the child and the parents. They should also handhold them for some time so that they become familiar and are not intimidated by the system,” Nina says.
*Not her real name