Edge of Tomorrow: Shattered, Molested and Back to School
By Punita Maheshwari | Published: 18th January 2016 06:00 AM |
When someone survives a disaster, it is often celebrated. It’s even talked about. Almost like an achievement. And yet, thousands of women — young girls most of them — manage to go back to the classroom after enduring sexual assault, and no one gives them a pat on the back. All they have to look forward to is social ostracisation, public shaming and abandonment from family, if they do decide to go public. With over 13,000 cases of sexual assault on minors registered every year, only a few find their way back to what people call a ‘normal life’.
How difficult is it for a young girl to rev up the courage to go back to school, have friends, a social life and even dream of a normal future after something as traumatic as sexual assault or rape? Very, according to experts who have long combated this problem. According to activists, to begin this process of reintegration is a challenge in itself. However, many believe that education is a way to bring back hope into their otherwise dead eyes. Working with the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, Varanasi—based Mangala Prasad has helped over 15 girls to rebuild their lives. “After this kind of trauma, the child generally becomes silent as they lose hope of a better life. Apart from family support, they need something to look forward to in life. A school creates that atmosphere for them and keeps them occupied,” he relates from experience.
Though it may seem like getting an assault victim back to school is an easy enough task — owing to the fact that they attempt to keep the truth under wraps anyway — there’s a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. The largest issue is an acute lack of trained professionals to provide them counselling and to watch them whilst they re—order their lives in a school or college. According to Vidya Reddy, executive directive of Chennai—based NGO Tulir, which deals with child sexual abuse, this is a major concern. Vidya tells us that sexual assault victims are different from other victims of crimes like murder, “The sexual assault victims have to live with the trauma. Hence, the reintegration process is different for them,” she says.
This can be a whole lot worse if the assault happened in the very environment they’re trying to get back into. Like Smita Sharma, who was molested by her professor after class. The incident still sends a chill down her spine at night, but her passion for photography keeps her going all day. When you look into her fearless eyes today, it is difficult to believe that those are same eyes that wavered when she was blamed for the incident. “I wanted to speak out, I wanted someone to bring justice to what happened to me. I told a trusted professor about the incident. He, in return, told me that I was a spoilt child and that’s why this happened to me,” she begins shakily. The days that followed were difficult, but leaving her education in the middle of a semester was not an option for her. “I had to sit in the same class in front of the same professor and pretend as if nothing had happened. That felt like a punch in the stomach every time I saw him,” she recalls. But, being a rational person, it did not take much time for her to understand that she was on her own.
Another large issue is whether the story of their past is widely known in their circle. And if that is the case, how much a professional worker can control that situation is key, “The problem is that there are very few people in the country who understand this difference and thus proper counselling fails to reach the victims,” she adds, drawing on her years of experience with scores of kids. Another issue is that teachers are not trained to handle these girls or sensitised enough to ensure that they get support in the right places — in peer groups, in their study circles, when questions about their past crop up and so on. These are some of the places where an experienced person can make a world of difference to a girl whose world has been shattered.
That’s precisely what irked Bengaluru—based transgender Akkai Padmashali, whose tale is nothing short of horrifying. Born as a male, she always had feminine characteristics. Made to sit in a corner in the school and being called names, it was a struggle for her to go to school. Unfortunately, this was nothing compared to what followed. She was molested after school by her own classmates who thought that Akkai was not “man enough”. She recalls, “Six boys barged in class, dragged me to the washroom, held my hands and legs, stripped me off naked, twisted my hand so that I screamed. I screamed but nobody listened. I screamed more and still nobody came to the rescue,” she weeps. When she went straight to the principal. To her horror she was told to “behave like a man” and not bother her with small complaints. The next day was the real test. It was six torturous hours of tolerating the piercing stares from all around, because everybody knew.
Time is the great healer. As with most other things in life, time to get over the trauma, can usually help these abused kids get better and actually have a shot at a renewed life. Especially in a tough environment like an educational institution, giving young girls the time to redevelop their instincts and trust people can often work wonders. Isabel Richardson, Executive Secretary of the Madras Christian Council of Social Service (MCCSS), an NGO that works with sexual abuse victims’ rehabilitation believes that the best way to deal with the victims is to get them occupied in productive activities. And to do this for long periods of time, “The time one takes to heal after such a horrific incident is usually more than six months. However, if given proper support, it is observed that minors take less time than adults to get their lives back on tracks,” she says hopefully.
The problem with this logic is that often in rural schools and smaller towns, time can serve as a double edged sword during reintegration. Very often when they are brought back, the lack of a support system and the overburdening pressure of having to behave normally can force them to run away or just drop out.
Both Smita and Akkai managed to get their act together. Smita decided to pursue her passion and get a degree in photography. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. In her quest to give a voice to the voiceless, she has traveled across countries capturing stories of victims. The aim, she says, is to start a discussion. A discussion to kill the deterring forces in society that make it difficult for a sexual assault victim to begin a new life. “The level of indifference that police, doctors and lawyers show to the victims is something that adds to the misery of the victim,” she says. “The solution lies in talking and reporting such issues on wider grounds,” she believes.
Akkai is no different. She is one of the foremost voices for transgenders in the country. “I told myself, I am not the anti-social element in the room and I won’t be ashamed. It helped me to sit in the classroom for six hours everyday.” Years have passed and how she has transformed is magical. From an under—confident and confused child, she is now a proficient English speaker taking cases of sexual assaults to the concerned ministry and churning out justice for the victims. However much is being done by the government to cut down on sexual abuse and harassment, the real challenge ensures in providing a suitable rehabilitation system for young girls. To stop their lives from slipping into the shadows. But if these women’s stories of resilience are anything to go by, there’s never a dearth of hope. Even if it’s only as strong as a flickering flame.