Moral responsibility. That’s what comes to mind when you listen to Sangeeta Giri’s story. Every Saturday, this IT sales professional at VMware, spends over an hour at Government schools in the city. Speaking of the notion that each one of us has a power to change things if we are willing to, she champions the cause of Saahas Safety Club to empower children with skills to safeguard themselves from sexual predators, and so far, has reached out to more than 30,000 children since August 2013.
As a mother of two, she was, and still is, bothered by the spurt in sex crimes committed against little children in the city. One in two children (53 per cent of boys and girls) in India face some form of abuse while growing up, she says. She became increasingly aware that she needed to do something about it. When her sister Sumana and her childhood friend Chandana started a safety club in Hyderabad, she decided to replicate the same model here in Bangalore. “Every other day, the media reports on terrible things happening to children. We were determined to do something about it,” she says with uncompromising conviction. These assaults have no place in the society, much less in a school and she wanted to devise a plan to weed out the issue.
Her solution is rather simple. She has designed a colourful book filled with pictures which she gives to children and teachers wherever she goes. This way, she can hold their attention in a language they know even while touching on an unsavoury yet pressing issue of sexual assault and safety. “We work with little children between the ages of 2 and 15. The subject of CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) is a serious one but when it is pictorially depicted, even the ones who haven’t yet learnt to read can come to terms with it.” In the book, she has tried to address key issues of safety to help them make sense of aspects like good touch, bad touch and the no touch zone — that their private parts are not something that others should touch — and prevent any untoward incident even before it happens. “The children, even the young ones, know they are supposed to stay away from strangers. But they do not know what to do, how to find out if they are in trouble and, if they are in trouble, how to get out of it. Some children know that they should call the police or the child helpline. But how do they reach them?”
She concedes that there were obstacles along the way that she had to overcome. Resistance from schools to let them speak to children directly about the issue was common. “Anything sexual is considered taboo even if it is the subject of abuse,” she rues, adding, “Many parents found it difficult to address some of these issues with kids (in spite of our education and exposure). When it comes to underprivileged children, addressing these issues is even tougher as their parents lack education and exposure,” she says.
She notes that since she started her work, she has met an alarming number of children who are victims of this epidemic of rape. “Every single school I have visited has at least one child who has been molested or raped. It is only because they study in Government schools and no one comes forward to file a complaint, that these cases go unreported in the press.” She narrates a moving anecdote when she learnt about such an incident from other children in the class. “This was my first ever session. Within 10 minutes of going into the part of the book which talks about ‘abuse’, the children started speaking up. They knew of this one girl, in Class II, who was abused by her neighbour. He was, I found out later, thrown in jail.”
In each of the schools the Safety Club works with, they have two volunteers to repeat the workshops every quarter. “We train them during our workshop and also leave behind a training kit for future use. Shortage of volunteers has been the biggest bottleneck to spreading this message. We are constantly looking out for volunteers to come on board.”
Sangeeta, who is a mother of two boys aged seven and 16, says that the only way we, as a society, can effectively address the issue of abuse is if we change our perspective in the way children are sensitised to the issue. She admonishes parents and teachers who do not think it necessary to teach children about sexual crimes. “It cannot be a hush-hush thing. It has to be straightforward. And they are children, so they need to be constantly reminded about safety.”
She also rebuffs the notion that only girls are at the receiving end of sex crimes. “A lot of schools keep asking me to do the session only with girls. No, boys are equally at risk of abuse. So our workshops address both the girls and the boys.”
Creating a safe environment is our responsibility towards our children, she says, but more importantly we need to teach the children to keep themselves safe.