When Olga Martin was 12 years old, she went to see a film about street children in Valencia, Spain, with her parents. It had a few scenes set in India. “The sight of the children in India moved me deeply,” she says. “From that moment on it was like a calling, I felt that I had to do something.”
Martin is a trained clinical psychologist who supports the NGO Mumbai Smiles. In 2008, she came to Mumbai and spent some time in the slums, where she had an epiphany. “There were many care-givers who were offering food, shelter and education,” she says. “But nothing was being done to heal the trauma that the street children had gone through. Many were victims of sex trafficking and child labour and had suffered all kinds of brutalities.”
On returning to Barcelona, she prepared a project that focused on the emotional rehabilitation of children. “My research revealed that 90 per cent of abused children tend to repeat the same behaviour,” says Martin. “The chain had to be broken. But to set up this project, I needed the help of an institution.”
She got in touch with Father Angel Asurmendi of Don Bosco, Barcelona, who told her that she should contact their Indian branch. In September 2010, Martin met Father Kuriakose Pallikunnel, director of Kochi-based Don Bosco Youth Counselling Service, who agreed to support her.
Martin partnered with Marita Solá to set up The Street Heroes of India, which “consists of a group of professionals in Spain and India who provide psychosocial training to caregivers and counselling to children.” The scheme functions at 17 centres of Don Bosco in Kerala and Karnataka.
Many of the children have escaped from their homes in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. On running away, the children head to the railway station. If they do not fall into the hands of criminals, they take a train to anywhere. “When I do art therapy work, the children always draw a train because it is the train that has helped them to overcome their situation,” says Martin.
She narrates the case of Shanti. When she was five years old, Shanti was waiting at Chennai railway station with her mother. A woman carrying a baby walked up and said, “I am tired. My baby needs food. Can you buy something for me?”
When Shanti’s mother went to buy food leaving her with the woman, a train arrived. The woman boarded it with Shanti and took her to Bangalore. For the next 11 years, she forced Shanti to have sexual relations with men. When she was 16, Shanti escaped to Kochi, where police spotted her at the station. They took her to Don Bosco at Palluruthy, a suburb of Kochi, where Martin helped her.
“Healing can be done through counselling, music, drama, art and dance therapy,” Martin says. “I encouraged Shanti to talk about her life. Now after two years, she feels much better.” Shanti once wrote to Martin, “This is the first time that I have shared my sufferings with someone. Please don’t talk about this to anybody. I need you.”
There are many others like Shanti. A recent UNICEF report provided the alarming figure that 39 per cent of girls and 40 per cent of boys in Kerala have been sexually abused. “This is usually done by family members, like fathers, uncles and other relatives,” says Martin. She feels that there is an urgent need for sex education in schools. “Children should be taught to identify between a good and a bad touch,” she says.