Children taught in Indian schools how to stay safe from sexual abuse

Indian Children At Workshop On Sex Abuse
The Red Elephant Foundation holds a workshop for schoolchildren and parents about staying safe from sexual abuse (Facebook / The Red Elephant Foundation,*F)

Girls' education, Global Youth Ambassadors

Ahead of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, we look at a foundation that trains students and teachers.

Kirthi Jayakumar, a human rights campaigner from Chennai in India, has created a unique digital app to help survivors of gender-based violence. 

Jayakumar’s Saahas app enables victims to report crimes, locate medical services and find lawyers specialising in domestic and sexual violence cases.

“The app works as both a crime reporting tool and a directory of medical and legal services,” she said. 

The 31-year-old campaigner and tech pioneer is part of an emboldened women’s movement that has swept India and demanded social change since the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi in 2012. 

Despite the outrage and protests that followed the murder, the latest crime figures illustrate that her horrific death was not an isolated incident. Of the 39,000 reported sexual attacks on women in India in 2016, an estimated 40% were against children. 

“Singh Pandey’s murder was a pivotal moment of no return for millions of ordinary women and men across the country,” said Jayakumar, who is also a Global Youth Ambassador for Theirworld.

She set up the Red Elephant Foundation, which works in schools and colleges across Chennai, training thousands of children and teachers on how to recognise and report child abuse.

Awareness of abuse in schools was felt in September when a high-profile case of child abuse in Chennai hit the headlines. The girl was raped on the premises of her private school. 

When the victim’s parents reported the crime to the school, their daughter was threatened with expulsion. 

Kirthi Jayakumar Gya 1

Kirthi Jayakumar talks to a class of children about harassment (Kirthi Jayakumar)

Jayakumar said: “We are living in a society where young survivors are being blamed and shamed to the extent that schools will not accept them if they have been a victim of assault. 

“Children have a right to free, quality education – but many parents would rather keep their daughters at home than risk the threat of violent crime on the streets or at school. 

“The lack of safe schooling and fear of sexual violence is a major barrier to girls’ education in India.”

Jayakumar and other campaigners against gender-based violence believe the threat contributes to India’s high dropout rate among girls – just 50% finish lower secondary school.

“The notion of safety at school cannot be underestimated – of course poverty, gender and child marriage are significant but so too is the ever-prevailing fear of violence” she said.

“Until girls are safe in the classroom we will continue to see fewer of them reaching their full potential. The uncomfortable truth is that many children are being abused at school or on the way to class.”

A survivor of abuse herself, Jayakumar shared her story of childhood abuse and bullying online shortly after Singh Pandey’s murder. 

“When two former perpetrators responded with apologies to my post I realised that confronting violence in the public sphere was a powerful tool to stamp out abuse,”  she said

We teach children to understand safe and unsafe touches and how to differentiate between them. Kirthi Jayakumar

In July 2018, an 11-year-old girl in Chennai was repeatedly raped after school by staff who worked in the gated community where she lived. They carted away, drugged and assaulted the profoundly deaf child. 

In response to these and other crimes, Jayakumar and her team have created a curriculum on child safety. The foundation’s My Safety Handbook is now being used in schools across Chennai.

At a recent visit to St Louis College for the Deaf in Adyar, she and her team (with the help of a sign language interpreter) told a group of 60 hearing- and speech-impaired pupils that they are the “bosses of their bodies” and that “any touch that makes you feel confused and uncomfortable is a bad touch”. 

Jayakumar said: “We teach children to understand safe and unsafe touches and how to differentiate between them – and we teach parents and teachers to respond to children’s needs. 

“By sensitively reinforcing these messages in the classroom in public we empower children to tackle abuse.”

Jayakumar believes the culture of shame and impunity is changing, adding: “The recent #MeTooIndia hashtag showed survivors in every corner of India are sharing their stories undeterred by the consequences and stigma.

“I see a change amongst the students I teach. A young girl at a workshop asked why the disabled girl was abused. 

“She said: ‘I am not going to rest until the world is safe for children like me and her. I want to start a club ma’am, called Anti-Rape Club. I will call all the children I know. Will you teach them too? If all children know how to stay safe, what can one, 10 or 17 bad men do to strong children?’” 

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