10 to 14– the years meant for play and for study, and for starting to make sense of the world around. But this is also the age at which some children fall prey to sexual abuse. Often, the abusers are men whom the children know, and have been taught to trust– a father, an uncle, a family friend. Of course, not all children undergo this trauma, but it is an unfortunate fact that many do find themselves being touched in unwanted ways, and worse.
That is when the child needs a truly trustworthy and responsible adult in whom she or he can confide. But this kind of openness is usually lacking in families. Sometimes the abuser is the father himself, and the mother does not want to believe that her husband could be abusing his own child. In such situations, teachers can play a significant role.
If a teacher has managed to gain the student’s trust, then the student may more readily confide in the teacher. An attentive teacher may be able to gauge the situation, and seek legal and police aid on behalf of the victim – just as these two teachers from Wardha did when they succeeded in rescuing their students from abuse.
The first of these incidents is from a high school in Wardha. Girija Salve, who has worked as an assistant teacher in this school for 16 years, says, “Most children who come to this school are from poor families. Their parents are labourers. It is a challenge to keep these children in school and to nurture a liking for education in them”.
Swapnali joined the school’s 6th standard in 2011. She used to travel to school from a nearby village, where she lived with her mother, two younger siblings and stepfather. Girija Salve remembers Swapnali as a bright and cheerful girl, who had many friends and who took part in all school activities. Her behaviour seemed to change, suddenly, when she entered the 7th standard: “She became reclusive, started lagging behind in her studies and would not answer any questions in class. I was a bit worried about her. I teach Science, but that day I was asked to take their Marathi lesson. So I taught them the poem ‘Aai’ (‘Mother’). Swapnali started crying . . . I held her and asked what was wrong, but she refused to answer me. Finally I took her out of class. After she drank some water, Swapnali confided in me.” Swapnali told the teacher about how her stepfather scolded and often beat her, and how, when her mother went out to work, he made Swapnali do “… all sorts of dirty things which I don’t like at all.” Girija was shocked to hear Swapnali’s story.
Girija explained to Swapnali that her stepfather’s behavior was wrong and that she should tell her mother, who would surely put a stop to it. But Swapnali kept going deeper and deeper into her shell. After a few days Girija spoke to her again. Swapnali said that her mother had asked Swapnali to bear with it, as the stepfather was the main bread-earner and as such they were under his obligation. She had even scolded Swapnali for having talked to the teacher, and had threatened to send her away to a hostel along with her siblings. “Swapnali was very frightened after talking to her mother. I did my best to reassure her. She had the phone number of her grandmother in Mumbai. I phoned her and gave the grandmother an idea of the situation.”
Eventually, Girija asked Swapnali’s grandmother and maternal uncle to come to Wardha. She also got in touch with a woman who worked in the Women and Child Department, Wardha Police. Swapnali’s 8th standard finals were on. As soon as the exams got over, Girija – with the school supervisor’s permission – took Swapnali along with her uncle and grandmother to the policewoman she’d spoken to. The policewoman spoke to Swapnali alone, first, and then took her to meet the Superintendent of Police, who ordered that Swapnali’s stepfather be arrested and authorised a medical examination for Swapnali.
The police team arrested Swapnali’s stepfather. The medical examination proved that Swapnali had been sexually abused several times. Her grandmother and uncle took her with them to Mumbai. Girija says, “Swapnali’s mother was very angry with me. She would confront me and ask why I had got her husband arrested, and would threaten me. She hired goons to scare me but I did not care. I was sure that what I had done was right.” The case came up in the court at Wardha. After a legal battle lasting two years, the court pronounced Swapnali’s stepfather guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment twice over.
The other story from Wardha is that of Pooja. Studying in the 6th standard, she was a well-behaved, hard-working student, and very active in the school’s ‘Meena-Raju Manch’. She came from an economically backward family, and was eager to study further. Her mother worked as household help for four different families, and her stepfather brewed country liquor. Pooja had three other sisters, and the stepfather was not keen that Pooja pursue her education. He wanted her to start earning. Pooja used to accompany her mother during vacations and earn some money to pay for stationery and other school items.
Kamlesh Shinde worked as a facilitator for the Meena-Raju Manch in Pooja’s school. He says, “I tried talking to Pooja when I noticed that the usually happy and bubbly girl was suddenly avoiding others and looked unhappy. She refused to tell me what was wrong. Finally I asked her friends from the Meena-Raju Manch to find out what was troubling her. As they all crowded around her asking her what was wrong, Pooja could not hold back her tears. She refused to speak and continued to cry.”
Finally Kamlesh called the school’s Principal and some of the teachers, who took Pooja to the staff room. After they managed to calm her down she told them how, on the previous night, her stepfather beat her, pulled her hair and touched her all over. Somehow she had escaped to a friend’s house, where she spent the night.
“We were dumbfounded after hearing her story. We told her that we would tell her mother, but Pooja refused to let us do that. She said that her father had been abusing her in this manner since she was in the 5th standard, but whenever she tried telling her mother about it, either her mother made light of it or else asked her to ignore it.” Pooja said that she did not want to enter that house ever again. After discussing the matter among themselves, the teachers decided to lodge a police complaint. A team of policewomen came to the school, and spoke with Pooja. They were aghast to see the bruises on her body. On the basis of Pooja’s statement, the stepfather was arrested.
Kamalesh Shinde says, “Once he was arrested, the mother refused to let Pooja return home. She said that when her husband was released from jail, he would kill Pooja. She washed her hands of the entire affair, saying that it was now up to us to decide Pooja’s future.”
Through the Child Welfare Department, the school found a temporary hostel for Pooja. Then the teachers chose an urban ashram school for her. Their local Member of Parliament helped with the admission, and her teachers saw her off on the train that was taking her to her new life in a new place.
The teachers were sad for having to send Pooja so far away, but they felt it was for the best. Some teachers gave her clothes, someone got her a suitcase. Her fellow students got food items for her. Today Pooja’s teachers are happy and proud that Pooja is making good progress in her new school.
The names of the sexually abused girls and their teachers have been changed for the protection of their identities.
Blog: Urmila Hadekar, Lecturer, District Institute of Education and Training, Wardha
Translation and editing samata.shiksha team