Smita Bharti, Executive Director, Sakshi, a rights-based NGO in conversation with Brainfeed about Rakshin and its systematic approach towards preventing child sexual abuse in India.
Please brief us about the Rakshin Project.
Students form the backbone of tomorrow’s world and the tonality of dialogue moving forward. The Rakshin Project is a youth-led movement across India to #StopChildSexualAbuse. It aims to address the denial, stigma, shame and silence associated with gender-based violence with a focus on preventing Child Sexual Abuse. The Ministry of Youth Affairs, Directorate of NSS, directed Sakshi to deliver pro-bono capacity building workshops with their volunteers to enable youth into becoming proactive preventers of Child Sexual Abuse.
Student volunteers with the Rakshin Project will have an opportunity to consciously engage with information, resources and tools, and enable themselves with prevention skills with regard to Child Sexual Abuse. The Rakshins will work to create a Constitutional Rights Based Enabled Environment for a culture of accountability, a step towards a responsible India.
Before the pandemic, the team of trainers from the Rakshin Project would travel to colleges individually in order to conduct on-the-ground seminars for youth volunteers. The sessions were filled with interactive and collaborative activities that can help students understand and retain the message of prevention of harm. The digital-divide is also very real hence, these seminars provided us the opportunity to reach every single volunteer who wants to commit toward preventing harm. The NSS Volunteers of 40,000 Colleges will have the opportunity to become Rakshins: The Champions of Change.
What are the various stages of the educational programme through which the student volunteers seek to educate and spread awareness about child abuse?
The Rakshin Project is built on a unique Five Pillar structure that is framed within the Constitutional Right to Equality. The programme entails a 90 minute Audio-visual aided Webinar to equip NSS Students from each college with tools to prevent Child Sexual Abuse. For students who are survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, The Rakshin Project also provides Resolution Mechanisms in the form of Creative Expressions, Counselling and Legal advice.
The Rakshin Project has created the Rakshin Fellowship program, spread over 2 years, with five levels, 12 certificates, and 18 modules. Each Certificate is a 2-month program that equips and trains NSS students with theoretical and practical knowledge about the multiple facets of violence against children.
The purpose of the Rakshin Fellowship programme is to build a brigade of skilled, empathetic young adults in every family across India, who can recognize child sexual abuse, have the language to call out the behaviours, know where to report it, and most importantly are equipped with the important and delicate skills for interrogating, examining and interrupting the cycle of violence, understating the nuances of conflict, harm and abuse and practice de-escalation and resolution in real life scenarios.
Rakshin Project includes parents to establish a parallel discourse with them. What is the significance of inclusion of parents and children on the same platform?
Considering the fact that 90% of the abusers are someone who is known to the child, the involvement and support of the parents to prevent the harm and creating a safe space is pertinent. Through the Rakshin Project, we are creating preventers among the youth, and by including parents within the discourse we ensure that more homes are safe. It is critical that parents are educated about the right language and equipped with the knowledge to understand the reality of child sexual abuse in order to support their children by being empathetic towards their needs and teaching them to assert their boundaries. Involvement of parents within the information pipeline will also help in ensuring that a child who has undergone abuse can have an environment of healing and facilitate that process through love and support.
Does Sakshi seek to reach out to pan India and the north-east belt with its project?
Definitely! One of our overarching goals is to create a Constitutional Rights Based Enabled Environment for a culture of accountability. A pan-Indian approach, inclusive of the north-east belt, is definitely on the cards for us. We have already had student volunteers from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. We look forward to expanding the project and interacting with more colleges hence, reaching more communities.
How necessary is it to address the issue of child violence as a first step towards encouraging girl children to pursue education?
Addressing violence against children as the first step firmly places the onus upon the abuser and abusive behaviour. Systems of violence are created by structures like patriarchy and casteism, which create power imbalances that allow abuse; interrogating these root causes will in itself encourage more girl children towards education.
Where does India (especially in the tier II and III cities) stand in accepting gender equality and gender fluidity?
This largely varies depending on the openness of the local environment and society to accept changes and bolder stances, especially from youngsters. In our country there are various overarching systems of oppression at play like casteism, patriarchy, ableism etc. that make it very difficult to even have open conversations about these systems and how they breed systems of inequality that invariably affects gender.
There’s an acute challenge with driving conversations accepting gender equality and gender fluidity when even bringing it up or acknowledging the concept in action is often denied or glanced over. These are not particularly novel conversations either. The social structure and the underlying mindset need to be open to change at structural levels and intervention at all levels including students, colleges and workplaces are required.
Besides NSS, what major steps should schools take to include awareness again child sexual abuse into the curriculum?
There are four main barriers to reporting child sexual abuse, these are denial, silence, shame and stigma. In order to counter all of this it is necessary for intervention to begin at schools and even before that within the homes. Adults and children need to be equipped with the right language to address different body parts. They also need to be taught the concept of boundaries. The maximum awareness most schools provide is about ‘good touch, bad touch’ and this approach disregards various scenarios of abuse that begin with non-invasive contact and place the onus on the child to identify harm. Hence, it is important for schools to teach children the concept of ‘Do not touch’ and give them confidence to establish their own boundaries.
Schools play a major role in shaping students’ understanding of the world around them and hence, they need to play an active role in dismantling the stigma that surrounds sexual abuse. They also need to work towards creating societies of care and support which can act as a safe space for children to speak up. All adults coming into contact with children including teachers need to be trained and sensitised to the various facets of child sexual abuse, be equipped to handle conversations with empathy and support the child through recourse.
It is already mandated that all schools are required to be POCSO compliant, in addition to this, it is important for them to create an environment where it is possible to have courageous conversations without fear of judgement.
[Story by: Puja Sinha]