For so many of us, a simple touch can convey so many different things. When my dad keeps a hand on my shoulder, I know he wants me to feel protected. When a stranger in the bus pokes me from behind, he is just signalling that he needs me to move aside.
However, when we are clicking photographs at a family gathering, the behaviour of the uncle who stands next to me and caresses my back is repulsive and nauseating. There are ‘good touches’, and plenty of ‘bad touches’ in the world.
Statistics suggest that there is a high probability that everyone has faced such a situation at least once in their life. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone at any age.
It is especially disturbing for young children – who know in their hearts that they are experiencing something bad, but are not quite sure about how to articulate or address it. So can they be helped?
Yes, they can.
Saroj Kumari, an IPS officer who works as Deputy Commissioner of Police in Vadodara, Gujarat is on a mission to arm children with the confidence to fight against sexual harassment.
She is doing this by going to schools and teaching children about appropriate and inappropriate touching.
The Better India spoke to the DCP about her initiative, Samajh Sparsh Ki (Understanding a touch).
Saroj has established a team of 12 members to carry out the mission of SSK. They are all policewomen, trained in gender sensitisation and have already spoken to about 2000 kids in 20 different schools in Gujarat. Suraksha Setu Societies operating in Gujarat are aiding the policewomen’s cause by supporting them financially. They even changed their uniform, as they wanted to be more approachable.
“We write a letter to schools and approach them with the SSK sessions, and focus on students between the ages of 5 to 15 years. Then we discuss a timing with the school when the parents are around as well so that the conversation becomes more wholesome. We speak to the parents very seriously. We tell them about criminal offences, what measures they can take if their child complains of sexual harassment and how they can open a conversation with their kids about the same,” she informed TBI.
The teachers are told to look out for behavioural differences or signals—like a talkative child who suddenly becomes withdrawn and quiet for example. With the children, it’s more of fun and games.
The team of IPS officers give them chocolates and goody bags during the session and make the atmosphere light.
“We don’t even utter the word ‘crime’ in the presence of children as it might scare them. Our motto is to make them comfortable enough to open up about their experiences, not bottle them up further. We also never mix groups of parents, teachers and students. Each group requires a unique and different type of treatment, and we give them that,” the IPS officer said.
I asked the DCP what they tell children to do if they encounter such sexual abuse. She gave me the following examples:
“We tell them that if a senior in school, especially of the opposite gender, or a teacher, ask that they accompany them to say, a toilet or a dark area, they must firmly refuse to do so. If they encounter a person touching them inappropriately in a public space, they must shout ‘NO!’ and alert others immediately. We encourage them to tell their parents about such incidents, or a trusted adult so that immediate action can be taken against the offender.”
The 12-member team has already helped many children come ahead with their stories of harassment. Some speak about women harassing them on a bus, and some recalled experiences of being sexually assaulted at wedding ceremonies and family gatherings.
“I have come across some heart-wrenching anecdotes from these students. If we feel that there is a need and the situation is grim, a psychologist is roped in to help the student move on from that ugly incident, and if the situation is very recent, we even take immediate action against the offender.
The idea is not only to inform and educate them but also help them overcome memories which will only cause suffering in the future,” the IPS officer told The Better India.
The children are also taught to call 1098—the children’s helpline that can take action against the offenders. The motive of the SSK initiative is to bring cases of child sexual harassment to the fore and create an open dialogue so that the kids no longer feel like mute victims.
Initiated in Vadodara, the team wishes to take these sessions to more schools in Gujarat. “We encourage the students to not only remember what we said in the sessions but also to convey it to five of their friends. Some children tell me that even their parents don’t know what good touch and bad touch is. So I say, ‘tell your parents too!'”
Thanks to initiatives like these, victims of sexual harassment now know that they have strong support by their side. Not only will this make them confident to confront the people who harass or offend them, but they will also be empowered to take steps to stop them right there!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)