Mariam Rauf started a petition on Change.org for the same and it has garnered over 25,000 signatures at the time of writing.

This child sexual abuse survivor wants Personal Safety Education in Kerala schoolsMariam Rauf conducting a PSE session
news Child safety Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 11:28

Mariam Rauf was only three years old when the first instance of sexual abuse happened. It wasn’t until she was about 14 that the abuse stopped. And it wasn’t until four years later, when she was 19, did she realise what had actually happened with her.

“If I had the awareness about the fact that what was happening to me was wrong, and the vocabulary to describe it, I think it would have helped me,” the 22-year-old tells TNM now. “I would have been more comfortable with my body, would have been able to speak about it more clearly. I would have been a healthier person overall.”        

Mariam now works as a Personal Safety Educator. And having experienced first-hand how the lack of the right knowledge, boundaries and vocabulary impeded her in reporting her abuse, the Kottayam-based woman now wants Personal Safety Education (PSE) to be compulsory in all schools in Kerala.

She started a petition on Change.org for the same. Addressed to Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR) and the Minister of Education Professor C Ravindranath, the petition had over 25,000 signatures at the time of writing.

What is Personal Safety Education

PSE, Mariam explains, is a blend of life skills and safety education. “Ideally children should be given PSE even before they join school. Simple things like parents educating them about their body and their genitals, and empowering them to express their discomfort, even if it is to do with a hug,” Mariam says.

Once the child comes to school, this knowledge is passed on to them in an age-appropriate manner. “This is not just important for preventing child sexual abuse and increasing reporting, but also to build self-confidence, a healthy body image, gender sensitivity… And also, to tell them about body safety rules. And what they can do if someone breaks these rules,” Mariam continues.

One of the most important aspects of PSE is teaching children that if someone breaks the body safety rules, it is not their fault. “So, even if a child takes away nothing else from it but that they should not be blamed for another person, the abuser, violating the rules, and they at least know that it’s not their fault. Guilt and shame are major factors holding back survivors,” Mariam says.

The challenges in making PSE accessible

It is no secret that “sex education” or sexuality education which is the more precise term, makes Indians extremely uncomfortable; parents and schools are no exception. And child sexual abuse is a topic that is equally taboo.

 “That’s why when you say ‘child safety’ education instead, it helps people feel more comfortable. And ultimately, it is about that,” Mariam says.  

That said, there continue to be challenges in convincing schools and parents to allow and participate in PSE.

“The first misconception which makes parents and caretakers believe that their children don’t need PSE is, ‘this won’t happen to my child’ or ‘this won’t happen in my family or in this school’. But we know that’s not the case,” Mariam argues.

“The second reason is a lack of openness, even if a child wants to talk about it. One, there is the discomfort that a parent or adult may feel in speaking to a child about this. This then transfers to the child as well who feels they cannot speak about it,” she adds.

PSE is also important because it gives kids the vocabulary to describe if their boundaries have been violated or if they have been abused.

“A lot of times if a child even tries to explain the abuse, the parent or adult may not understand because the child does not have the vocabulary. For example, if a young child says they did not like when the abuser hugged them, it may not immediately raise a red flag for the parent. Then, because a child does not have the vocabulary or confidence to confide about the abuse, they try to avoid the abuser. But, say, if they refuse to go to a certain relative or doctor, it is simply taken as a sign of rebellion,” Mariam explains.

Mariam’s story

The cause is very personal to Mariam because it comes from her experience of being a survivor herself. The abusers were different people at different points of time – her house help, a relative, a shopkeeper, a doctor.

She realised what had happened to her for over a decade, when she was 19. She was in Delhi, studying sociology at Lady Sri Ram college in Delhi University. She was attending an event which had Harish Iyer, an equal rights activist and child sexual abuse survivor, as a panelist.

“He said something like according to statistics, half of the children are sexually abused. And that means about half of us sitting in this room have been sexually abused as children,” Mariam recounts. “When he said that, I remember feeling really defensive and perturbed. I left the hall. And later when I started introspecting why that affected me so much, I realised I was a survivor of child sexual abuse as well.”

In September 2017, something happened which strengthened her resolve to take the issue of child sexual abuse more seriously. “I was riding my scooter when a flashback of having been sexually abused came into my mind for the hundredth time. The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on the road and my right leg was under my scooter,” she shares in the petition.

"The wound, a month of limping and the scar acted as a reminder that the past just doesn't disappear despite therapy and confrontations with three of the abusers. So, I wanted to create safeguards for others, and support groups for healing too," Mariam tells TNM. 

She then quit her job in the social sector by the end of 2017 and decided to work harder to address child sexual abuse. Mariam started the Change.org petition in the beginning of August this year. You can access it here

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