Chennai (WFS) - Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) and its prevention have become major problems in all countries, particularly in India, with the absence of specific laws against CSA and the lack of awareness on the subject. CSA can occur both within families, social groups and in underprivileged situations, such as in orphanages. The abuse of children by tourists also falls under CSA.

A disclosure made by a child about abuse during a Tulir session is brought to the notice of the parents or teachers, depending on the situation.

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While correction and punishment are ways to tackle the problem, it is increasingly felt that prevention is a far better method. This is because of two reasons: the difficulty of bringing CSA offenders to book; and tragically, the virtual impossibility of erasing the scars left on victims.

In India, there are several organisations working with child rights, but only a few, such as Chennai-based Tulir, that focus on CSA. Tulir is Tamil for the first tender leaves of a plant - symbolising children and belief in the resilience and resurgence of human activity. In 2006, Tulir was honoured with an International Award by the Women's World Summit Foundation on the occasion of the World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse (November 19) in Geneva.

The Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, which began in 2002, is the inspiration of its Executive Director, Vidya Reddy. Reddy's experience as a volunteer with Childline, a 24-hour helpline for children in Chennai, made her aware of the many cases of CSA and the need for an organisation specifically devoted to the issue.

A meeting with Lois Engelbrecht, an American citizen born and brought up in India, was the catalyst. Lois had set up similar centres in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Thus was born Tulir. Tulir's main activities are advocacy, awareness and preventive education. It takes up research projects and, on occasion, does psycho-social therapeutic intervention in cases of CSA.

File illustration: Farzana Cooper.

The major programmes of the organisation are with children. Over the last three years, Tulir has covered around 40 private schools in Chennai. It also runs a project with municipal corporation schools.

According to Reddy, a typical programme in a school begins with an orientation for parents, proceeds to intensive workshops for teachers and, finally, targets the children, who are only taught in groups. As the programme is exclusively for primary school students, the words 'sex' or 'abuse' are never used. 'Personal safety' is the slogan. The purpose is to encourage children to speak out if they feel uncomfortable, unsafe or confused when an adult touches them. Children always have the right instinct and know the difference between a friendly pat on the back and an unwarranted touch.

If a disclosure is made by a child about abuse during a Tulir session, it is brought to the notice of the parents or teachers, depending on the situation.

Reddy elaborates, "Teaching children involves understanding psycho-emotional concepts. The tools we use include leaflets, posters and other special materials that children can understand. An audio book will soon be released by 'Karadi Tales'. All the material is trilingual, in Hindi, English and Tamil."

Reddy is assisted in her work by four youngsters - Alankar, Vipin, Nancy and Madhavan - all from the Madras School of Social Work.

In the beginning, the group worked on just 'love and fresh air', says Reddy. It was in the second year of their operations that they received funding from Save the Children, Sweden , for a research project. Since then, they have been receiving funds from Action Aid, UNICEF, Save the Children, UK, for their domestic child workers project in West Bengal.

In 2005, Tulir undertook a research project on 'Prevalence and dynamics of child sexual abuse among school-going children in Chennai'. The revelations were shocking. Out of a sample of 2,211 child participants, 939 or 42 per cent had undergone some form of child abuse.

Tulir has worked with several organisations such as Intervention Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Chicago, and Terres Des Hommes (People of the Earth) that works across Europe in child rights. In India, Tulir has been associated with Action for the Rights of the Child, Pune, which translated their awareness materials into Marathi. The Karnataka State Council for Child Welfare has done the same in Kannada.

Tulir also offers preventive education offered is for the benefit of professionals, doctors, police and lawyers and, most importantly, the child and those around the child. Tulir is in the process of bringing out a small booklet for the police on CSA.

Coming to the role of governmental agencies, Reddy says that the Chennai Municipal Corporation has been extremely cooperative and so have the Chennai police. However, she would like the police to have a separate Child Abuse Prevention Cell to investigate cases because 'a child victim of a crime is very different from an adult victim'. At the national level, she is emphatic that the age-old practice of combining women and child issues has to be stopped. Organisations like hers want a special ministry for children.

There is no law against child sexual abuse in India, Reddy points out. A draft legislation (called the Offences Against the Child Bill) formulated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been circulated and child rights groups are hoping the Bill will be taken up in the next session of Parliament.

Tulir has undertaken a new research programme to look at the CSA issue from a different perspective with the advent of technology. As a result of the Internet, the entire profile of abuse has undergone a paradigm shift. Viewing child pornography on the Internet gives impetus to abuse. Then again, children who participate in Internet chat rooms are at risk. Individuals, pretending to be youngsters, befriend innocent children and later entice them into actual meetings outside.

Tulir may just be touching the fringes of a major societal problem but hopes to tackle a menace shrouded in sordid silence. (Women's Feature Service)