How these Bahujan JNU researchers' teachers' training module addresses role of caste in sexual violence

Through her module, Shweta, the founder, wants to give the children a language through which they can speak up about their abuse 
The Nirmal Initiative team
The Nirmal Initiative team

On March 29, 2016, the body of Delta Meghwal, a 17-year-old Dalit student was found in the water tank of the Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute for girls in Nokha, Bikaner where she was studying. Her body was removed from the tank, put it in a garbage collecting truck and It was taking to the hospital. The previous night Delta had called her parents and told them that yet again, she had been sent to the PT teacher's room to clean it and this time he had raped her. Her parents filed an FIR accusing the teacher of rape and murder.

Last week marked four years of her death but the family has seen little justice. Her father, a school teacher who had always urged people in his village to send their daughters to school, a year later told a newspaper, "You seek education to clear your foggy vision, but if you lose your eye in the process, why would you want it?” in response to a question on why his other children had dropped out of their schools. 

While more people today are speaking up about rape, not many acknowledge the role that caste plays in sexual violence. Delta was forced to clean rooms in her institute because she was a Dalit, her body was retrieved from the tank and taken in a garbage truck and the institute made it look like the sex had been consensual by forcing her to write a letter apologising for the same. This was her reality and it is the reality of millions of others living in this country. Which is why, Nirmal Initiative Trust, a Bahujan non-profit, decided that mere discussion on 'good touch, bad touch' while speaking about child sexual abuse was not enough. It was important to address the role that caste, class, gender, disability and other forms of discrimination plays in sexual violence. 

The Nirmal Initiative was founded by Shweta Goswami hailing from Vrindavan, also a PhD student in JNU from the Philosophy department and her thesis is called 'Begampura - A Phenomenological Understanding of Caste'. (Begampura is poet Ravidas' poem about a utopia that aspires for a world that is free of the sorrow of caste inequalities.) Shweta, who is also the director of the Initiative, believed that it was important to change the way that we were addressing sexual violence as a society. Her colleague,  JNU graduate who is also working with IGNOU as a consultant, Himani Saini authored a training module in order to create an inclusive and proactive school community programme to prevent sexual violence.

"Delta's murder was a turning point for the way that we had been addressing sexual violence. It has to be looked at intersectional. And we cannot handle it the same way that western countries do because we have to acknowledge that we are a society that forbids certain subjects, socially ostracises people - the way we deal with sexual violence is complicated in south East Asian countries," Shweta says. When they started the Initiative in 2014, Shweta had certain ideas but it was when they did a ground reality check, they knew that the problems were caste and varies. "We realised it wasn't enough to just do community learning  or have a one-of session on the subject. The learning had to be sustainable, we had to enable the community to communicate. And here we had to speak up about gender, caste and sexual violence," she adds.

The team held a pilot project in three low-income schools in Delhi on the intersective nature of violence. They also conducted refresher teacher training with the educators of 10 government schools in Each Delhi on the basis of this training module."From our four years long engagement within the rural and semi-rural communities in Uttar Pradesh, we have learned that disclosure of abuse may result in child marriage and school dropout for a girl child. The complexity gets deeper as we acknowledge the prevalent caste-based discrimination and insensitivity towards children with disabilities, as child sexual abuse prevails with many other types of violence. In order to address this complex and intersectional nature of sexual abuse, we must return to the foundation of human co-existence that is, ‘effective communication’ and ‘belonging’. To begin with, we understand schools as an incredible site to do the foundational work," Shweta writes in the introduction of her module.

However, Shweta's team lets the teachers know that they are only the point of disclosure and that there has to be a committee in the school to take up the complaint. Since the teachers themselves can suffer secondary trauma or they could also be survivors themselves. "Schools should be functional in establishing a set of values. It is not enough to just tell children this is a good touch and that is a bad touch. We have to realise there are layers to it. For example, a Class 9 child was getting bullied in class and getting called casteist names, by not addressing the bullying, we are letting the child know that it would be normal if sexual violence occurs as well. And this stays with children," she explained.

"In the Bhanwari Devi case, the judge asked 'How can a lower caste women be raped by upper caste men when she was an untouchable?'. This is what a judge asked. Sexual violence is used as a tool of control. In Marathi there is a saying - 'Devdasi is a servent of god, wife of the entire village', another one goes - 'You have not experienced the land until you have experienced a Dalit woman and the one that often gets said in UP is 'A man is not satisfied until he has devoured goat's milk and ch*mar woman's body'. So we cannot separate the two," she pointed out. A reason why many other organisations refuse to look at sexual abuse from this angle is because they are mostly run by upper caste people who don't like to look at caste as a problem," Shweta adds.

Through her module, Shweta wants to give the children a language through which they can speak up about their abuse, "Have we really been able to present ourselves as trusted adults? We, as a community including guardians, teachers, children face an absence of language which makes the situation grim in regard to the disclosure. Thus, the question arises what words shall a child use to talk about the breach of trust, about the violation of bodily integrity, about the manipulation of innocence and curiosity? And how should we, the trusted adults, respond to that? Do we have a mutually shared vocabulary to talk about sexual abuse, and about the feelings that result in the aftermath of abuse?" she asks.

Shweta believed that it was simply impossible to create a safe environment with a single session, she thought it was important to create a module that would engage with the students throughout the year, "The periodic and continuous engagement, one of the key features of this module doesn’t focus merely on imparting certain facts and information regarding child sexual abuse, but it rather envisions a culture of acceptance, trust, supportive and sensitive conversation and belonging over a culture of stigma, shame, oblivion, silence, and of course further violence. Therefore, acknowledging the complexity of the issue of child sexual abuse and the shortcomings of brief one-time interventions, this module has been designed for a year-long intermittent engagement with the teachers," she writes in her module. 

The module is divided into two segments. While the first section of the module addresses the conceptual understanding and attitudes of the teachers towards child sexual abuse, the second section equips them with required pedagogical skills and tools to work in the direction of primary prevention of child sexual abuse. The module is primarily designed for the rural/semi-urban spaces keeping the South Asian sensibilities of gender and violence into account. While the school teachers (specifically primary level) are the primary beneficiaries of the module, students of the concerned teachers are expected to be the secondary beneficiaries of the module. Besides this, the Initiative also has colouring books and art books that can initiate a dialogue about sexual abuse and spread awareness in a more interesting and impactful way. The children are also taught to sing songs on the subject, "We noticed how patriotic songs can install a nationalistic spirit in children. So we wondered if a song can make children feel patriotic, then why not write songs about vulnerability, discrimination and touch?"

We ask Shweta if they found any opposition to their training and sex education, since a major part of the country continues to be against the idea claiming it was encouraging children to be 'promiscuous' or get 'corrupted'. "Yes, some teachers asked us how they can object to child being asking to show physical affection to a family member. We often force children to kiss or hug a relative even if they don't want to. But it is important to get their consent no matter what the situation," she explained.

Shweta points out the failure of technology to prevent sexual violence, "We are developing technical ways to prevent violence by an unknown person. What about the violence that occurs when the victim knows that attacker, which is 90 percent of the time?" she asks. "What happens when a child witnesses the father beating the mother? When sexual abuse occurs, will the child go to the father who is a wife-beater or the mother who clearly cannot help herself?" she pointed out. 

Recalling one of her experiences, Shweta says that a Class 8 student turned up with blue cheeks one day. When she was asked what happened, the child refused to speak and when she did she only had good things to say about her family, especially her brother, "Then she broke into tears and told me about how her brother kissed her so hard that it left a bruise. When she told her mother about it, she just sent the two out to the fair. She kept saying her brother was a great person." 

Maya Angelou, one of the world's most beloved poets and activists, did not speak for five years because she believed her 'voice' had killed a man. Maya was eight when she testified against the man who had raped her, the man was later killed possibly by her uncles. She believed that she had been the cause for his death. Shweta recalled this story to elucidate why it was important to give children an environment that would allow them to speak up, an environment they can trust.

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