India

by: Michelle Easter

In India, there are very few support services for survivors of rape and sexual abuse.

In fact, in India, there is no effective law prohibiting sexual abuse of children.

PranaadhikaOne of our Points With Purpose members from India, 25-year-old Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman, was molested repeatedly by her great-uncle starting when she was four-years-old. She survived multiple instances of child sexual abuse, from a family member, a building caretaker, a family friend. Though she spoke out about this abuse at a young age, no family member believed her story until she was 25 years old. No school or community agency intervened in the meantime. Her truth was denied; she was belittled and ostracized.

Elaan LogoThe twist in Pranaadhika’s story? At eleven years old, frustrated by the isolation she felt, she started her own support group. The group of girls she gathered grew to be what is today, Elaan, a survivor-outreach and support NGO (i.e. official charity) that is transforming the approach to survivor support in India. Elaan is the Hindi word for declaration. (http://www.facebook.com/ElaanCombatCSA),

The Points With Purpose team recently had the opportunity to interview Pranaadhika. We were fascinated by Pranaadhika’s strength and confidence as she thoughtfully shared her survivor story.

From Tragic Events, Elaan is Born…

Neither family help nor formal help was available to Pranaadhika. She endured violation alone. She believes that art and writing strengthened her mind and nurtured her spirit to endure long years of isolation.

Around the time she was eleven, Pranaadhika learned about the existence of support groups by reading about them on the internet. Since no support groups were available to her, Pranaadhika created her own – and, though it was small, she launched it in a big way. She got ahold of six friends and, in her own words, “screamed for three hours.” Thus began Elaan, Pranaadhika’s personal crusade to shatter the culture of secrecy and create a safe place to heal.

Elaan first grew from a completely informal support group to become (in 1999) a loosely organized support and activism group, anchored by Pranaadhika’s own fiery sermons rich with teenage ambition to change the world. In 2001, having developed a strong group of supporters, Elaan began organizing awareness events in Kolkata.

The beginning of Elaan did not solve all Pranaadhika’s problems. She describes her personal struggles as “the ‘uglification’ of my body and soul. I went from a healthy weight to overweight, long hair to short, and from friendly to withdrawn; I drove away friends who would otherwise have been around for me. I cut myself in the hope that one day I would hit an artery and put an end to the pain and confusion.” But, now, she says she tries to turn her feelings into actions: persistently reaching out for help for herself, reaching out to help others, creating societal change a few people at a time. It is in community healing that she finds her own.

A Safe Place….

MantrasVia their national network of support centers, as well as via phone, Skype and Facebook modalities, Elaan offers confidential peer-support and counseling services. Elaan does not see their crisis support services as secondary to “professional” crisis centers (as might be the status of a peer-counseling organization in the United States). In fact the “professional” crisis centers are frequently not trusted by survivors – who often need not only sensitive, non-judgmental personal support, but also mediation services with family members who are prone to cast the survivor out.

Elaan’s mantras are:

  • Listen – A lot. Safe spaces for survivors are few and very far between
  • Empathize – Over 80% of us are survivors of abuse ourselves
  • Share – We share our own stories along with essential information for survivors + their families

Hitting the Streets…

Elaan provides not only counseling and support, but also community education, particularly urban outreach. One aspect of Elaan’s mission is to use performing arts as an awareness medium through which they facilitate youth (and caregiver) awareness of Child Sexual Abuse [CSA] and related issues with the overall objective of providing a platform for survivors to heal, and encouraging public support and participation in the demand that Child Sexual Abuse be made a legally-punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code.

Elaan develops an audience for their message using truly hands-on methods: canvassing universities, approaching young-people in coffee shops, and even donning masks and presenting impromptu theater in the busy streets of Kolkata.

Between 2001 and 2007Keep in mind that there were no social networking sites at all at the time Elaan began its mission. Pranaadhika says, “It was and is about getting out there, getting on the street, going to places where you know young people are there, and going up to them and talking.” Elaan’s unorthodox outreach methods have drawn in countless survivors, some of whom have become Elaan’s greatest supporters and leaders.

Between 2001 and 2007, Elaan:

  • Developed a network of spaces they can meet, all over India.
  • Conducted over 300 advocacy events in different schools, colleges, offices and public settings
  • Reached over 15,000 young people
  • Provided support and counseling to 80% of the 15,000 young people reached via trained peer counselors

Fifty-Eight Percent (58%)

While Elaan has made major strides relative to the total absence of such a support network 13 years ago, societal pressure for change in both general norms and legislation has been increasing at only a very slow pace in India. In 2007, the same year Elaan became a formal government recognized NGO, a report was published by India’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Development, and it was stated that about 58% of the population has been sexually abused (http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf). At the time this report was filed, there were also a number of very high-profile child sexual abuse cases in the news, which – combined with the staggering statistics – caused a temporary state of societal outrage. But, soon the uprising for change died down, and it seems now that most everybody has forgotten the safety of India’s women and children. Elaan fights on.

Pranaadhika explained that, in India, “...children who are abused are almost never believed,” and that it is completely unacceptable to society for survivors to speak out and unheard of for abusers to admit to abuse. Many violations of children’s bodies are not even considered to be abuse. The survivors (not the perpetrators) are usually either banished from their families or left to live alone with their pain.

While conducting some research in preparation for our interview with Pranaadhika, I read a story about a pre-teenage girl who was tormented by a group of men who tore off her clothes in a public square, and forced her to run away naked. Pranaadhika explained “...this clothes stealing is quite common,” and is not punishable by law, so there is no incentive for predators to stop abusing people in this way. And in instances such as this, survivors keep quiet – or else suffer the social consequences.

Pranaadhika herself is frequently called a whore, or told to “get married” or “go away and die,” simply because she is outspoken about her own history of child sexual abuse, and the change she believes must overcome India in order that children there can be safe.

A Vision for Change…

Elaan’s membership base is primarily under 20 years old, and the leadership team is under 30; Elaan’s members see themselves as the next generation of India’s leaders.

In its 13 year history, Elaan has received no monetary support; in a country where people generally do not admit the existence of rape and sexual abuse, they also do not tend to commit their money to related causes. Nevertheless, Elaan has realized the urgent need for greater focus and commitment towards awareness, activism and advocacy on the issue.

Elaan’s primary goal is simply increasing awareness of the reality of sexual abuse in India, and increasing tolerance for those who seek to educate and promote change.

Elaan is seeking print and on-line media allies, partnerships with other not-for-profit groups, and support in the ranks of Education, Politics, Lawmakers and Religious Bodies (especially those that enable abuse). With such support, Elaan plans to meet the following goals:

Years Later
Now, many years later, Elaan has become a structured NGO with head offices in Kolkata (though here they are pictured at offices of a partner organization, called SAATHI).

Theater
Theater: Elaan has been very creative over the years in getting their message out. They’ve staged theater productions to make their message more accessible to a public that reflexively rejects the rights of survivors.

Film
Film Screenings: Elaan has also hosted hundreds of film screenings as a means of educating the public. Pranaadhika reports, “We spent the first 4 months screening “The Children We Sacrifice” by Grace Poore, and holding post-screening discussions. The film was over 90 minutes long and we sat through it twice a day for over 120 days!

Teaching Human Rights
Pranaadhika, teaching Human Right’s at St. Joseph’s School in Kolkata.
  • Support Centers: Physical locations where survivors of rape and abuse can get help in every state in India within ten years.
  • Education: Provide education about abuse issues to one million people within the next five years. (Elaan is currently developing a multi-lingual curriculum, seeking schools, colleges and public spaces to permit the outreach and seeking media partners.)
  • Film: Film-making and promoting issue-based films
  • Theater: Commissioning cause-based theater scripts
  • Music: Survivor-related original music
  • Visual Art: Survivor-created art and awareness art
  • Literature: Survivor account documentation, book writing and promotion
  • Advocacy: Provide online advocacy and awareness-support; leverage International Purple Ribbon Project tools for Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Awareness/Prevention
  • Outreach: Reach new populations, especially LGBTHQ
  • Publicity: Advertising campaigns
  • Legislative Change: Driving for laws that effectively protect children

As mentioned above, Elaan has also developed a legal team campaigning for anti-abuse legislation in India. As recently as 1999, there was no law against child sexual abuse in India – at all. In 2009, a bill was drafted that vaguely addresses child sexual abuse (http://wcd.nic.in/act/protectionbill.pdf ). This bill is not accepted by Elaan for various reasons, including the following:

  • It offers only minimal punishment to offenders
  • It gives 12 year-olds the right of consent, creating an enormous loop-hole of accountability
  • The bill does not promote sexual safety awareness, and does nothing to contradict laws that – in fact – make it a crime to discuss sex or related topics in an educational context

Elaan is in the process of submitting a legal objection to the 2009 legislation; the formal procedure for legal protest process is cumbersome, but the Elaan team is determined.

Commitment and Solidarity…

Pranaadhika 2Pranaadhika, who was born and raised as part of a royal family in India, currently lives with her mom and dad. When they finally acknowledged the abuses their daughter survived – 21 years after the fact – Pranaadhika’s parents were quite literally cast out of the family and disinherited.

While Pranaadhika’s parents are not part of her movement to offer support and safety for survivors in India, they do not join her in campaigning for protective legislation for children, and they do not participate in her efforts to provide sex education in the schools, Pranaadhika does feel great support from her parents. By acknowledging her truth – that she is an incest survivor – they are quietly rebelling against the culture of secrecy.

The work Pranaadhika is doing makes her a pariah to many, and it is not unusual for her and the Elaan organization to receive threats – not only from perpetrators but also from the family of other survivors who are speaking out.

On top of these societal threats, Pranaadhika always faces imminent threat of legal hassles or even prosecution, as any kind of sex education is illegal in eight states in India, punishable by time in prison and enormous fines. Pranaadhika says, “The biggest gift my parents give me is that they tolerate all of my drama.

Upcoming News…

Look for exciting developments as Drawing Hope International, the charity behind the Points With Purpose project is collaborating with Elaan to fuel their campaign legislative change in India. Soon we will announce details of a letter writing campaign as well as a series of art-centered educational events, which will support Elaan’s long-term vision to reach a million Indian people Our shared vision is that – using art to bring people together and give us focus – we can together make a dent in the societal taboos, teach people how to embrace and support survivors, and create a safer society.

 

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