These articles have been produced in partnership with Aahung, a non-profit organisation that has been working since 1994 to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights of people in Pakistan.
Aahung works extensively on child sexual abuse through its Life Skills Based Education curriculum implemented in about 400 primary and secondary schools around the country.
The organisation works closely with teachers and caregivers on helping children stay safe and runs media campaigns to raise awareness.
Following is an account, as told to Sadia Khatri, by two para-counsellors who teach grades 4 and 5 in Karachi and have implemented Aahung’s Life Skills curriculum at their school.
There are certain topics that are difficult for children to broach – the most glaring of these is child sexual abuse. But, in the past year we have noticed a shift.
Students are becoming more vocal and are sharing their problems, both with teachers and with each other. On several occasions, students have approached us on another’s behalf.
In 2016, our school introduced Life Skills, a single-period class dedicated to discussing a range of social and psychological issues, including gender inequality and bullying.
Within Life Skills, we have been able to raise a conversation about child sexual abuse.
We want to remove misconceptions around the issue of abuse, equip children how to defend themselves, and teach them how to say “No”.
In situations where abuse is occurring, we want to encourage them to speak up about it by assuring them that there is nothing immoral about the topic.
We started off by accommodating Life Skills during our 20-minute assembly. This proved difficult. There were too many students – we have 300 in each class – and not enough time. We had to restructure the whole programme to run it smoothly.
Now, Life Skills is a slotted period in each grade – so the children know it is part of their time table, they are familiar with the teacher who takes their class, and they know exactly what to anticipate during the discussion.
The first step of the programme is to build a relationship with the students based on comfort and trust. We assure them that the conversations will remain confidential.
Before initiating the topic of abuse, we segregate the children, sending either all the boys or all the girls to art class.
This is because there are some differences in how we contextualise the lessons, especially when talking about the body.
It is also because children open up more when they are in the company of their own gender.
We start by establishing the fact that there is nothing immoral in talking about abuse. It can happen anywhere, with anyone. Some of us also experienced abuse when we were children.
If any of the students are in an unsafe situation, we encourage them to tell their parents.
We assure them that their parents will understand and support them, and that we are available to intervene if necessary.
At first, children hesitate: “We don’t have any issues, Miss. We have no problems.”
But once one or two children speak up, others begin to open up as well.
We try to create an open and safe space where they can share anything. We have to keep reminding them: our goal here is not to create fuss about your issues, or to report them anywhere.
Our goal is to help you relax and feel better. We explain to them how some problems can be resolved just by sharing them – how speaking up can be therapeutic.
Of course, not all children are comfortable verbalising their issues. To be inclusive, one of our activities involves handing out pieces of paper on which they can write down their thoughts.
We want to give them a healthy outlet. Sometimes just writing on paper is a healthy way to vent.
If they wish to share these with the teacher, they may; otherwise they are encouraged to tear up the papers and throw them away.
The idea here is to solidify trust by assuring children that they will not be forced to do anything.
Some incidents occur on the streets and at tuition centres but we have found that most abuse occurs in home spaces.
Last week, a girl confided to us in writing. She had been undergoing abuse by her cousin, who came to take care of her while her mother was away. With the girl’s consent, we offered to mediate and called in her mother.
At first, the mother was shocked. This is a common reaction – parents often find these revelations hard to believe. Sometimes they react with strong opposition, claiming that we are mistaken.
Before initiating Life Skills, we held information sessions for all parents, to ensure that we had their support.
Even though they were all on board and had given their consent, when it comes to confronting the truth, not all of them want to accept that their child is in danger.
In their minds, abuse is immoral. The log kya kahein ge [what will people say]? mentality feeds their worry – they fear for their reputation in society, and if the child is a girl, they fear for her future.
We have to assure parents that the matter will stay confidential, and that our greatest concern is their child’s safety. Eventually, they come around.
In the case of the mother last week, she believed us only once we showed her the child’s handwritten note. She could not believe that it was happening in her house.
Since then, she has become much more alert. Now she takes the child with her everywhere.
Since we usually live in close-knit neighbourhoods, it’s rare for parents to confront their child’s abuser. Their intervention is limited to heightening their child’s safety – as with this mother, who cannot say anything to her child’s abuser because they are part of the same family.
Once, another mother said to us: “I can only ensure my child’s safety. You have no idea what will happen if I take a public stand. If I accuse the abuser, he will unleash a storm in my home.”
Often children themselves are afraid of their parents. Given the gap in communication between parents and children, their fear is not misplaced.
It starts early on. When children start asking questions about changes in their body, they are either dismissed or given a nonsensical answer, or their prying is treated as something immoral.
Then there is the manner in which we talk about sex. When a child is born in the family, parents offer different, misleading explanations: one says the child came in a basket, the other says it was dropped off in the night.
Being children, they obviously consult each other and realise there are discrepancies – this heightens their curiosity and makes room for even more misleading information.
Parents’ dismissal builds mistrust, and children do not feel fully comfortable discussing everything around them.
A supportive outlet is shut off, and as a result, children going through trauma or abuse feel even more insecure.
Their mental health deteriorates and they fear admonishment from their parents. Often they begin to internalise guilt and blame themselves, afraid that if their parents find out, they will be held responsible.
There are several changes that parents must make in their behaviour.
First, they need to talk openly with their children, and resist the impulse to sweep sensitive topics under the carpet.
Second, parents must stay informed and involved in their children’s day-to-day activities.
You should know where your child is going and with whom they are spending their time.
One way to solidify trust is to create a habit. For example, ask your child how their day went before they go to sleep at night.
Your child might not always have a lot to share, but at least they will realise that there is space for them to speak to you.
Once they know that you care, they will begin to feel safe discussing anything with you.
Lastly, believe your children. Your child should feel confident confiding in you.
They should not approach you with the fear of admonishment, but with the conviction that they will be believed.
Implementing the Life Skills programme has not been a smooth process. Selecting teachers is the key challenge.
When the course was introduced, many teachers were initially hesitant taking it on and felt the content was too sensitive.
Untrained teachers cannot run these classes, so all of us first have to undergo training by Aahung.
But workshops aside, teachers first need to have the confidence that is required to discuss abuse.
They need to be emotionally well-equipped to talk to children. This is not always the case.
Some female teachers have trouble with boys. Others, who had received the training, backed off when it was time to deliver.
We are six teachers handling grades 4 and 5. There are also teachers who run Life Skills sessions at the secondary school. At least through our efforts, some of the children are now safe.
But the process does not end there. Children can be fragile even after they are out of danger. Sometimes you have to provide extra care.
For example, there is a girl who often shows up out of nowhere to see us. We know she has been through abuse, so we never turn her away.
Sometimes she wants to share something simple – nothing related to her trauma. But we know that she is seeking comfort and that it is important for her to be listened to.
Furthermore, we have to ensure that students who have experienced abuse feel safe in their new classes.
If they have a trusting relationship with a particular teacher, we try to adjust their class so they don’t have to deal with anyone new.
At the beginning of the school year, there was a student who refused to sit in her new class. When we placed her back with her former teacher, she calmed down again.
Delivering the Life Skills workshops can be a challenging experience, but the teachers who have been implementing the programme have seen how vital and transformative it can be for children who are being abused or are survivors of abuse.