By Preethi Herman
A journalist recently asked me about trends on Change.org in the last year. It is an interesting platform to watch what people across the country want to change in their localities and country, and observing trends on issues is always an interesting exercise in understanding some prominent problems regular citizens face.
The next few minutes I spent assessing common issues raised through petitions on Change.org were nothing short of reassuring. The most prominent trend in the last 12- 18 months, was of people from across different parts of the country demanding solutions for child sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse as a problem is not new. It is a hushed up form of violence. However, through the last year, horrific cases of child sexual abuse have been coming to light because they are being reported and discussed.
The trend on Change.org started July 2014 in Bengaluru. A 6-year-old girl was sexually abused by her teacher in school. Visuals of horrified and angry parents protesting against the school filled news stories. Pavithra Shetty, mother of a toddler, felt the problem was bigger- There were no basic guidelines for child safety in schools.
She started a campaign on Change.org asking the Education Minister of Karnataka to issue directives to impose security measures in all schools in the state. Her demand emerged strongly amidst the anger and outrage of the incident because thousands of people were beginning to support her campaign. Within the next 6 days, the signatures on her petition grew to a lakh and a half, media started reporting about this growing demand for a very urgent solution and the minister’s office recognised this demand and responded. For the first time ever, guidelines for child safety in school were issued in Karnataka.
Shortly after this, Maithreyi Nadapana, mother of 2 children from Bengaluru took another step in the fight to stop child abuse. She wanted parents to be involved in monitoring security measures in schools and started a campaign asking Karnataka’s education Minister to ensure this. Her petition reads “The State government has constituted a 14-member committee of officials to monitor the implementation of the guidelines. However, this panel does not include any representative of the parents’ body.”
With more than 35,000 people supporting her, she took her petition to the Minister’s office. She has had several meetings with supporters, community, the Minister’s office and continues to fight for this demand.
Earlier this year, this narrative moved from Bengaluru to West Bengal. Kamalika, a teenager, was sexually assaulted in her school in Kolkata. When Kamalika tried to raise this issue “her teachers labelled her an attention seeker, a liar, and the principal refused to acknowledge her complaint”. She was bullied and harassed so much about the issue that she committed suicide.
Kamalika’s cousin Smita started a campaign on Change.org to ensure students who face sexual assault are provided counselling to help them cope with the trauma instead of ignoring or shunning the incident. Through her petition Smita says “ if someone had listened to her, maybe then she would have been able to bear the burden.”
“My cousin is not alone. There are thousands of young women just like her who face assault and harassment and have no one to turn to.” Smita continues to campaign for Union HRD minister Smriti Irani to issue guidelines to all schools to ”provide counselling to students who speak out about sexual assault”.
As all these campaigns take off, mobilising thousands of voices and support for their different solutions from across the country, more cases of child sexual abuse are being reported.
Rajya Sabha MP, Rajeev Chandrasekhar has now started a campaign asking Prime Minister Modi to “Commit to a Roadmap to Protect Our Children from Sexual Abuse”. This petition has been gathering a lot of public support and already has more than a lakh signatures.
The journalist who asked me about the trends on Change.org then asked me what the solution for child sexual abuse is? I am no subject matter expert, but I do know that there is no single solution for such a complicated problem. It is very clear that there have to be several solutions on several fronts that will need to come into play immediately.
Many NGOs are doing incredible work on this front and there have been several expert recommendations on solutions, especially the report put together by the Justice Verma Committee in the aftermath of the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012.
But what is new is citizen engagement on the issue. In these campaigns started through their petitions, there are many things common – horrific stories of child sexual abuse, inaction by government or other authority, and most importantly, a huge increasing population that is engaging and demanding change through several solutions.
(Preethi Herman is the India Country Lead of Change.org and a strong believer in regular people becoming leaders of social change)