SARAH is a young, chirpy and lively girl who lives in Pakistan with her Ammi and Abba. She loves going to school. She also loves playing cricket, and listening to stories. At school, she adores her teacher Mariam Aapa.
On a particular day at school, the topic of their lesson is ‘health and safety’. Mariam tells the class: “Hamare jism ke chaar aise hissey hain jinhe kisi ko chooney ki ijazat nahi hai aur na hi hum kisi ke inn hisson ko choo sakte hain. Wo hain: moonh, seena, taangon ke darmiyaan ka hissa, aur koolhey. Inko choona galat hai (There are four parts of our body which no one is allowed to touch nor should we touch anyone there. They are: mouth, chest, the area between our legs, and buttocks. Touching these is wrong).”
As school ends, Sarah rushes back home and tells her parents what she learnt and they are glad. They promise to protect and trust her for life. They also tell her that she will always be worthy of their love and respect, and won’t be at fault even if something happens.
Sarah is the protagonist of a 32-page illustrated book ‘Mera Jism Mera Hai‘ (My body is mine) that tells children and their parents about child sexual abuse prevention.
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone from Chicago, Karachi-based author Ashhad Qureshi (24) said, “In Pakistan, it is still rare to initiate conversations around child sexual abuse in households. This book was conceptualized to help both children and parents and tell them about good touch and bad touch. I chose Urdu because if you have to connect with people in Pakistan, especially in rural areas, Urdu is the key. It is very difficult for people in Pakistan to choose right words to talk to their children about this subject”.
An alumnus of University of Chicago where he studied South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Qureshi is currently in Chicago and works as a volunteer with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one of the largest organizations in the US working on the sexual abuse issues.
“My parents never had conversation with me about about good touch and bad touch. When I was five, I was touched inappropriately by a relative. It continued for years and it was much later that I could muster courage to tell it to my parents. In the book, Sarah is a young girl who talks about sexual abuse in a friendly and easy-to-understand way,” he added.
Published by a ‘self-publishing house’ Daastan, the book, illustrated by Aziza Ahmad, costs Rs 250. However, for the schools in Pakistan and organizations and NGOs working for children, they are being distributed for free or at subsidized rates. “We are focusing on schools in rural Pakistan. I did not face any opposition from religious fundamentalists but yes, there was some from people who in general are uncomfortable talking about body boundaries, personal space and safety planning around children. The book also has several characters with different skin tones to tell children about such discrimination,” said Qureshi. “The ultimate goal is to get it incorporated in the school curriculum”.
The book has created ripples in India too with several requests being made for its translation in Hindi and Punjabi. Qureshi says, “I would love to do that. But for that we need the support of an organization or volunteers who can make it happen or help us financially.”
According to a Reuters report in March this year, “nearly 10 cases of child abuse a day are reported in Pakistan, according to Sahil, an organization that works for child protection”. According to a report of Pak-based GeoTV, “In 2019, a total of 2,846 cases of child abuse were reported in Pakistan, as per Sahil, an Islamabad-based NGO working for child protection. In 2018, a total of 3,832 cases of child abuse were reported.” These included abductions, sodomy, children going missing, gang sodomy, rape/attempt to rape, gang rape, child marriages, pornography among others.