As a child, Insia Dariwala relied on her imagination to cope with sexual abuse. Today, her imagination is shining a light for others.
One day I was confronted by this character hiding inside of me… She wanted me to rewrite her story.
I was 10 years old when sexual abuse forced me to shut out the world around me, and create a new world inside my mind. In this world, I had a chance to live with people I knew couldn't hurt me: figures like Tarzan and Phantom, humorous characters from Tinkle and Archie comics.
Each day, I saw myself as one of the heroes in these stories. This imaginary girl was invincible, strong, powerful, and even saved others from injustice. Through this fantasy world, I could navigate the ugliness of reality around me.
Little did I know, this imaginary world in the comics I read would eventually become my guide, and hone my own storytelling skills as a writer/director of films.
In the beginning, I started my career telling other people's stories, but one day I was confronted by this character hiding inside of me. This little girl was waiting to be comforted and waiting to be released. She wanted me to rewrite her story. That is how my award-winning debut film The Candy Man was born.
This film is a story about a young man, Sachin, who was sexually abused as a child by his father. He is not able to fully embrace his fatherhood and shower his love freely. He has to confront his horrible past so he can give a healthy future to his son.
Although I chose a male character in the film, he resonated with me in many ways. I too had to deal with latent memories of abuse for a long time, which would get triggered whenever I saw similar situations unfolding in the lives of children around me. When my son was born, I doubted whether or not I would be a good mother. I wondered if I would be able to protect him at all times, particularly since my mother was not able to protect me.
I believe this film let me answer all those doubts, and acted as a catharsis for the abused child within me. It was my way of exorcising my demons, and doing what I could not do as a child: celebrating 'Shakti' (power) in a woman and making evil pay.
The response to my film was overwhelming. When viewers began to come forward and talk about their own pain, I realized I possessed a gift that could be used to change the society we live in. This was also the moment I began to really appreciate the power of the visual medium to connect complete strangers, touch their hearts, and force them to engage in dialogue with each other.
Since that first film, I have continued creating visual content on topics like rape, women’s empowerment, and child abuse. A film I wrote on female genital mutilation (FGM) is currently under consideration.
The sculpture Betrayed was created by Shreehari Bhosle for Insia Dariwali and The Hands of Hope Foundation. Photo courtesy of Insia Dariwala
Two years ago, I birthed an organization called The Hands of Hope Foundation. Our flagship program, ‘Recognise. Prevent. Protect.’ uses custom-designed visual software to inform children and adults about sexual violence against women and children. We created a puppetry animation video, which educates children on ‘good touch/bad touch.'
Just as I identified with comic book characters as a child, many younger children find it easier to connect to animated characters. Even if they might not remember what was said in the film, they will definitely remember what they saw. To reach teachers and parents, we created an infographic video that highlights statistics and covers truths and myths about child sexual abuse. I also co-founded another organization, Sahiyo, which uses stories and films to break the silence around female genital cutting in India.
The connecting thread throughout all of this work is the visual expression of hope triumphing over pain. When I see a mother feeling empowered after a session, or hear children telling me that they will not be scared to say ‘No’, I know I am on the right path.
Last year, I gathered the courage to explore yet another visual medium, adding another dimension to this movement to protect children. The Hands of Hope Foundation put up an art installation at the prestigious Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai on the theme of child sexual abuse. The installation, called Betrayed, was visited by more than 50,000 people. It raised awareness and facilitated what would have otherwise been a difficult dialogue. This experience yet again affirmed my belief that visual art can indeed create change.
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been creating hopeful worlds for myself and for others. I have also learned that through these stories, I hold the power to illuminate the darkest parts of our society. My life may not have started off as a fairy tale, but I am certain it will end as a fairly good tale. I have indeed re-written my story.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.
How to Get Involved
Insia chose to tell her story to inspire others to share theirs in return. She encourages people who have experienced abuse to share their own stories and further inspire others.
On the 6th of July, Insia is launching a groundbreaking photo shoot campaign on male child sexual abuse. She invites people to follow and share this campaign. Learn more and connect with Insia through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.