When you walk into a classroom to find scared faces looking up at you, your heart sinks. When they open up and begin to ask the questions that they’ve clearly been mulling over for days on end, your sinking heart breaks into a million pieces. No exaggeration. Sample this: “Why did they do it to her?” “How can people think of doing such a thing just to keep their land for themselves?” “She was just eight, ma’am. Just like some of us, and so many other children we know.” “What would she have gone through, ma’am? What about her future, her dreams, and the things she enjoyed?”
These questions weren’t from just one classroom, but many. The children were reacting to the news on an incident in Kathua, a district in Jammu and Kashmir. An eight year old was held captive in a temple, sedated repetitively, and brutally gang-raped several times over a week, before her head was smashed in. One of the accused rapists, according to the charge-sheet in the case, was called by the lead accused from another city to “satisfy his lust.” One of the co-conspirators, a police officer, asked the others to wait before she was strangled to death, because he wanted to rape her one last time. And then, driven by their sadistic lust, the others followed suit. The child was killed, and then her head smashed twice with a stone just to make sure she was dead. The lead accused paid a bribe to cover the incident up.
Just when the conversation around this was intense, another incident closer home, in my city, shook my students up. An eleven year old, this time, with a hearing impairment. She was molested and raped by as many as 22 men - all of whom were regular staff in her own apartment. She was led away each day after school, and drugged so that she could be abused.
The day after, when I entered the first classroom since the news broke, I froze. The children I was so used to seeing at play, were walking about gloomily. A heavy cloud hung above them, and the laughter in their voices was subdued. Jokes and funny voices to break the ice did nothing. And the barrage of questions began.
What do you tell a child who asks you point blank why adults think nothing of hurting people like her? What do you tell a child who writes you a note saying that she used to ask her father to check if there were ghosts in her closet - but now wants to make sure there are no human monsters there instead? What answers do you have for a child whose trust in grownups has broken long before it has been established?
When we think of security, we think of making streets navigable, making societies violence-free, making dissent possible without crackdowns and silencing, and making peace a reality. When we think of security, the images we conjure in our minds center purely around our perspective. But what of the children we are responsible for?
By and large, most of us have been guilty of leaving children out of the rhetoric. Society has a frame of reference for security that is adult-centric, and this has also permeated our approach towards security for children. Our approach to the ideas informing upbringing center around a rigid dos-and-don’ts centered idea. The onus is often always on our children to stay safe, but nothing is done about or said of the village that it takes, to raise a child. We accuse politicians and businessmen of using fear to keep the world on its toes to serve their needs. But as adults, we teach our children shame and fear, and hold them under that thumb: two very things that abusers and molesters prey on. It is so, so, easy to inspire silence in a child.
We’ve been riveted to a one-sided approach in our lives. We teach our children to stay safe, and put the onus on them to speak up, to refute violence, and to fight it. This is undoubtedly an important message, no denying it at all. And yet, we do nothing to address those that see them as targets, and those that know exactly how to silence them. India responded by clamping the death penalty - but a crime that already takes place under a cloak of silence would now be all the more easily silenced. If it takes a village to raise a child, we need to work with the entire village to shift its mindset. And for the past few months, this has been my approach.
I keep going back to an exchange I had with an eleven year old asked to speak to me for a few minutes after our workshop on understanding safe and unsafe touches and ways to stay safe, after the incident in Chennai. "Ma'am, why did they do it to her?" My breath caught in my throat. Words became an ugly bundle at the base of my throat. We sat in silence, tears in both our eyes, a silent solidarity in helplessness, but not without the audacity of hope, as she would testify to it in just a second. "Ma'am, she was as old as me. I am not going to rest until the world is safe for children like me and her. I want to start a club ma'am, called Anti-Rape club. I will call all the children I know. Will you teach them too? If all children know how to stay safe, what can one, ten or seventeen men do to strong children?" I nodded, and affirmed that I will never give up, either. Long after she left, when I made my way home, the lone thought in my head was that a child should never have to think about these things.