As a parent of an eight-year-old inquisitive girl, Mamta Sharma (name changed) is reasonably prepared to face questions that range from “plain curious” to sometimes “quite odd.” But when, between lessons on arithmetic, her daughter asked what rape meant and if it could happen to her, Ms. Sharma had to struggle for an explanation and to maintain her composure.
“A few days ago she just asked me what rape is. It was a matter-of-fact query, but I was fumbling for a reply. How do you explain rape to an eight-year-old?” she questioned. The Sharmas, who are from a Defence background, have just one girl and admit they are “extremely protective.” The child has strict instructions not to step out alone, has controlled access to the Internet and television and is asked to strictly follow instructions for self-protection.
“My self-defence checklist includes don’t talk to strangers, know the difference between good touch and bad touch, don’t stay out late, but it did not occur to me that my child, at eight, would want to know how vulnerable she is to a sexual assault. It seems like the death of innocence,” said Ms. Sharma.
In another household, a nine-year-old asked her father for a “tubelight” which she explained could be used to defend her in case of an attack. “After a workshop on self-defence in school, where she saw a girl break a tubelight on someone’s head, she assumed it was safe to carry one,” recalled her father.
The incessant media coverage of the incident, constant references to the condition of the victim at home and outside and an increase in forewarnings has disturbed girls as young as seven and eight and has led to the onset of fear at an early age.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Aruna Broota has two teenaged girls coming in for therapy since the news of the horrific gang-rape broke out. The terrified teenagers refuse to step out of their homes. “Ever since the gang-rape was reported about a week ago, the two girls have been so scared that they refuse to sleep alone in their rooms, refuse to go to school and are constantly worried. One of them does not even allow her father to sleep in the same room as hers. That is the extent of the severity of the scare,” she said.
Parents and schools have had to step up, assuring and reassuring girls of their safety. “While we can’t be alarmists, we have to instill a sense of confidence in our daughter without raising fear. So while we reiterated the need to protect the self, we told her that she should not hesitate to raise an alarm whether it is on the street or at school,” said H. Kothiyal, father of a teenage girl.
Sleepless nights, emotional behaviour, stress and anxiety are becoming common complaints from parents. To tackle the rising insecurity among girls, schools are depending on self-defence workshops and counselling with therapists.
Carmel Convent recently organised a workshop for 1,100 girls, teaching them the basics of safety at home and on the streets. “It is difficult to explain such things to the little ones. When we teach them what a good touch and a bad touch is, they sometimes ask us, can the father hold them or carry them in a certain way. So the attempt is to teach our girls the essentials of protection and safety both at home and outside. We tell them that they can always talk to us about what makes them uncomfortable or an unpleasant event, we encourage them to talk to the teachers, if they feel unable to tell the parents, this is done routinely,” said Sister Nirmalini, Principal of Carmel Convent.
To counter this rising fear among women in general and little girls in particular, Dr. Broota suggests workshops to restore confidence. “They have to begin with some kind of workshops and therapy in schools and they must include the boys. There is an absolute need to involve the boys and the men and to address the hierarchy in gender relationships,” she said.