At the end of his weekly sessions with a group of adolescents from Dharavi, Umar Khan noticed that Faisal* had taken to hanging around long after the others had left.
“I felt he had something on his mind, so I would find reasons to stay back,” says Khan, 21.
After three weeks, the 10-year-old blurted out that a neighbourhood “uncle” was giving him the bad touch — a concept that had been discussed at the sessions.
It turned out that the “uncle” abusing Faisal was a neighbour. Faisal would be left in his care at night, while his mother worked as a security guard. A widow, she struggled to make ends meet. Faisal didn’t know how to talk about his plight.
With Khan’s support, Faisal did eventually tell his mother. She got the abuser arrested.
“I know what it’s like to feel alone and vulnerable,” says Khan who was 11 when three older boys from the slums he grew up in started abusing him sexually. Raised by a single mother, he was mostly left to his own devices while she worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“The abusers were people I considered friends, so I was very confused and ashamed. I suffered for three years before I worked up the nerve to tell my mother,” recalls Khan.
It is this empathy that Khan brings to his role as peer educator for the Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action (SNEHA), an NGO. Since 2013, SNEHA’s youth programme EHSAAS has reached out to 6,000 adolescents and youth between the ages of 15-24, in Mumbai’s slums.
Through theatre, sports and workshops, SNEHA focuses on rights-based education to help explain the importance of physical, sexual and reproductive health.
At 243 million, India has the largest number of adolescents in the world, comprising a third of its population. But they do not receive the due attention of government health programmes.
That needs to change. A 2012 Population Council report says that 85 per cent of young people in India lack access to sexuality education, which exposes them to risky or forced sexual activity, multiple partners, early pregnancies, even HIV.
“Unless you show youngsters how to negotiate their sexuality, you are not empowering them with skills to prevent early marriage and violence,” says Programme Director Dr Nayreen Daruwala.
Awkward topics like masturbation are discussed at the sessions, using terms youngsters employ.
“There is a lot of shame and guilt about natural bodily functions,” says Shahid Shaikh, a 19-year-old peer educator. “They don’t know whom to ask, and believe that watching porn regularly helps build a good physique”.
Sessions on body image are especially popular. “All the girls want to look like Katrina and the boys like Salman,” he says. To dispel popular notions of beauty, pictures of stars sans make up are shown. “We encourage them to look at their strengths and build on that, instead of worrying about skin tone or height,” says Shaikh.
A preliminary impact assessment shows encouraging signs. A 2013 survey in the slums showed that only 64 per cent of boys believed that when a girl said ‘no’ she meant it. By 2014, this had grown to 84 per cent. Knowledge of reproductive health among adolescents had risen from 44 per cent to 82 per cent, while 88 per cent showed improved gender attitudes, as against 69 per cent.
Since late 2014, SNEHA has tweaked its approach. “Given how gender inequality plays out in many subtle ways, we decided to involve the parents for a substantial attitudinal change,” says Daruwala.
She points to the case of two siblings. The girl, a TB patient, needs good nutrition, but it is the brother who gets the eggs and meat, while she is fed dal-roti. There are many such instances, says Daruwala. “With school-going children, only sons get tuitions and pocket money”.
Parents are asked to fill out forms with questions about their children, to gauge their awareness of their children’s lives. “We talk to them about communication,” says Gouri Ambekar, a programme coordinator. “What to tell children when they are going through difficult situations, and the importance of staying engaged with their kids.”
Ambekar cites the instance of a 14-year-old, whose uncle raped and impregnated her. Although her condition was visible, the girl’s mother wouldn’t take her to a doctor because she didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening. “The mother felt powerless and had no idea how to cope because it would have meant confronting the elders in the household.”
Findings apart, there are others signs of hope. Like Faisal, many children are coming forward to report instances of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
“An 11-year-old approached us recently, saying her father beat her mother,” says Sanna Meherally another programme coordinator. “The mother was reluctant to seek help, but the child insisted and brought her to the centre”. In another instance, three children sought help for a girl who was being sexually abused by an older boy.
Like Khan, many peer educators see the initiative as an opportunity to pay it forward.
“When I was 14, I was confused and helpless and felt I was worth nothing,” says Shaikh. “So I am happy that I am making a difference. Even at home I have been able to bring about a change. I convinced my father to let my sister study and wear what she likes to. It may not sound like much, but it makes a world of a difference to me.”
* Names have been changed to protect identity
This article was published in the Indian Express on 25 August 2015