Pooja Taparia and her NGO, Arpan, spread awareness to prevent child sexual abuse and help survivors reclaim their lives
By Aditi Seshadri
A chance viewing of a play changed the course of Pooja Taparia’s life. It was 2003, and Pooja came out of Lillette Dubey’s 30 Days of September, moved by the trauma of child sexual abuse portrayed, and convinced that it was an issue she wanted to work with.
Soon, Arpan, the charity that Pooja had started earlier that year, took up the issue and made the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse its main focus. The organisation works at two levels: Prevention — Empowering adults and children with skills to protect children from sexual abuse, and Healing — Enabling victims & survivors of abuse to heal and live beyond the trauma of their abuse.
“The first step is to spread awareness, among parents and teachers,” says Pooja, 33. “And there is always denial. Most people think that ‘this can’t happen in my home or my class’, but the truth is, it does.”
Data from the National Study on Child Abuse in April 2007, Ministry of Women and Child Development, seems to concur. More than 53% children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse and 50% of sexual offenders are known to the victim or were in positions of trust (family member, close relative, friend or neighbour).
Through a team of psychologists, counsellors and volunteers, Arpan carries out a range of activities to tackle the issue at different levels. Since 2008, the organisation has been running a personal safety programme in two schools, for Classes 1 to 7, teaching children the necessary skills — such as how to behave with strangers or what constitutes inappropriate behaviour— to protect themselves from sexual abuse.
This, Pooja believes is essential as there is “too much of a taboo around sex, too many inhibitions”. Research shows that children as young as five years of age can be victims of abuse, and that boys are equally at risk as girls. “We get reactions like ‘the kids are so innocent, they’re too young to learn about all this’ but eventually schools and families come around.”
The organisation also helps survivors of child sexual abuse by offering counselling and therapy to adult and children, including rescued minors. “This is a more complex area, as there is a dearth of good counsellors, and we are not equipped to deal with trauma,” says Pooja. Arpan also makes it a point to conducting training workshops, to build a more skilled team of counsellors able to aid the healing process.
“When we first started, there was limited knowledge or expertise. It’s through our own research and field work that we’ve understood more and seen what the needs are.” By developing their programmes in this way, Pooja and her team have begun to see a tangible impact at various stages. “At the schools, the feedback from the kids shows a better understanding of the issue and more awareness; after counselling, many of rescued minors are visibly less violent and more hopeful about the future; the adults have better self-esteem and embrace the concept of self-care, addressing their own needs.”
In the last four years, Arpan has helped 8,500 children and adults. It has had some help on the way from Unltd India, a foundation that trains, support and funding social entrepreneurs. To keep the team in balance in the face of such a difficult issue, Pooja says they are all under compulsory clinical supervision. To ensure that they motivated, Pooja has established a flexible work culture and makes sure everyone gets enough time off.
As for herself, she says, “I found my life’s purpose.”
Statistics from one school in 2009-10
Total no. of children: 394
12% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching
2% of children had experienced sexual abuse
Statistics in 2008-09
Total no. of children: 766
11% of children had experienced inappropriate behaviour or touching
5% of children had experienced sexual abuse
- In 46% of the cases the offender was either immediate family or a relative (incest)
- In 53% of the cases the offender was a known person (neighbour, family friend, building friend, watchman, etc.)
- In 1% of the cases the offender was a stranger
- A large number of the clients are adult survivors aged 20-40 yrs
- Sexual abuse in above cases ranges from showing children pornographic material, to molestation to rape.
— Aditi Seshadri