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Violence in the home is not just a family affair

Family mural

Jocelyn Kinghorn under a Creative Commons Licence

In search of societal change, Mari Marcel Thekaekara visits a Rotary Club to talk taboos. 

Last week, I was invited to speak at a seminar organized by the Nilgiris District Rotary club.

Now, the Rotary is a rarefied club of fairly wealthy business people, and not normally my beat.

But the Chair, Geetha, is a feisty woman who fought an epic battle, alongside concerned conservationists, to save our precious Mudumalai forest from a scientific project which would have destroyed it forever. So my respect for her shot up, especially since her husband is a famous, highly honoured, decorated scientist.

Geetha organized a seminar on ‘The Girl Child’, on the anniversary of the now famous – infamous rather – 2012 Delhi ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless) rape. It was a gutsy move, because these topics are generally taboo in middle-class Indian households. I’m referring to subjects like rape, child abuse, sex education for children, female foeticide or infanticide and dowry deaths (or murders, as they ought to be called). And even more interesting, the audience, Rotarians with their families and guests, ranged from silver-haired grandparents, to bejewelled silken sari-clad ladies, to 16-year-old schoolchildren.

A Bangalore counsellor talked at length about child abuse. I think for many people in the audience, this could well have been a first. We just don’t discuss issues of this ‘sensitive’ sort in public, except for NGOs and women’s and children’s rights groups, perhaps. Rihanna, a Muslim, scarf-clad woman lawyer from Cochin, discussed child rights and law. Also unusual in local circles. All power to her, I silently applauded. She breaks stereotypes.

I was the last speaker, a bit of a challenge given the audience had been lectured to since 10am. I was going on at 3.30pm, after a heavy lunch and a technical legal lecture. So I threw caution to the winds, dispensed with facts and figures, and abandoned important statistics that my beloved, web-savvy, highly professional daughter had carefully put together for dinosaur-like, not-tech-savvy me.  

I dramatized each statistic with real stories I’d encountered in 30 years working as a journalist. At any rate, the youngsters sat up and listened. I talked about the fact that children are abused mostly at home, by older relatives and family friends, rarely by random strangers. I was graphic, as I described a 20-year-old incident. A 13-year-old girl was brought by her mother to a village clinic with classic vomiting. When Doctor Roopa suggested a pregnancy test, the mother was outraged and indignant. It turned out that the girl, barely a month after attaining puberty, was pregnant. The perpetrator? Her mother’s brother: her uncle. We in India routinely hush up stories of uncles, cousins, relatives, close family friends and even fathers sexually assaulting our children, both boys and girls. Rotary discussing these things in the open is pretty ground-breaking for traditional Indian society.

I urged the audience to get involved. ‘If you see a child working, google the local helpline. Phone the nearest NGO involved in rescuing exploited children. If you hear your neighbour screaming when her drunken husband beats her, don’t say “it’s a family matter”. Intervene! Stay anonymous if you want, but phone the helpline to stop the violence. Help your maid to stop her drunken husband hitting her,’ I ended. Rotarians, each and every one, are influential people. Many employ hundreds or thousands of poor people. Help educate those groups. Create awareness to stop violence against women and children.

The Rotary was instrumental in pushing a revolutionary pulse polio programme which has eliminated polio in India. That’s mindboggling. Determination can achieve the impossible. Rotarians have power and money.  They could do it.

Will Geetha Srinivasan, influential in her own right, be able to persuade Rotary to take on this herculean task? I sincerely hope so. I left the audience with a popular one-liner. Be MAD. Make a Difference. Every day, in every way you can. If a few people take this seriously, I for one, will be delighted. I’m in search of change. And I’m looking for hope wherever I can find it.

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