‘I don’t know why I am angry all the time’, ‘Is it okay to kiss my boyfriend?’, ‘I don’t have any friends and I feel very lonely coming to school’, ‘What do I do when someone follows me home?’, ‘Will good girls chat with strangers on Facebook?’ These are only a few of the questions we were asked during a gender workshop we conducted in a small town in Tamil Nadu. There are hardly any accessible platforms to address these innumerable queries and complaints from adolescents – of curiosity, sexual orientation, dysmorphia, mental health troubles or even concerns about abuse or harassment. Without comprehensive school-level sex education and counselling programmes, these children are either left to figure out their issues by themselves or approach child-support services to seek guidance. According to the Childline 2018 report, the second most commonly cited reason to seek help is for psycho-social guidance.
Over the years, with more child-centric policies and legislations, the state’s response to child abuse and child and adolescent mental health has definitely improved. But while services – ranging from multiple helplines, counselling services and other support structures – have expanded the state’s scope, their efficacy and sensitivity when handling delicate issues of child abuse, harassment or adolescent anxiety is questionable.
This article explores the sensitivity and accessibility of support services for adolescents using a couple of anecdotes from a gender sensitisation session in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.
Vanitha1, a 13-year-old girl, opened up to her teachers about being a victim of harassment. The school later informed the parents and helped them get in touch with the District Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. However, the commission’s response was filled with legal and bureaucratic jargon on how to file a case – instead of enquiring about the case’s details and the child’s current state of mind. And although a district functionary visited the school the next day, he was more curious about the girl’s supposed relationship with the assaulter and whether she “liked” him. The girl and her family, already unsettled by the traumatic experience, were then subjected to further questions about her chastity.
Separately, the parents and school authorities were at a loss about how they could help Vanitha, especially since they found her story and its details kept changing with every narration. A few experts in the field suggested that there is no coherence in her story and recommended psychological help. When the family consulted a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist concluded – without evaluations or analyses – that Vanitha was lying, and proceeded to threaten her with electroshock therapy if she were to lie again. They also prescribed some sedatives before chiding her about good behaviour. Vanitha is no longer sure of her story, nor has anyone been able to find out what exactly happened to her. Her parents, for their part, just want Vanitha to ‘forget’ whatever happened and focus on her studies. They also lack the time and resources to take Vanitha to the nearest city.
Here, what could have been an instance of abuse, or even reminders of childhood trauma or a mental health condition, was dismissed as untrue or attention-seeking behaviour. In the process, the response violated multiple elements of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 guidelines for support persons and mental health professionals.
Put different, in India, it takes a great deal of courage from parents and schools to even report harassment or talk about it because the state response can be intimidating. In Vanitha’s case, the government responded to the issue in a bureaucratic manner, instead of offering sensitivity or empathy. The adults surrounding the children – parents, teachers, extended family members – are in most cases similarly unequipped to handle issues the way they ought to be, and might require guidance and help themselves. Even if most parents care about their children’s well-being, awareness is generally lacking about topics like abuse, sexuality and mental health. They are more likely to seek help if their child is in a relationship, asserts their individuality or scores lower on tests than if their child was suffering from a mental health issue.
As it happens, our child support services are underprepared to handle even simpler issues. Priya2, a 15-year-old girl, called the helpline because she was scared and annoyed by constant calls to her number from an unknown male. Her fear was heightened when he threatened to come to her house. In the absence of her parents, she sought guidance from the helpline. The person who responded initially asked her to stay calm and asked for her parents’ and the schools’ contact details. Then they visited her at school the next day. And while Priya’s parents and teachers were supportive Priya of her action and believed she had done the right thing, the helpline counsellors were more skeptical. In their meeting, the counsellors enquired about the social lives of Priya and her friends, suggested to the parents and teachers that the problem was with allowing Priya to own a phone.
The fears of public ridicule and bad reputation are constant. But when support-providers are insensitive just when children, parents and other students are extremely vulnerable and scared, the whole purpose of there being support-providers is lost. Such responses in fact prompt concerns about whether it’s right to refer children and their families to such under-equipped services.
The examples of Vanitha’s and Priya’s stories show how parents and school managements, while genuinely trying to help children in distress, are let down by poor information, accessible resources and support from professionals. In both instances, authorities employed and trained to aid children – child rights officers, mental health professionals and helpline personnel – actually reinforced regressive gender-biases and heightened care-seekers’ insecurities. Their actions reflect a larger culture of moral-policing and victim-blaming, both of which could inflict more trauma.
There are a variety of barriers to accessing mental health services in India, including availability of services, affordability, social stigma and lack of awareness. Nearly 9.8 million Indians aged 13-17 years are in need of active intervention. An average of 28 students younger than 18 years kill themselves in India every day. However, there are fewer than 900 psychologists and fewer than 900 psychiatric social workers – instead of the 20,250 and 37,000, respectively, required. So the problem isn’t just that we don’t have enough support services of good quality; it’s that is a larger systemic flaw in our approach to adolescent care.
In our study, conducted with 150 parents and 70 teachers at a school in Kumbakonam, 70% of parents said they need more information on adolescent and sex education. And in our survey of 600 students, we found 74% said they trust their parents and peers over teachers, and had little awareness about helplines and other support mechanisms. Our children’s wellbeing and protection from abuse is in need of a more community-centric approach in which parents, peers and teachers are all part of the conversation. Efforts to expand the skill-set of community members and the immediate support system at all levels through exhaustive sensitisation will go a long way towards creating a more proactive, safe and reliable environment for children.
Sethulakshmi V. is a feminist researcher and artist, has previously engaged with grassroots level initiatives related to traditional livelihoods, gender and child rights. Vaishnavi C. is an independent researcher and activist in Kumbakonam and has experience working with the government and civil society interventions on political participation and women and can be reached on twitter @_itsvaishnavi.