If you need one concrete example of the amazing manner in which Rotarians and Rotary clubs have embraced the mantra to empower girls and women, articulated by Shekhar Mehta during his tenure as RI president last year, then you don’t need to look beyond Pune and RC Bibwewadi Pune, RID 3131. Along with its CSR partner GTPL Hathway, it has scaled new heights in its project titled Asmita (Pride), which aims to make teenaged girls aware about their health and other rights, particularly those related to sexual harassment and abuse.
Thanks to the constant endeavour of this club — the project recently entered its 4th phase — around 80,000 girls in the three states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa are now aware of not only their rights, but remedial action in case these are violated. The project’s impact has been phenomenal… around 16–17 men who were charged with sexually abusing their daughters/relatives are now behind bars. This is only from preliminary data; the number is bound to go up when all data come in from 20-odd educational institutions.
Till now this mega project has seen an investment of $400,000; with the involvement this year of 36 Rotary clubs from RI districts 3131, 3060 and 3170. Last year 25 clubs from these three districts were involved in this project. The funding pattern works like this: four times the money raised by each club is donated by the CSR partner.
Project cost $400,00; CSR partner GTPL Hathway
Jignesh Pandya, charter president of the club and its counsellor for this impactful project, recalls that when the club launched this project four years ago, detection of sexual abuse and social media abuse wasn’t really their objective. “We started on a small scale and our focus was on gynaecological health, distribution of sanitary pads and nutrition of girls. But while executing this project, we heard from several schoolgirls some horrible stories of sexual abuse from their dear and near ones, including uncles… mamas and chachas, and in some cases, even their own fathers.”
“After hearing these stories, many of us spent sleepless nights; after all I myself have two daughters and I could not even imagine the torture those girls would be undergoing,” he scowls.
So last year, these Rotarians consulted some experts and with their help, decided to come out with four video clips and a booklet in Q&A format. The subjects included were gynaecological guidance, myths related to menstruation, nutrition and what kind of food to eat to remain fit. The other two videos focussed on how to fight sexual abuse and exploitation and information on how and where to report such abuse. Helpline numbers were shared as also addresses of websites which could be approached to get help or guidance. “Basically, the information contained was about self-defence; if you are caught in an uncomfortable situation, how to fight back,” says club president Wardhaman Gandhi.
The last video talked about social media abuse; if somebody was threatening the girls to publish their morphed pictures, they should not panic and be aware of their legal rights and how to report such threats, he added.
Pandya explains that as they held various sessions in different schools and interacted with the girls, “we found that in several unlikely places, girls had Instagram accounts. Some of them couldn’t even pronounce the word; they would say ‘Instragram’, but they had a presence there. And at a very young age they faced girlfriend-boyfriend issues, and there were cases of boys threatening the girls that they would publish their indecent pictures through morphed images.”
Very often, in such cases, many girls panic and delete their social media accounts, but that is exactly what they should not do, these Rotarians learnt after a detailed discussion with a Rotarian from Pune, Vaishali Bhagwat, who has specialised in various kinds of child abuse, including abuse on the social media. “She told us that the girls should be specifically educated that if they get any threats, they should not delete their accounts, because if that is done then the troublemakers can’t be traced. These are some of the vital tips we have given in those videos.”
Girls impacted 80,000; Clubs involved 61
But as video messages can be seen and forgotten after some time, the Rotarians have also printed booklets in all the three languages — Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi — containing crisp text messages and eye-catching graphics, which have been distributed to the girls, says Gandhi.
The club president added that this year alone over 36,000 girls across 220 locations in multiple districts in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa will be reached through 36 Rotary clubs who are partnering with his club to expand the reach of this project to empower girls and will be showing the video clips in various institutions.
Impact on the ground
Pandya explains that in follow-up action, the statistics related to actual impact of this project are being collected. “Last year, when we met the heads of three institutions where we had launched this project, they said that till Asmita was introduced in their schools, they had barely got a few CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) complaints. But after Asmita, the floodgates had opened, and based on the complaints received from the girls, and action taken, about 16–17 men have been put behind bars.”
The saddest and most horrific case pertains to a girl from Class 8, who was being sexually abused by her father right from LKG. “Unfortunately, the mother also knew about this but she remained silent. Even her younger sister was being abused by the father. After watching our video presentation, the elder sister made a complaint and based on it, the father has been put behind bars.”
In another bizarre instance, a girl was being sexually abused by her mama (maternal uncle); when the child brought this to her mother’s notice, the mother scolded her and asked her to remain silent, saying already her husband’s family did not respect her and her family. If this abuse by her brother was disclosed, they would face further shame!
He adds that they have compiled this data only after visiting about 10 institutions to gauge the results of their drive to empower girls and make them aware about their rights. “We have gone to over 200 institutions and are in the process of gathering data; we are sure that many more such cases of abuse will come to light and action would have been taken because the girls have been sensitised and educated about not having to suffer in silence.”
Shocking role of mothers
Though the Rotarians are really chuffed about their ‘empower girls project’ getting so much traction, what is shocking to note is the horrible and negative role of several mothers. Not only have they found cases where the daughter complained to the mother who either ignored the complaint or asked her to remain silent, in one bizarre case where the father has been arrested following a girl’s complaint of sexual harassment, the mother has filed a case against the school for taking heed of the girl’s complaint and passing it on to the authorities for remedial action. Her grouse: the school had interfered in their family affairs!
Another interesting insight Pandya shares relates to orthodox minority Muslim institutions where the girls come from conservative families, and wear the hijab. “Some of these minority Muslim institutions were initially reluctant to participate in our project, saying that our biggest problem is to persuade the families to send their girls to school. If they learn about this initiative, they might stop sending their daughters to school. So we requested them that at least first you and your teachers go through our videos and booklets, and if you find them appropriate, you can share them with your students. They did that, found nothing objectionable, and have come back to us saying they are so happy that they implemented this project. They invited us to witness those sessions, and said that after seeing this material the girls have become aware of their rights and are asking so many questions. I am so happy that the language we chose in the educational material was such that there is no discomfort in using it, even in a very orthodox environment.”
In all, there are four videos that are played during Asmita sessions in schools; the total time taken is 1 hour and 45 minutes. Apart from health and menstrual hygiene, the other two videos pertain to sexual and social media abuse. Simple tips are also shared in this material for physical self-defence; for instance, the perpetrator can be hit on vulnerable points such as the centre of the neck, groin, etc. Also when the girl takes an auto or a taxi, she should always share her location and keep the GPS on.
In September, Rotary Club of Bibwewadi launched the fourth phase of Asmita through a symposium held in Pune, in which RID 3131 DG Anil Parmar, CFO of GTPL Hathway Anil Bothra, Vishram Bhave, director of St Crispin’s Home, Dr Yajyoti Singh, developmental psychologist, and PDGs Pankaj Shah, Rashmi Kulkarni, Abhay Gadgil, Deepak Purohit, Deepak Shikarpur, DGE Manjoo Phadke, DGN Shital Shah and presidents of over 20 Rotary clubs participated.
Congratulating RC Bibwewadi for taking this commendable initiative, DG Parmar said, “Today the daughters of India face a lot of issues in their day-to-day lives; Project Asmita is an attempt to provide confidence to the daughters, make them independent, fearless and brave.”
Project partner GTPL Hathway’s Bothra said “this initiative has received tremendous response and this project reconfirms our commitment towards making a positive impact on our community, and towards this goal, RC Bibwewadi has been a perfect partner for us.”