While narrowcasting a programme on child rights in an interior tribal village in Koraput district in Odisha, programme manager Sachida Mohanty of Radio Dhimsa community was in for a shock.
“When we explained what safe touch and unsafe touch was, we had no idea that girls and women in the village would come forward with experiences of child sexual abuse they had faced in some form or the other.”
Although cases of child sexual abuse had been reported from other districts, the revelation of child sexual abuse in a village set-up in this area was news to them. Mohanty says child sexual abuse being a sensitive subject, initially they were a little hesitant to directly broach it. “We first educate the community on child rights, including the right to protection, and then introduce the topic of child sexual abuse.”
Radio Dhimsa operates from Chhapar, a tribal village in Koraput district nearly 600 km from Bhubaneswar. The community radio is named after a tribal dance and located in a busy complex that is an open shelter and a home for children set up by the Department of Women and Child Development.
The core of the programmes aired by the community radio revolves around child rights-centric themes, such as education, health, development, and protection. Run by South Odisha Voluntary Action (SOVA), and supported by the UNICEF, Radio Dhimsa also runs a child line in Koraput that helps rescue children from abuse.
Radio Dhimsa covers six panchayats in Koraput with 60 villages and a small municipality, altogether a population of 1,62,000. The community radio has 12 young reporters who fan out into different villages with their mobiles, cassettes and CDs to narrowcast the programmes on various campaigns.
It is not just broadcasting and narrowcasting of programmes, the initiatives also include formation of village-level child-protection committees to address the issues on the spot. These committees comprise women and other child-friendly persons from the village, as well as representatives from the project.
Before the formation of these committees, children clubs are educated on child rights and some of them take the role of child reporters. They are encouraged to develop scripts on issues related to child protection and develop programmes on their own for Radio Dhimsa.
Mohanty was in Bhubaneswar to attend a workshop on child sexual abuse and a conclave on child rights last month. Four girls from the child clubs spoke at the conclave on child marriages rampant in the area, the use of the Help Line 1098 and child protection rights. A girl child from Malkangiri shared a story of the suicide of a girl child due to sexual harassment at a school hostel. Odisha accounted for the fourth highest number of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) cases in India in 2016, an increase of 40 per cent over 2015.
On the campaign against child marriage, Mohanty says their efforts have begun to yield results. “In many villages, the high schools are at least 3 km away, That apart, children may have to go through forests in the hilly terrain and sometimes cross rivers or rivulets which can be risky, specially for girls. So, most girls drop out after Class V and their parents lose no time trying to get a groom for them.”
Discouraging child marriages
He says they have been successful in postponing marriages in 43 cases reported through the child help line. Many a time there is resistance not just from the parents but also the village community.
Citing a few such cases of girls from Maliguda and Bamuniput villages in Koraput district, Mohanty says that it is with the help of the police and the district officials that they were able to stop the planned marriages and take undertakings from the parents that they will not marry the girl child till she turns 18.
In some other cases, the girls rescued from child marriages have gone on to pursue higher education. These include Champa Naik from Chappar village who is now continuing her graduation and hopes to join the police force. Aylabati Takri from Lankaput village has also reached post-graduation with the ambition to become a lecturer.
It is when inspirational stories of people like Champa and Aylabati are broadcast and narrowcast by Radio Dhimsa that changes begin to take place. In the long run, it is this that will transform the mindset of the communities living in these remote interiors.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi