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Breaking Silence with Silence: child mime artists in India

Mime group performing in Delhi, India.
Mime group performing in Delhi, India.
June 27, 2012

Professional artists in the making, the 11 child mime performers of Nanhi Toli Children’s Club grin broadly, their faces whitened and lips blackened in the traditional style, as they ready themselves to stage a performance about a problem that invites tears—sexual abuse. Paradoxically, their silent art medium is being used to encourage children to speak up. “Don’t say mum; tell your Mum,” is their slogan.

But they recognize how difficult it can be to tell an adult—even your own mother—about sexual abuse. Some of the members know what it is like to be on the receiving side of an “unsafe touch”. They also know what it is like to be guilt-ridden, to think they themselves are to blame. They know what it is like to be too afraid to say anything.

With the support of Plan India’s partner SV Baliga Trust, their drama is working to change that. Teaching children the distinction between safe and unsafe touches and that they are unconditionally innocent protects vulnerable children and empowers them. The child club members explain: “We should not keep quiet. We should always oppose. We should break the silence when any incident [of sexual abuse] happens.”

A pervasive problem

The need for building awareness in India is great. ChildLine India Foundation reports that over half of all children have experienced or are experiencing some form of sexual abuse, 22% severe and 6% an assault. More than half of these cases it is the very adults that children trust—who are the perpetrators.

Sexual abusers do not discriminate. Survivors can be as young as five and as many boys as girls are at risk. While children at work, in institutional care, and on the street have the highest rates of abuse, even the children of the affluent are not safe. And abuse is not the exclusive domain of broken homes.

Until recently, the issue was taboo. Child survivors, especially girls, suffered the trauma of sexual abuse in silence. Then, in 2007, Nanhi Toli began performing The Rules of Safe and Unsafe Touches. The script was prepared by the National School of Drama and dialogue began. The play got people talking, and rates of reporting incidences of abuse to concerned authorities and civil society organizations increased.

Making a movie of mime

There’s a limit to how widely one small mime troupe can spread the message. For this reason, in 2008, Plan India scaled up its initiative by filming the troupe with three of its partners in Delhi. Now, whenever a school or community feels ready to broach the topic of sexual abuse, it organizes a showing of Chuppi Todo (Break the Silence). Though it was a low-cost, amateur effort, the film had been received with great enthusiasm by all audiences.

Children’s understanding of sexual abuse has undergone a major change. The once close-mouthed children of Nani Toli advocate the need to communicate one’s experience: “We should report abuse to adults close to us as they do understand and they can protect us and guide us further.”

By the success of its effort in exposing this most sensitive of matters, Plan India and its Delhi partners, with the support of the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, launched a full-fledged campaign in June 2011, using two television spots and two versions of the film—one aimed at children and communities and another at authorities.

The effort was a success. Over 200,000 children and half of all adults living in Delhi have been sensitized through Plan’s two approaches, first in schools and then in communities. One volunteer articulated just how aware children had become: “The level of awareness…is very high in resettlement colonies of Delhi. The film Chuppi Todo has worked beautifully. Children know the differences between safe and unsafe touches, how to handle abusers, and how to use ChildLine [a toll-free helpline].”

Its next step will be to combine the school and community approaches and take the campaign nationwide.

Learn more about Plan's work in India

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