Art has always been the quickest way to capturing children’s imagination. It can also be used as a tool for healing. A non-governmental organisation based in West Delhi’s Uttam Nagar slums is trying just this to start a conversation around child sexual abuse using an illustrated storybook.

In January, Protsahan India Foundation released Can I Tell You Something, from Blue Rose Publishers to help children understand, identify and report such instances in and around their communities. Jaswinder Singh, the author of the book and executive director of Protsahan, says this is the first book from the organisation, which was founded in 2010.

Can I Tell You Something? is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Alyssa, living in London, who comes across a case of abuse in her school and sets out on a journey to learn more. Over the course of the book, the reader is introduced to Maya and Avi from India, Londiwe from South Africa, Max from the United States, and Vinnie from the United Kingdom. Through their stories, the reader is familiarised with the legal resources available to survivors of sex abuse in these countries.

The fictional narrative, based on real-life experiences of the children whom Singh has worked with over the course of three years, navigates the complexities of gender, sexuality, puberty and consent. It also wades into the murky waters of socio-religious expectations and the oft-hushed up issue of male child abuse. Ultimately, all individual tales – centred around the all-powerful act of speaking up – are stories of resistance, courage and eventual triumph.

Image credit: Aarti Verma/Protsahan India Foundation

Filling in the gaps

The striking illustrations, hand drawn by Aarti Verma, are a means to visual learning, explains Singh. “We work with a lot of art-based interventions in our programmes. The whole point is to bring children into the conversation. How better to do it than with illustrations? Repetitive training and [other projects] are necessary but there has to be a more engaging way for the message to be put across, to children especially.”

But directing the book solely at children would defeat its purpose. The larger idea is to bring survivors, parents and educators on the same platform and create a safe space for dialogue. “Parents have a lot of inhibitions [about] talking to their kids about abuse, their safety or their own body parts,” says Singh. “[The book] is not just for one set of people or a group. It’s good for starting conversations between teachers and students, between parents and children, between parents and teachers. Because the biggest inhibitor is that people don’t want to talk about abuse.”

Image credit: Aarti Verma/Protsahan India Foundation

The book talks about India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, South Africa’s Criminal Laws (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 2007, the UK’s Sexual Offences Act 2003 and federal law in the US. “These countries are the ones with the strongest [child sexual abuse] law on paper,” says Singh.

Why then, do cases of child abuse continue to be so rampant and severely underreported?

The heart of the problem lies not in strengthening the laws, but in implementing existing ones. “There are many organisations that provide legal assistance to organisations and individuals,” says Singh. “It’s just a matter of raising awareness on all these issues, especially in rural areas.”

Image credit: Aarti Verma/Protsahan India Foundation

Limited reach?

But does approaching the story from these different vantage points dislodge the book from the lives of those on whom the stories are based – the children of Uttam Nagar slums? Singh does not seem to think so. The intent here is to drive home the universality of the experience, he says.

Multiple survivors, including those from India, are featured in the book. “[Having the book set in London] was a conscious choice, because the stories of these characters are stories of children anywhere in the world. It’s not about the location – it’s about understanding the difference between right and wrong.” For this reason, the NGO and the publishers are currently working on building an international audience.

With a limited release in India and an exclusively English readership, could Can I Tell You Something have only a restricted impact in the country? Singh acknowledges this, but says there are attempts to widen the reach of the message. “We’re looking for translators who can help us translate the book into Indian languages. Because of the kind of partnerships we have [most based in north India], we are first looking for Hindi translators.”

Image credit: Aarti Verma/Protsahan India Foundation