Morning newspapers are all about marvelling with horror at the survival challenges we as a deeply unequal society throw at our girls and women. And then I marvel some more in amazement at how so many of the girls and women show what it takes to not just survive but transform their own situations.
March 21, 2018 brought an opportunity to view the Kolkata premiere of a landmark film – The Little Girls We Were . . . And the Women We Are. Five Indian women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse shared their journey from abuse in childhood to recovery well into adulthood. The women talked about at what age, how and where they were abused, who their abuser was, responses they got when they disclosed, the effects of abuse on their lives, what recovery meant to them and why they agreed to be part of this film.
This documentary was produced by RAHI Foundation, a Delhi and Kolkata-based centre for adult women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse. A pioneer in its area of work, RAHI started more than 20 years ago in 1996. The film was a well-deserved milestone for the hard work put in by the organization, and not the least by its founders Anuja Gupta and Ashwini Ailawadi.
The topmost thought I had after the film was that though incest and child sexual abuse are no longer ‘new’ in our media and larger social discourse, films like these are a crucial record to ensure that those still in denial of the existence of such abuse are compelled to have a rethink. For it is this denial, especially when it comes from that sacrosanct institution called ‘family’, which perhaps hurts more than the abuse itself.
The power of the film was further brought through during the post-screening interaction with two of the survivors who featured in the film and the filmmakers. A number of women in the audience spoke about their experience of abuse – for many this was a ‘coming out’ in a public space and it was not without tears. Others in the audience spoke about their emotions of anger and a burning desire to bring about a change. A salute also to Anuja Gupta, a friend through many years, for speaking out about her experience of abuse in a public forum in her original home town Kolkata.
The audience interaction also underscored the need to work with adult men survivors of incest and child sexual abuse in India. While sexual abuse of boys has received attention in recent times, the needs of adult men survivors remain unaddressed.
Another notable aspect of the film screening was the venue itself – INOX Quest Mall in South Kolkata made for a good choice in terms of giving the film wider visibility. A large section of the audience bought tickets to view the film. Thumbs up to Artsforward, collaborators with RAHI for the Kolkata screenings of the film, for making this happen.
Apart from personal testimonies that conveyed the possibility of recovery from the impact of abuse, the film also provided information and expert comments. It was interspersed with shots of healing workshops that RAHI conducts with survivors.
Four of the survivors who featured in the film went through therapy and healing at RAHI, and consequently arrived at a position to be able to give out their testimonies for public viewing as part of the social action they wanted to take. They are now staff or volunteers with RAHI and form the think tank of the organization’s work with survivors – or ‘thrivers’, a term coined by one of the women in the film who argued that she was more than ‘just surviving’.
If this is not transformation, what else could be?
About the main photo: Portion of the poster designed for Kolkata screenings of the film The Little Girls We Were . . . And the Women We Are. Visual courtesy RAHI Foundation