Monday, May 25, 2015

From Spain, with love

The Spanish clinical psychologist, Olga Martin, has set up 'Street Heroes of India', which helps homeless children to cope with the trauma of sexual, emotional and physical abuse

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesn Sundaram 

When Olga Martin was 12 years old, she went to see a film about street children in Valencia, Spain, with her parents. And during the course of the film, she saw a few scenes set in India. “The sight of the children in India moved me deeply,” she says. “From that moment on it was like a call. I felt that I had to do something.”

When Olga grew up, she became a trained clinical psychologist. By then, she had begun supporting a NGO called 'Mumbai Smiles'. Then, in 2008, she came to Mumbai and spent some time in the slums. It was then that she had an epiphany.

There were many care-givers who were offering food, shelter and education,” says Olga. “But nothing was being done to heal the trauma that the street children had gone though. Many were victims of sex trafficking and child labour, and had suffered from all kinds of brutalities.”

When Olga returned to Barcelona, she prepared a project which focused on the psychosocial aspect or emotional rehabilitation of children. “My research revealed that 90 per cent of abused children tend to repeat the same behaviour,” says Olga. “I felt that the chain had to be broken. But, to set up this project, I needed the help of an institution.”

So Olga got in touch with Fr. Angel Asurmendi of Don Bosco, Barcelona, who told her that she should contact their Indian branch. In September, 2010, Olga met Fr. Kuriakose Pallikunnel, the director of the Kochi-based Don Bosco Youth Counselling Service, who agreed to support her.

Today, the unit that Olga has set up, with her partner, Marita Solá, is called 'The Street Heroes of India'. “This consists of a group of professionals, based in Spain and India, who provide psychosocial training to caregivers and counselling to children,” says Olga. This scheme is now functioning at 17 centres of Don Bosco in Kerala and Karnataka.

Many of the children have escaped from places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Mostly, they go to the railway station. If they do not fall into the hands of criminals, they take a train and go anywhere. “When I do art therapy work, the children always draw a train,” says Olga. “Because it is the train that has helped them to overcome their situation.”

Olga narrates the case of Shanti. One day, when she was five years old, Shanti was waiting in the railway station at Chennai with her mother. Suddenly, a woman, carrying a baby, came up and told Shanti's mother, “I am tired. My baby needs food. Can you buy something for me?”

When the mother went to buy something, leaving Shanti with the woman, a train arrived. The woman took Shanti and went inside a bogie. They travelled to Bangalore. For the next 11 years, the woman forced Shanti to have sexual relations with all types of men. And it was only at age 16 that Shanti managed to get up the courage to escape to Kochi. At the station the police spotted her. They took her to Don Bosco at Palluruthy, a suburb of Kochi.

Thereafter, Olga stepped in to help. “Healing can be done through counselling, music, drama, art and dance therapy,” she says. “I encouraged Shanti to talk about her life. And now, after two years, she feels much better.” In fact, in a letter to Olga, Shanti wrote, 'This is the first time in my life that I have shared my sufferings with someone. Please don’t talk about this to anybody. I need you.'

There are many cases like Shanti. In fact, a recent UNICEF report provided the alarming figure that 39 per cent of the girls and 40 per cent of boys in Kerala have been sexually abused. “This is usually done by family members, like fathers, uncles, and other relatives,” says Olga. 

A worried Olga says that there is an urgent need for sex education in schools. “Children should be taught to identify between a good and a bad touch,” she says. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

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