Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Silence Around Abused Children

The Netherlands-based clinical psychologist Saisha Partiman, of Indian and Nepali origin, talks about her experiences in counselling children in Kerala

Photos: Saisha Partiman and Olga Martin; images by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, last year, the Netherlands-based Saisha Partiman was in a hotel at Chiang Mai, Thailand where she met a young man at the reception lounge. Saisha and he got talking about travelling and what they were doing with their lives. Saisha told him about her desire to do volunteer work as a psychologist in India. Suddenly, the man said, “If you want to do that, get in touch with 'Street Heroes of India' [a (Kochi) Kerala and Karnataka-based NGO].”

Thereafter, the man gave an e-mail contact. So, Saisha sent a mail to Olga Martin, one of the founders. The latter replied, “I am very interested in your background as a clinical psychologist, and that you do art and music therapy. We would love to have a collaboration.”

Saisha came to Kochi in January and has been working with traumatised children, from the ages of six to 20.

What has shocked Saisha is the widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of girls and boys, especially by members of the family. “There is a lot of incest, too,” she says.

The psychological impact on children is deep and long-lasting. “Many have a disturbed attitude towards sexuality and relationships,” says Saisha. “They feel that nobody can be trusted. They also suffer from low self-esteem, distress, anxiety and depression.”

What has surprised Saisha is the taboo in Kerala society to talk about abuse, especially sexual molestation. “The reasons for the silence seems to be a sense of shame and a desire to protect the family's reputation,” says Saisha. “I am also told parents don’t want to damage the wedding prospects of their daughters.”

But this silence is not healthy. “If a child cannot express sadness, anger and fear, it will burst out in the form of violence, anger or even suicide,” says Saisha. “And it also allows the perpetrators to escape punishment.”

So Saisha had encouraged the children to express their feelings through art. “They did drawings on paper using crayons,” she says. “Some drew traumatic scenes, like being beaten up, but, in the end, the children felt much better and became positive-minded.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the difference between therapy in Kerala and the Netherlands, Saisha says, “In the Netherlands, we have more means, money, and staff. In Kerala, there is very little means for the staff. So they hope for an instant cure. But it takes years of therapy before a person is healed.”

Nevertheless, she is happy to be in Kerala. “I feel I have returned to my roots,” says Saisha. “I recognise a spirituality that is there in my family.”

Her Indian and Nepali-origin father, Tansingh, grew up in Suriname and then migrated to the Netherlands as a boy. Later, after his studies, he married a Dutch woman, who is Saisha's mother. “I grew up in a multi-cultural environment, with a lot of Indian influences,” says Saisha. “So I feel that I am 60 per cent Dutch and 40 per cent Indian.”

And it was her father's voluntary work in India that inspired her to become a psychologist. “From a very young age, I had a desire to help traumatised children, especially in India,” she says. “I don't know how that urge arose, but it could be a mix of my father's work and my Indian roots.”

Saisha will be returning to Holland soon, but has plans to carry on working in India, as and when she gets the chance.

Kerala Police statistics for 2015

Rape of children: 711

Other crimes: 1406

Grim Ratio 

Olga Martin, founder of 'Street Heroes of India' [a Kerala and Karnataka-based NGO], says, "A recent UNICEF report provided an alarming figure that 39 per cent of 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 Martin.

She feels 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. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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