Healing from trauma: Bihar girl on a mission to ‘Break the Silence’
Trigger warning: Sexual abuse
This story was written in September 2020
Three years ago, when Shiwani Agrawal was feeding a dog near her college in Noida, a friend sprinted towards her and shared something shocking. Shiwani stood there in stunned silence as she experienced an unexpected flood of emotions and traumatic memories.
She was just 10 when her father’s friend, a frequent visitor at her house in Forbesganj, Bihar, had sexually abused her. Shiwani would serve him tea as he waited for her father to come home from work. Once, he slid his hands down her trousers. Shiwani, then in the third standard, thought it was a game. But it happened again and that was when she realised it was wrong.
“But I could not share it with anybody then. All that I could tell my mother was that I was uncomfortable around that man. She didn’t ask any questions. She knew I was uncomfortable, and that was enough for her to keep him away from me. I never saw him again. But the entire truth was still not out,” says the 22-year-old, who is now pursuing law at an institute in Noida.
Shiwani didn’t understand the gravity of what had happened to her till she was in eleventh standard. “When I began researching about sexual predators, I couldn’t find an excuse for what he had done to me. It was always in my head, and I always tried to research more about why people did such things. Then the incident in Noida happened, where, while feeding a dog outside campus, a friend told me she saw a man masturbating behind me. That brought back memories of the childhood abuse,” she says.
The incident had happened just before Diwali when she visited home. “I told my brother how all those childhood memories had started coming back. He suggested that I see a therapist. That was when I was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and put on medication. That was around 2017-end. Till then, I hadn’t told my parents about the therapist visit. But now I had to because I was put on medication. However, I still hadn’t told them about the trigger,” she says.
After the Diwali holidays, Shiwani went back to Noida. “Though my parents tried very hard to understand everything, initially they were unable to. Meanwhile, my mental health deteriorated. I began hallucinating. Nobody wanted to be around me. I overdosed on my medicines and had to be admitted to the ICU. My parents and brother visited me in Noida, and we went on a trip to Jaipur. There, I told my parents about the trigger.”
After the Jaipur trip, Shiwani took a break from law school for a fortnight and went home. When she returned to law school, her mother accompanied her and stayed with her for a couple of months. “After my exam for the term, when I went back home, I decided to do something about it. I embarked on the idea of a campaign called ‘Break the Silence’,” she says.
While some survivors of child sexual abuse cope well, for others their lives and families are torn apart as the root causes remain hidden. That was where Shiwani wanted to bring about a change. Now, she educates students and wants more such survivors to come forward, as offering only the bare bones of such stories doesn’t help in the long run.
“Through Break the Silence, I give talks at schools and orphanages. I have been visiting schools in various villages and town areas, and trying to talk to the principals and convince them to allow me to talk to the students about sex education and the mental trauma surrounding it,” she says.
Shiwani launched the campaign in her hometown, Forbesganj, in 2018. Initially, she collaborated with a local NGO. “I began visiting schools with three of their members. My initial lessons were only about good touch and bad touch. I had to convince the school principals that I would not talk about anything that the kids should not know. I created a module and began with my alma mater in Forbesganj. Since my school allowed me to talk to the students, many other schools agreed to host me. Convincing the principals was the most difficult part because Forbesganj is an orthodox area. The moment someone hears a phrase like sex education, they become alert,” she says.
After visiting a few schools along with the NGO volunteers, Shiwani found her feet. Her next stop was Nepal. “My aunt and uncle live in Nepal. With their help, I began reaching out to schools there as well. My mother is Nepali and I know the language, so communication wasn’t difficult,” she says.
After returning to Forbesganj, Shiwani learnt karate. Alongside her module on sex education, she began teaching self-defense techniques to the school students as well. “Just a year into Break the Silence, I visited Gujarat where I have a few relatives. With their help, I reached out to many schools and worked with the kids. After that, I travelled to Kolkata. Friends there helped me connect with schools. Next on my list was Noida,” she says.
Even though sex education is her main focus, Shiwani tries to talk to the kids about other relevant topics as well, such as mental health and well-being, and climate crisis. Till now, she has addressed around 50,000 kids. “It’s been two years since I started Break the Silence. Now, I have a team of six people. Had I been educated about good touch and bad touch as a child, it would have been easier for me to confide in my parents then. Maybe, I could have even fought back. That’s what I try to teach the kids,” she says, adding, “During the lockdown, we went online. Since then I have been in talks with a few organisations about holding such sessions for schools via Zoom. My eventual aim is to grow Break the Silence into an NGO.”
For many child sexual abuse survivors, just telling their story can be emotionally daunting, and can bring back traumatic memories. Others carry the secret to their graves because of the stigma associated with it. In such a scenario, when a survivor comes forward, family support is of the essence.
“The one person who was very supportive throughout this phase was my brother. Had he not been around, I wouldn’t have recovered from that. Initially, even my parents struggled to understand what was going on, because nobody had spoken to them about mental health till then. When they did understand, they were hugely supportive. They accompanied me whenever I visited the therapist. They would even talk to my therapist regularly and enquire about my progress. I was very lucky to have that kind of support, especially since we are from a very orthodox area,” she says.
Finally, when Shiwani decided to come forward with her story, she had a long discussion with her brother and parents. “They heard me out and left the decision to me,” she says.
One of the reasons Shiwani shared her story was because she doesn’t want the man who abused her as a kid to “go after other people”. “I don’t know his whereabouts, but the possibility of him being out there is still very threatening,” she says.
She feels the entire conditioning has to change and that survivors must stop thinking that expressing their views may make them vulnerable. “But it’s okay to be vulnerable at times. It doesn’t, in any way, show that you are weak. When I visit schools, I don’t tell kids just about good touch and bad touch; I also tell them to behave responsibly with others and refrain from predatory behaviour. They should know if and when they are going wrong as well,” she says.
So, is asking “what happened to you” instead of “what’s wrong with you” the right approach? “Absolutely,” says Shiwani. “Also, we should leave it to the person concerned if they want to come forward or not. It took me 10 years to come forward. For others, it could take a lifetime,” she says.
Shiwani is torn between studying human rights law and policy-making. She’s also keen to study environment. But whatever she does, she’s sure about heralding a change. “Though I have sought therapy and been on medicines, I have come a long way. But seeking therapy is still a big deal for many families. I have been lucky to have a very supportive family. Not many do. There’s still a huge number that prefers not to talk about mental illness or abuse. Even those who let their kids seek therapy, remain mum about it lest it make their kid look mad. That’s why I feel it’s all the more important I go out and talk to the kids. I can’t let another kid go through what I did, or worse,” she says.