A survivor and a fighter – interview with Pranaadhika Sinha Dev Burman
With her brightly painted nails and edgy tattoos, 25 year old Pranaadhika Sinha Dev Burman is the epitome of the rebel with a cause – and what a cause she espouses! Having suffered multiple sexual abuse as a child Pranaadhika did what very few people do – she raised her voice against it. She founded an NGO Elaan – a support group for child abuse survivors and as an independent activist has started the 1 Million Against Child/Adult Sexual Abuse Campaign. Read on her interview to know more about her story.
On being a survivor
I was abused when I was very young, many times, and what inspired me to take action was the response I got when I went to look for help. I didn’t get any. I didn’t approach my parents for help since they were going through issues of their own at that time and I did not want to add to the pressure. But I did seek help by speaking to peers, teachers etc - but they were more interested in blaming me for my actions and what had happened. I suffered from obvious issues post the abuse, such as low self esteem and used coping techniques in the form of self harm, drinking, etc. That’s when I realised I needed to take action. And it was fortunate that I was smart enough to realise that the abuse wasn’t my fault - it wasn’t because of what I was wearing etc. even though it was hinted at by the people I approached for help.
While speaking to my peer group and friends I realised many had gone through what I had and that is what gave rise to Elaan. Before Elaan officially came about it was already in motion. We had workshops and discussions – they were about us children being abused by trusted people and we addressed the fact that we were afraid to speak and that the pain was eating us up inside. We accepted that were not being able to deal with it so we indulged in self harm etc. because it helped us deal.
Elaan came up gradually and we were registered officially in 2007. Because we were young we didn’t know much about managing an NGO - we just knew how to work for the cause that we were supporting - that didn’t quite work out and I found myself in the role of an individual activist.
On activism and self counselling in an effort to heal
This time around I educated myself with a number of organisations who do similar work like SAATHII ( Solidarity and Action Against HIV Infection in India) , etc and gained a lot of skills in dealing with child abuse, adult abuse and after effects, so I basically felt very educated. Also, in many ways I felt counselled. Self counselling helped me, the basic introspection and soul searching which was uncomplicated looking at myself and who I was and what I needed to stop doing in order to be a healthier happier person helped me deal with the abuse I had experienced as a child to an extent. The experience with self harming is something that still haunts me and I am happy to say I haven’t harmed myself for five years now but it was a struggle, a very tough one. Because if you have been doing something from age 5 and that something has made you feel better instantly, it is very hard to let go of it. That instant gratification is very tempting. After speaking with my parents – my mom has been a great support as well as my dad, who himself was a survivor of abuse, and after I got the support I realised I didn’t need to do that stuff anymore to feel better. I will say that even today I am struggling to survive but it is an easier struggle.
On working as an individual activist
Elaan is on a break now because I am trying to figure out what to do. I want to figure out whether I want to continue running an NGO or whether I want to work as an individual activist. Because what I have realised is with regard to the issue of abuse and survivors I know I am going to be able to reach out to survivors properly because of what I have been through. I have the empathy required. You cannot train people to deal with abuse if they are not empathetic and many aren’t. In India people don’t have abuse related training – the organisations that are coming up have good intentions no doubt but they tend to be very harsh with survivors.
On victim blaming and society
The victim blaming creeps in at some level especially in urban society where they look outwardly modern but are inwardly very stupid and backward. They have trouble dealing with the fact that women anywhere are not to be blamed for the abuse that occurs. I feel I can handle that easier as an individual rather be responsible for how others in an organisation approaches the issue.
On the One Million Against Abuse campaign
As an individual I am running the one million campaign quite well. From January I have been working with schools – I have conducted workshops at Apeejay School in Kolkata. I am looking forward to work with corporates too, and other schools and colleges. I am trying to educate people to stop blaming the victim, trying to teach them how to develop empathy, trying to educate them on legal and other options if they or anyone else they know are abused. Along with that I am also empowering them in free self defence skills which are being taught by a qualified person from Chicago. I am not looking at doing any legal wrangling but in the next five years the goal is to reach out to 1 million people – it is tough but let’s do it!
On the workshop at the school
The campaign was on my mind for a long time but it was officially executed this January 18th at the Apeejay school. The workshop was very interactive it was meant to be 15 min talk but it turned into a 45 minute question and answer session with girls and boys from classes 9 to 12 and the teachers too. Originally there were supposed to be only 100 students but we ended up with 230 students excluding the 20 teachers in attendance. It was extremely fulfilling.
The principal, an amazing lady - gave me permission to work with the class 6 children later and we started off just talking to them frankly about abuse. We don’t use lambskin gloves, we talk about the fact that rape and abuse happen everywhere not just in the metro cities but everywhere, in many, many homes. It happens in small towns and can happen to anyone. It is important that you are empowered to stop it in case it happens to you or someone you know. We also warned them not to practice moves we teach on people they love.
On what the session involved
We taught them three very basic moves that would help them disarm and disengage themselves from an attacker and run. It is very simple and basic and we do it as an introductory session. I go dressed in my gear – high heels, tight outfits, makeup and accessories – not comfortable clothing. When you are out and get attacked you won’t be wearing ‘comfortable clothing’ with the specific purpose of fighting off a person right?
When women are out partying they are not in comfortable clothes and track pants. They are in heels and in a vulnerable state anyway. My aim is to teach the participants of these workshops how to use what they have with them and on them as weapons for self protection. We take a very practical approach to it. It’s impractical to have a conservative classroom situation where people are told to dress comfortably and come to learn martial arts. When you are attacked you won’t be able to go all Bruce Lee on the person – but you can use a comb, a clip, a ring or a heel to hurt and then flee the scene. Fleeing is important. Don’t have any misconceptions of heroisms – precious few people will listen to you – so disengage, hurt the other person and run for your life...save yourself first.
On practical self defence
This is why my sessions are unique and also they are free. We teach mixed martial arts based self defence. We don’t teach martial arts as a subject which will take 2 years to master. We teach simple and effective techniques which are based on body strength which will take you about a mere month to master if you practice. I have a major objection who teach tai kwon do and karate as self defence techniques because it will take you ages to learn them and it is more necessary to know how to defend yourself using a mix of techniques that you can master easily. You can’t execute a martial art move when you are being attacked! Disengaging tactics and choke tactics are what we teach. All our moves are based on real life techniques too which I have used. Use what you have around you – a pen, a comb, the point of your earring, etc. Know that the easiest way to disarm a guy is to make a hammer fist and punch his Adams apple. You can miss the nose or his private parts because the guy knows the woman will go for those areas and hold you away.
What gives someone else the guts to hurt someone else, invade someone else’s privacy? Pick on someone your own size? No you pick on someone smaller and physically weaker! I want my campaign to focus on everybody not just urban women and girls. Every single socio economic category.
On her future plans
I would like to involve self defence as a curriculum in school colleges and corporates. I want to emphasise the need to encourage accountability and responsibility for the issue through my work, and I feel that unless people really care about this issue, the work I am doing is going to fall flat. They will care unfortunately if something happens to relatives etc – they need to be shocked out of their complacency. We have become callous, cold and unfeeling and we need to be humanised. Abuse of women has been an accepted part of society for a long time and we need to realise that things which are old and orthodox need to go. Women are still treated as objects – I have recently been to an event of a well known wrought iron furniture company and as part of a press kit we were given a brochure – where there was a package called a kanyadaan package for a certain amount. I realised it was a dowry package – and dowry is supposed to be abolished by law. It hasn’t gone it is just marketed differently - it is disguised as a tradition. Kanyadaan – how can you give away a person like she is a saucepan or a cup – and there is no such ‘marddaan’ in return – such thinking needs to go. Women need to stop being objectified because age old traditions say so.
We need people who empathise, and we have few people around who do that. Families are targeted, the girls are held accountable, media has a field day, everyone gets to know. The abusers hardly taken to task. So it is important to ensure accountability. Do that by any means necessary.
I wish we had proper laws which took care of such issues. I also wish we had a Dexter - I am all in for vigilante justice. So be aware, be brave and learn tips and tricks on how to defend yourself - and get justice in whatever way. You are your own saviour. And know it is not your fault. It never is. The person who abuses, he/she is at fault. He or she is the criminal. Not you.