“Paint Our World (POW) started with an image from my four-year-old self. An image that, with time, grew to become a powerful enabler,” said explorer and avid traveller Dr Priya Virmani about her start-up.
The Kolkata-based Virmani has launched India’s first-ever charitable Trust, which empowers children who have been victims of trauma and child sexual abuse using creative and innovative methods and therapies. Virmani says she found her true calling with POW, which she started in 2013.
Excerpts from the Interview:
What inspired you to start Paint Our World?
It was an early morning in Kolkata. It had been raining. Flood waters had receded leaving behind muck dotted with green coconut shells and dead cockroaches. I was walking to school and counting reflections in the puddles. Of buildings. Of street lights. Of a moon I couldn’t find. The counting stopped when I saw street children eating out of a rubbish bag. Street dogs milled about. Their barks sounded more like long shrieks. The children, unperturbed, kept emptying the rubbish bag, rummaging for food. An older child gave a younger one something discoloured. The little child chewed on it. Perhaps it was a vegetable peel or a scrap of paper.
That night, still unsettled by the scene I witnessed in the morning, I asked my parents and their visiting friends ‘why can’t these children sit on a table like you and me and eat?’
Over a decade later, I moved to the UK and over two decades later, I had completed my PhD and was living a fulfilling life in the UK. But I still remembered that morning so vividly. The image from my four-year-old self and other similar images had become a reel of reminder in my mind; a reminder that I wanted to reach out to children who were severely deprived in the country of my childhood. So while working in the UK, I began saving up and then began conducting workshops with children in Sonagachi — Kolkata’s notorious redlight district, on biannual trips to India. When I saw the positive difference these workshops were making to the lives of the children, I gave up my life in the UK and returned to India with a mission to reach out to more children faced with the scourge of deprivation and abuse.
“I asked ‘why can’t these children sit on a table like you and me and eat?’”
With some savings set aside, a conviction to make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable children, an empowerment model in mind and an understanding of the most pressing ground realities in India, led to the formation of the POW model.
How do you describe POW’s efficiency when it comes to saving millions of lives?
At POW, we provide a child sensitised, psychologically verified therapies (story-telling, dance and movement therapy, music, skits, and art) that make a meaningful intervention and help them heal from the trauma they have been through. We use emotional empowerment workshops together with special activities and events.
“I began conducting workshops with children in Sonagachi — Kolkata’s redlight district, on biannual trips to India. When I saw the positive difference these workshops were making to the lives of the children, I gave up my life in the UK and returned to India with a mission to reach out to more children faced with the scourge of deprivation and abuse.”
Our curriculum is designed by India’s leading child psychologists and experts. Our activity therapies and workshops have also become a space for children that is associated with security and fun, that are essentially what childhood ought to be about.
Has there been an increase in the child sexual abuse cases in India?
The current statistics are appalling. The last figures released by the Women and Child Ministry (2007) state that 150 million girls and 73 million boys in India are victims of abuse. This amounts to more than the combined population of the UK (at 64 million), France (at 66 million) and Germany (at 81 million). Even this number is an underestimate because most cases go unreported against the backdrop of a culture of reporting that is part reticent and part undocumented.
We have worked with over 400 children. POW’s vision for India’s underprivileged children is that they have more equitable access to opportunities and experiences that help them become happy, stable and purposeful adults. And when we bring about meaningful change to the most vulnerable children in a country of 1.25 billion people, we not only bring change to next generation India but we bring a change to the world.
How would you differentiate your efforts from that of others?
Our aim is to give the children some of the best times. Special experiences have included cinema trips, rock climbing, birthday parties, days out to parks, fun fairs and even a cruise party.
“I did face resistance from society in both subtle and crude ways, in ways that were sometimes overt and at other times covert.”
I was especially touched when a child came up after the collective birthday party in a Delhi farmhouse and said, ‘Thank you Didi, I had never dreamed I could ever have so much fun’.
On the other hand, when I write about politics and economics and causes I campaign against like the dowry system, female infanticide and misogyny in India, women have reached out to me telling me that my articles have given them the courage to stand up to abuse from their husbands and in-laws, and the experience of standing up began their individual processes of empowerment. That made me realise my writing and works can make a meaningful difference.
ALSO READ: Let’s not skirt the issue of sexual violence
Do you face any struggles for sponsors?
We still do. POW is essentially funded by my personal savings. We sometimes get sponsors for special events. This year, we have started a campaign where you can sponsor a POW child for Rs.500 a month or Rs 6,000 a year. As POW is a registered Charitable Trust with tax exemption status, this amount is tax-free.
Any other challenges? How did you overcome them?
I did face resistance from society in both subtle and crude ways. Unfortunately, our society — from the highest echelons to the lowest — remains very rooted in gender biases. I commonly faced and continue to encounter condescending comments.
150 million girls and 73 million boys in India are victims of abuse
What are the chances for these girls to overcome the stigma? Will a day come when girls won’t be afraid to travel alone, or will feel safe on roads or in their own houses?
For this, a mindset shift needs to take place in our society as a whole. The main torch-bearers for this are the mothers who ought to raise their sons not to be entitled but to be respectful of women who are their equals.
How have the responses from these girls been so far?
Each child’s journey has been life affirming. Here’s sharing a couple of examples.
About age 2, Ranbir watched his mother, suffering from TB, cough to death on the streets. Ranbir’s mother was in agony for days before her death, but no one came to help. When Ranbir began the Paint Our World workshops at the age of four, he was very reticent and unwilling to mingle – very un-childlike. It was only through Play and Dance & Movement Therapy that we were able to work with him to release his traumatic memories and the shame, fear and guilt that he had internalised. Ranbir played out the effect of his trauma ‘safely’ by making a mask. He called his mask Madhur and said “Madhur was quiet on the outside, but on the inside he was sad because nobody came to help his mum when she was dying”. This activity enabled Madhur to acknowledge and externalise his trauma for the first time, thus taking a step forward in the healing process. Acceptance and the externalising of trauma is a fundamental step in trauma healing.
Riya’s turnaround is another example of a beautiful shift that I’ve witnessed. Riya was repeatedly abused by her father. When she was four, her mother tried to intervene but her father, to teach Riya a lesson, killed her mother in front of her. When Riya came to Paint Our World, she had processed her trauma by internalising a sense of shame and guilt – shame for being abused, guilt for the death of her mother – that she expressed through self-harm. For instance, for the slightest error she perceived in her drawings, she would run to a corner of the room and hit herself. We designed workshops to reach out to her through what she loved most – nature. She loved nature, so we brought the analogy of nature into the workshops and showed her how no two leaves or two flowers are identical, that the beauty of nature is imperfect and, that its imperfection lies in its perfection. We worked with her to understand ‘her caterpillar’ journey and strength of ‘her butterfly wings’ and how journeying through darkness the power of light is born and best understood. It is humbling and heart filling to note that Riya has not had a self-harm episode since almost two years.
The last story I would like to share with you today is that of Rina, a little girl rescued from the Sealdah railway station area. When Rina came to us, she would not speak. But she would engage wholeheartedly in art-based activities, at which she was especially talented and for which she was regularly praised and encouraged. Within the span of a few workshops, Rina began speaking and engaging. People, especially children, who have endured trauma, sometimes internalise the belief that no one cares to such an extreme degree that they see no point in talking to anyone, as a result of which they scarcely speak or cease talking altogether.
*The names of the children have been changed for child health and safety reasons.
“Women have reached out to me telling me that my articles have given them the courage to stand up to abuse from their husbands and in-laws.”
Tips girls need to know to protect themselves.
1) An understanding of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour (in the context of sexual abuse).
2) The unequivocal knowledge that the perpetrator is the criminal here and the one who is a repository of shame.
2) Identifying people they can go to immediately if any such thing happens.
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