In 1996, a group of people, deeply disturbed by the silence that pervaded over the issue of sexual violence and abuse faced by children, decided to establish an organization on "Breaking the Silence" . All these people had hoped for were some discussions and some activities that would trigger a reasonable level of awareness on the topic.

What BTS was not expecting was that their initiative would lead to a national level awareness on the scale that is historic. They had taken on the historic silence on the topic and in the process shaken the idea that sexual abuse was part of the "normal". BTS had more than challenged the silence. They had broken the silence.

Child sexual abuse and society

Children, i.e. any person under 18 years of age, getting involved in sexual activity is not uncommon. It happens through three ways generally:

A. Through early marriage.

B. Through coercive manipulation, non-consensually and/or rape.

C. Romantic or sexual relations.

This becomes a complex issue due to many overlapping matters. In case of Bangladesh, this is difficult due to high prevalence of child marriage. BTS is also working on this topic now but its main focus is on children who are sexually abused, who can do little about it as there is no social awareness and understanding that this is abuse. Socially and individually, the awareness of abuse is/was low.

There are other complexities including the economic compulsions behind CSA. Many poverty driven children are abused as part of the transaction cost for being paid or employed. The social values of Bangladeshi or for that matter Bangladeshi society are one of "do not disturb the status quo".

The result is recognition of CSA as being present but at the same time ignoring it. This is more common than we think. To this is linked the prevalent notions of sexuality attached to which are linked other socio-economic factors. Given this scenario, it's obvious that BTS had a massive task ahead even as it contemplated bringing the issue to the public space.

The report

In 1996, BTS published their pathbreaking report , " Non-Commercial Sexual abuse of Children in Bangladesh." based on over 100 case studies covering both urban and rural areas, it was the first report of its kind in the country. For the first time, there was research based documented evidence that indicated the range and the scale of the problem.

The case studies also indicated two facts that were not noted before.

That it was not rape that dominated the sexual abuse scene but manipulative sexual abuse. It was not violently done but coerced, forced, pushed or emotionally manipulated. (This as per Bangladesh law tantamount to rape anyway).

That boy children were also sexually abused and many even if they knew about it didn't consider it a problem. One reason was socially its girls who faced major stigma around social abuse particularly in case of marriages where sexually abused girls were seen as "tainted". Hence people were silent about sexual abuse of girl children. And in the case of boy children, they didn't even recognize that a problem existed.

There was reaction from various quarters. However, reaction from several quarters including a section of the media was hostile. It was read as an attack on the people of Bangladesh and its societal behaviour. But a large section upheld the report and gave extensive focus.

Soon the initial hostility gave away and there was a slow rise of acceptance as people and the authorities began to face the facts they already knew and began to discuss what could be done. The silence around sexual abuse had begun to crack loudly.

From people to Government

BTS is a social service organization run by active members, held together by their commitment to the cause. There are no nominated, professional or prestige driven people who are name lenders. This has produced a coalition of ordinary people who support BTS because they care.

The continuity of the leadership has been very important in sustaining the advances made. The Chairperson since birth has been Tasmima Hosssain, Editor of Ittefaq and Anannya and the General Secretary Roksana Sultana. Most active members have been with BTS since birth or soon after and plan to continue till the end.

In my own research on the topic and the increased social awareness of the same, civil society actors did take up a challenge at a time when it was not on the policy plate of the Government or even the UN. Although the UN is generally seen as a policy advocacy leader, it wasn't so at that time. INGOs were better informed and willing and Swedish Save the Children (Radda Barnen) played a significant role.

BTS's advocacy backed by information bore significant fruits. Its field level work at the community level and public mobilization were compelling evidence that the problem needed addressing. Once the GOB had endorsed action, the rest became easier.

Today, almost 30 years later, the work of this agency shows that ordinary people can make a difference even without many resources and take the problem from the shadows of denial and neglect to the mainstream or light if not enlightenment yet.

The silence over the sexual abuse of children has been broken. BTS kept its promise.

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