‘I was 11 when a man put his hands in my pants on a packed train’

International Day of the Girl: Change is possible but girls need allies. We can all play a role

On International Day of the Girl, I would like to share some events of my childhood. Growing up in New Delhi, India, I was sexually abused at the age of seven by a bus driver I trusted.

I was 11 when a man put his hands down in my pants in a train packed with people. I was 18 when my private pictures were leaked from my own phone and spread throughout my university. I am now 26 and have faced harassment through all stages of my life, by men of all ages.

Since I was a child, I felt the need to cover myself with “appropriate” clothing.

I was schooled on how a “good girl” needs to be covered all the time, something I never questioned as a child. My father would get anxious the day I would not return home before 8pm. Not just me; my family lived with fear.

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When I have conversations with my female friends, we exchange stories of sexual harassment, as if we talk about something regular, almost mundane. Because that is how often, it happens.

I never raised voice against all I went through, thinking it will bring shame to my family. I believed it was my fault, “because I was a girl”, or was made to believe that I might have been “asking for it”.

Being catcalled in Paris, seeing brides having a price in Tanzania, meeting boys in Dublin violating consent, I moved places, I moved countries; I found gender-based violence everywhere.

I wonder how daughters are taught throughout their lives how to not get raped, where no son is ever taught not to rape.

The numbers in Plan International’s new Safer City Report aren’t just figures, they are facts, experiences gone through and witnessed. These stories are uncomfortable to remember and were terrifying to experience at the time.

When I left India and came to Europe, my idea of freedom was reduced to the kind of clothes I could choose to wear. Later came the actual freedom; the freedom to think and dream irrespective of my gender.

Men touched us, harassed us, and forced themselves on us, thinking women would not say a word. Women did not even report hassling, eve teasing, stalking, touching, flashing and staring. But we are all talking now.

India has seen huge movements led by the youth to stop gender based violence. This year has been especially remarkable. Decriminalising gay marriages and adultery, India has come a long way.

Activism has led to awareness among the youth. After a long wait, the #MeToo movement has taken a rise in India. Big celebrities and journalists are coming out with their sexual harassment stories. Police complaints about harassments have gone up exponentially. Men have joined the movement too.

As I have travelled, I have seen how these issues affect women everywhere. All girls should grow up in a world where they have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. Everyone has a role to play in closing the gap between what girls are capable of and what they are allowed to be. Women and girls regularly endure harassment in their daily lives, which has terrible consequences for their future.

Girls can and do lead change, but they need allies. Everyone needs to understand what constitutes gender discrimination, their role in it and how they can eliminate it.

It took me a long while to come out and talk about all that I have gone through. I hope my story contributes to the movement and supports all those women who can’t imagine outing their abuser because of the fear of victim shaming.

Jigyasa Sharma is from New Delhi, India and is currently working with Plan International Ireland in Dublin