Here's My Story #6: AWARE spokesperson Devika Satheesh Panicker on sexual violence and mental health in Singapore
In her own words
"If you tell them, you're going to make your parents even more upset and it will be all because of you", he said. And so, I didn't.
An entire year — that was how long it was before my parents found out that I was being sexually abused by a man they had let into their home. Looking back now, I don't blame them. It isn't easy to juggle three kids and demanding full-time jobs simultaneously. He didn't really fit the profile of a typical predator either. He was very sociable yet manipulative. He knew exactly how to cover his tracks. My mother sensed something was amiss when my elder sister was visibly distressed from his advances.
He was sentenced to six years in prison with 14 strokes of the cane. Yet, I didn't quite grasp the gravity of the situation until I experienced my first sex ed lesson in primary five. It was about unwelcomed touch and I vividly remember the image I saw in the textbook; a man standing a little too close to a woman on a bus. That's when it all came rushing back to me.
The lesson might helped me deal with some of my unresolved trauma, but we need to engage kids in discussions about body autonomy and consent at an earlier age today as they are maturing mentally a lot faster due to the accessiblity of the Internet. Asian parents fear that cultivating the idea of consent among kids from a very young age might encourage them to become sexually active sooner rather than later, but they couldn't be more wrong. When we give children the tools and the understanding to identify what's right and wrong, they are better able to protect themselves.
Not many realise this, but the ripple effects of sexual violence affect everyone around the victim as well. That's exactly why all of us need to be better equipped to handle such situations. When a child or young woman reaches out to you, don't just disregard them right away — that's what my teacher did when I confided in her. Even if you have an inkling of a doubt that they might not be telling the truth, they deserve to be heard. As a matter of fact, everyone in Singapore could use a lesson in empathy.
Things are definitely changing for the better in Singapore. Youths are actively discussing sexual consent and mental health. They are going for therapy and schools have full-time counsellors. I feel that we are all trying to unlearn the shame that's attached to these issues.
As a spokesperson for AWARE Singapore's Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), our advocacy campaign "Aim for Zero" centres around zero tolerance of sexual violence. When someone reports an act of sexual violence, don't just be a bystander and tolerate it; take action. The #MeToo happened on a global scale, but now what do we do? AWARE has reached out to companies and schools to educate them on workplace sexual harassment and body autonomy respectively.
I have also ventured into media and entertainment because I wanted to extend the conversation and champion the cause, particularly within the Indian community where it has been especially taboo. When I took part in Vasantham's beauty pageant Ms. V Supreme last year, I opened up about my past and purpose, which ignited discussions on social media. The show was well-received and I was really happy that I ended up winning it.
To those who have experienced sexual violence of any kind, you are more than just a survivor. Let the scar be a scar and seek help if you need it. This also applies to anyone who's going through mental health issues. As much as it's a cliché, High School Musical was right, "We are all in this together".
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