Nanadana Sen on children’s rights, social activism (Interview)

Nandana Sen-Bengali ActressNov 16, 2011 (Calcutta Tube / IBNS): Actor Nandana Sen  was the official jury member in the public hearing in Kolkata on children’s’ right to education and child trafficking organised by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).  Nandana wo has donned many hats in life being an actor, social activist, a teacher shares her thoughts and experiences. Read the interview at Calcutta Tube.

You have donned many hats and worked as an activist, actor and also a teacher. Which of the roles describes you best?

(laughing) I don’t think it is a coincidence that ‘actor’ and ‘activist’ share their root verb!  To ‘act’ is, essentially, to ‘do’ – and to engage or compel others to ‘act’ as well.  All three roles you mention require a great deal of passion, total emotional commitment, and most importantly, a strong desire to reach out and touch other people’s lives.  In my life all three are powerfully connected and often, wonderful intersections arise between them spontaneously.

How do you connect your work as an actor to that of an activist?

Both have been integral to my life for years.  Even during college at Harvard, I worked as a Survivor Advocate for physically or sexually abused women and children.  I believe all of us need to use every tool we can to make the world safer – and as actors we have the opportunity, like no other profession, to build awareness and make deep impact.  For example, years ago I flew in from NYC to originate the role of an incest survivor overcoming her trauma, in the play “30 Days in September” sponsored by the NGO RAHI, at Prithvi.  After the opening show, a girl from the audience embraced me in tears – she said that watching me was like looking at her own self in the mirror.  That was the first time she broke her own silence about her repeated abuse by her uncle, and soon after, this brave girl confronted him too.  She wasn’t the only survivor who reached out to me –  I was so touched by all the calls, messages and emails I got – and this play was by far one of my most moving experiences as an actor.  That was because it had so much to do with my involvement with stopping child abuse, and through the play, RAHI and I instantly became a unit.

More recently, I completed Chuppee, a short feature sponsored by UN WOMEN to promote awareness of Child Sexual Abuse.  The film has three primary purposes – to reach out to abused children and adult survivors; to raise awareness among parents, teachers, siblings, neighbours etc. who might identify and protect children from CSA; and to make abusers aware of the enormity of their crime.  This film is now being shown in schools and community gatherings.

Recently, you served on the Official Jury for the Public Hearing on Right to Education and child trafficking conducted by the NCPCR . How was your experience?  

I must say I am deeply impressed and inspired by the momentous work NCPCR is doing.  The Public Hearing on Child Rights focused on a child’s fundamental right to free education (RTE Act), as well as the horrifying crime and trauma of Child Trafficking.  The Hearing was historic and urgent, and it was disturbing to see the levels of inaction, incompetence and neglect that persist in the field of child education and protection.  Both are critical issues I am extremely passionate about, so I was glad to be on the Jury selected by NCPCR.

As Cause Ambassador of the NGO RAHI, I’ve worked for years against Child Sexual Abuse, and as a Global Trustee of Pratichi Trust, I am very familiar with issues concerning the RTE Act (and the lapses in its implementation).  My understanding of both topics has also grown from my collaboration with UNICEF as its Advocate for Child Protection.  I was horrified by the cases of trafficking at the Hearing – I met and spoke with several of the trafficked girls privately so they didn’t have to make a public statement, and their stories were shocking and tragic.  After the hearing, I decided to visit SNEHA, a shelter run by the NGO Sanlaap, for children rescued from trafficking – and I had the best Diwali celebration chatting and dancing with these amazingly spunky girls!  It was a sweet ending to a few disturbing but very important days – days that were a grim reality check like no other.

What is the one problem that emerged that bothers you the most?

To me, the most unforgivable violation of Child Rights we encountered repeatedly is the abuse of authority.  We found that frequently, individuals with the responsibility of protecting children were themselves the violators – head masters charging illegal fees, excluding ST/SC students or refusing admission to HIV positive children, school inspectors pocketing the Mid-Day meal fund, police letting identified child traffickers go free, family members participating in the trafficking, to name just a few.  What can be more deplorable than children being exploited by those who are supposed to keep them safe?  While I am glad that NCPCR took a strong stand against such cases, it became clear at the Hearing how much rudimentary work we still have to do on an urgent basis to keep our children healthy and safe, to empower them, and work toward creating a better future for them.

With the increasing number of child-pregnancy issues the question of right age for sex education has also come up.

An extremely important question that can be best assessed by each parent, as every child’s level of maturity is different.  Beyond doubt, parents must deal with sex education head-on and raise it with their children early, with no embarrassment – discuss not just protection from child pregnancy, but also from sexual abuse, a huge and neglected crisis in India.  I realized from my UNICEF visits to the Deepshikha Adolescent Empowerment Program and Red Ribbon Clubs in Mumbai that children are often much more progressive than their parents might be!  When the kids don’t shy away from educating their peers about safe sex and AIDS awareness, why should the parents?  Perhaps it’s time for the parents to grow up.

What, according to you, should be done to improve the condition of deprived children in our country?

The problems are enormous and innumerable, but I feel the most important step is to truly prioritize, from our hearts, protecting all the children of India.  Yes it is a start to make good rules but that’s not enough – we must make sure they are implemented in an urgent, timely way.  Truly taking care of our children has so many aspects, including nutrition, education, health care, personal safety, life skills, ending hazardous child labor, building appropriate infrastructure, and so on.  And to do this, we have to stop passing the buck and start holding ourselves accountable – we can’t just say, that’s happening far away from me so it’s not my problem.  As a nation, we need to go through a paradigm shift – we must see every child as our own, we must make child protection every citizen’s responsibility.

Do you have plans for doing any film where we can see you as an activist?

Activists are necessary in the world, but on film they often come across as righteous, boring and unbearably preachy, don’t they? (laughs)  But yes, as it turns out I will be playing an idealistic journalist with an activist’s sensibility in one of my forthcoming films.  But I must make sure she’s fun and easy-going too!

– Debayani Bose / Trans world Features (TWF)

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