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03 October 2023

There is no shame in speaking up

By Bindu Suresh Rai

So much has been said these past few days about child abuse aboard school buses in the UAE that I debated whether my story is a tale worth telling or would it be categorised as yet another voice getting lost amongst those raised already by angry parents and frustrated administrative authorities.

I’m not sure there is any right answer, really, but growing up in Dubai and being a part of the very same system that has witnessed gullible children be preyed upon by paedophiles disguised as harmless helpers – irrespective of their roles or job positions – has propelled me to narrate my own experience that occurred a decade and a half ago.

It started innocently enough; a brush here, an accidental touch there. The individual performing all these seemingly harmless physical contacts was the attendant of the bus that I faithfully travelled on for years.

No one was quite sure what triggered the switch in him to up his aggression and at what point our internal alarms alerted us to the fact that those touches were occurring accidentally on purpose and getting bolder. But the discomfort, laced with a hint of fear, was fast setting in.

I know now that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way during my daily travels. Yet, not one of us commuting on that packed bus ever once voiced our concerns. Was it fear of retribution or shame that kept us mum? Probably a bit of both, peppered with drawing unwanted attention to ourselves. So silence seemed the safest way forward, for a while at least.

However, still waters don’t stay calm forever and the dam burst one day when the usually quiet 12-year-old Swati (name has been changed to protect her identity) approached me tearfully requesting if she could be let off at my bus stop in the afternoon; I was the third to last child to be dropped off every day.

When my line of questioning only resulted in her sobbing harder, a few of the older girls stepped in to enquire what the commotion was about; we all loved a bit of drama back in the day.

Unfortunately, what stuttered forth was a heartbreaking plea by a frightened young child who had to sit alone on the bus everyday for nearly 15 minutes with the attendant sidling up to her in the backseat, attempting moves that were gaining aggression everyday.

Listening to her broken tale, shame and anger set in; the latter largely directed towards ourselves for being an accomplice to this abuse with our silence and allowing the victimisation to continue without another thought. After all, weren’t all of us in some way or the other been made uncomfortable by this man who was meant to be a figure of authority on our commute home?

Disturbed and defeated, I did the only thing a child does in such circumstances; I turned to my parent.

Sobbing and ashamed, it was my turn to stammer out the story of abuse that had terrorised us kids on this bus over the last few years. My father patiently heard me till the last sob had subsided and simply asked: “So, what are you planning to do about it?”

It was much later that I comprehended the strange look in my father’s eyes that day was a potent mix of rage and fear; but instead of frightening his child by flying into a fit and demanding retribution, he decided to teach his daughter a valuable lesson in life – how not to become a victim.

With his encouragement, and that of a few other parents whose children travelled on the same bus as me whom Dad contacted, we jointly approached the Vice Principal of our school and relayed the incidences of inappropriate behaviour on the bus without shame, fear or tears.

We never saw the bus attendant again. Some said he was transferred to another department within the same school group; others said he was deported. Frankly, none of us travelling on that school bus really cared, as long as we were safe with the knowledge that we wouldn’t be terrorised anymore.

Today, I wonder had Swati not been the brave girl that she was and not spoken up about the abuse, would he have taken it a step too far? Could we have been next on his list of victims?

These are questions I will never have answers for. However, as an aunt of two school-going nieces travelling by the bus everyday, there was a lesson I had learned that fateful morning in the Vice Principal’s office; I have continued to pass it down to them with no qualms or reservations – there is no shame in speaking up.