Mid-term report from Tolerspace

Anna Lenchovska

30000 participants took part this year at Comic Con festival. Many teenagers are coming there to buy a new edition of their favourite comic, or participate in a cosplay competition. In Ukraine we do not yet have culture of using graphic novels in education, though the popularity of this genre grows at teenage girls and boys.  Comics are a great form to use visual means for informing about important matters.

Our project was aimed at raising awareness of girls 10-13 years old about sexual harassment, cyber bullying and domestic violence through means of a graphic novel.   

Catcalling: ‘I am not your pet!’

Unfortunately we do not have reliable child-protection software either at school nor on home gadgets that children and teenagers are using. So many minors become victims of cyber bullying or sexual abuse through Internet; strangers are asking minors to send their photos and they later appear on pornography websites. Sadder statistics provided by the Ukrainian Institute of social studies reveals that one in every 6 or 7 prostitutes or sex workers in Ukraine is under 14 years old.  Schools are not prepared to deal with issues of sex education and as well as this, children rights are not always at the core of student-teacher relations.   

For this reason, our team wanted to address these issues in a form of stories with eye-catching images and a thoughtful methodological framework for 10-13 year old girls.  The aim is to reach 500 teenage girls; the hope is that they will be motivated to read and discuss the contents, participate in peer-led activities and create a support network.  This age group was chosen because according to human rights organisation reports, as well as concerns expressed by parents, 10-13 year olds are getting very fast access to sexual or aggressive content on the internet, without knowing what it means. They are also becoming participants of cyber-bullying in class online messaging chats, sending humiliating or shameful photos.

Dana Verstak, an artist, designer and photographer agreed to create visual version of the stories. We met with the expert on child abuse Natalia Pashko and she gave us many accounts from her professional experience of working in this field. Very often it was hard to help adults to recognise that their child was being regularly sexually abused because the child or teen was not able to name what the abuser was doing to them.  Natalia is currently working on guidelines for the Ukrainian police on how they should ask children and teens about domestic violence and sexual abuse. After meeting Natalia we decided to focus not on the more serious end of the spectrum of abuse, but to create a toolkit for guidance for most girls, aged 10 to 13 years.

So we made a team of educators, children psychologists and young volunteers. Anna Lenchovska and Sasha Chirkova – child psychologists, Andrii Knyzhnyy, Miroslav Grinberg, Dasha Zhdanova – educators.

We met once a month and brainstormed topic of the stories, shared from clinical and educational practice, or even from own childhood experiences. 

Among the topics are:

  • “Rules of a swimming suite” –  that no one can touch you in the parts of a body, that are under the imaginary swimming suite without your consent.  This story address both sexual abuse of children at home by malicious adults, or other situations.
  • “Catcalling” – rude sexual remarks made by boys or men passing women on the street. Our stories consist of recommendations on how to react in this situation.
  • “Harassers on public transport” –  some people gain erotic pleasure from rubbing up against random strangers in crowded public areas. But the problem is when they select young girls for that, knowing that they will be to afraid or ashamed to call for help or tell their parents about this abuse. Our hope is that those who read our comic will be equipped on how to deal with such people in public transport or crowd and to understand that the problem or guilty party is always the abuser, not the victim.  
  • Cyberbullying occurs through sms, messaging platforms, social networks or other electronic means.  Often adults do not know or find out very late that it is happen in their classroom or with their child.  In our story we have shown the situation of cyberbullying in a class-chat, and then a desired reaction from the teacher, a summary of a recently passed Ukrainian law about aggression and harrassment and recommendations both for victim and for bystanders.
  • “Sexual abuse by an “important adult”. We have chosen a story of a sport’s trainer to illustrate the situation when a trusted and respected adult becomes a paedophile and abuser. The movement “Me-too” has shown the great influence that such abuse has on women’s lives and sexuality.  In Ukraine we also had a wave in social networks when adult women were sharing their stories either from when they were teenagers, with sport or art teachers, or of experiencing harassment at work.  Very often girls do not tell their parents about such harassment or even abuse, so it continues. In our story we highlighted that it is a crime when an adult is trying to have sex with someone under the age of 16.  Concrete recommendations on how to act in this situation are given.
  • “Culture of consent”. In the age of 10-13 we are not speaking about sex yet (though we provide the information that 16 is the official age of consent in Ukraine), but wanted to raise awareness about the culture of consent in general. That it is important to ask permission when you want to touch, hug or kiss someone. The example is a date in a cinema, and possible reactions are suggested.
  • “What is porn”. Unfortunately, porn is very accessible in Ukraine for children and teenagers. So many of them are curious about what it is. Is it love? Do they like it?  Is it painful? In this story we started with a situation in a camp where neighbours are watching porn and prompt a girl to join them. She refuses and proposes to some female friends that they find out together what it means or is showing. So they read a definition of porn; information that it is artificial, it is not about love, that in some cases, the actors are on drugs etc. We hope that this story will satisfy their curiosity about the issue.

When the comic was half-ready we asked 18-year olds Kristina Viter and Sasha Yemelianova to join our team and to check the topics and format.

Now the artist Dana Verstak is drawing two final novels and we hope to submit the toolkit for publication by the end of the year.  When 500 copies are published we will conduct a peer-guide training, when girls will share comic in their circles. 

We plan to create support network, strengthen coping strategies, and inform adult helping specialists on the specifics of teenager reactions and improving their contact with them through age specific graphic novel.

Anna Lenchovska, Director of the NGO Kyiv educational center “Tolerspace”

‘Rules of a bathing suit’ – guidelines for girls to identify when someone is behaving inappropriately or in a non-consensual manner.

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