Read, Debate: Engage.

Could one email of a sexually abused child change a curriculum?

December 28th, 2020
topic: Child rights
by: Katarina Panić
located in: Croatia
tags: child abuse, rape, sexual violence, victim shaming

A group of people from Croatian city Bjelovar started to organise their 15th high school graduation anniversary. And then, they received an email that no one on earth would ever want to get.

"Hello, everyone. I hope the preparations for the celebration are going well. I can't join you because I'm on another continent. I have not been to Croatia for more than two years. I broke off relationships with my parents. My father is a psychopath, a man without a conscience who hates the whole world, but at the same time he was afraid of it, so he molested the one person he had control over, his child. My father raped me. He raped me throughout high school. When I was 13, he wasn't with us for a year, so I recovered a bit and tried to defend myself after he came back. After that, he broke me, and he could do whatever he wanted to me. He made me scared to death. I couldn't deal with it by myself. I needed someone on my side, and I didn't have anyone. My mother knew from the beginning and did not want to protect me. She blamed me, not him ", M, one of the classmates, wrote, replying to all. 

ONE OF US

It was four years ago. The jubilee reunion has been cancelled. Yet, the story hasn't ended here. Among the class colleagues, there was a film director Đuro Gavran. 

"When I read that letter, I didn't know how to deal with it. It was all unreal to me, unbelievable. I didn't want to believe it could be true and that it could be so scary. How is it possible that someone experienced something like this, that one sat with me in class for four years, without any of us noticing anything? It was all just shocking, and I didn't know what to answer. Any words I thought to send were too weak. What could I have written: that I was sorry? That I was with her? All of this was too insignificant to me compared to what we got in the email. So my only thought after that instant reaction was that I wanted that letter to get the whole world!", Gavran told media in Croatia.

It took him seven days to answer the email. Afterwards, he asked M. for permission to film the story, and she agreed. It took him more than three years to make a devastating documentary "One of us". The movie had the world premiere in Sarajevo Film Festival in August, the Croatian premiere in Zagreb Dox 2020 in October, and it was released online on November 20, World Children's Day. Not actors, but the real classmates from Bjelovar's grammar school have gathered for their prom anniversary. There was one topic that everyone keeps avoiding until the alcohol encourages them to discuss the letter that has shaken them to their core.

USING ART TO EDUCATE

"From the very beginning, I knew I didn't want to make a film about her case, but rather about our inability to grasp how much the sexual child abuse issue is present in our society and how hard we are facing it. This is a taboo in almost every society, something hard to talk about, hard to accept, it is still very much in the dark. To most people it is just news from the crime pages or a subject of a poignant fiction film", the director said about his primary intention.

However, experts explained to him that the film shows typical reactions of society that harm the victims and keep them silent. That is why Gavran launched the One of us campaign to raise the awareness the problem does exist, to stimulate the victims to speak about the trauma and to introduce the sexual violence prevention programmes as a mandatory part of the curriculum both in primary and secondary schools. 

An open letter the campaigners sent the government, and the parliament warns that one in five children has experienced sexual violence, 85 percent of perpetrators are close to the victim, 90 percent of abuse is never reported or detected, and only four per cent of cases have physical evidence. Victims take an average of 13 years to speak, and this is often caused by the reactions of a trusted person to whom the child has chosen to confide. Most often, these are suspicion, denial and relativisation of the child's statement.

DON'T ROCK THE BOAT 

"And the most important question: Do you know why children keep silent [...] Because the way this problem is communicating in society sends a message to the victims: Shut up! Shut up and don't rock the boat!", the letter reads. 

While waiting for the authorities to respond, the campaigners moved forward. To stimulate conversations on this sensitive topic, high school graduates from all over Croatia can register their class for free film viewing and an online Q&A event with the author of the film and an expert in the prevention of sexual violence. They are determined to do what they can with or without the Ministry of Education. And they already encouraged several more victims to reveal what they have been forced to keep as a secret.  

Back to M, her parents are considered as distinguished professors. The Croatian state prosecutor's office launched the investigation and filed an indictment against the perpetrators. The court refused to continue the prosecution due to lack of evidence. 

M is working as an electro engineer, and she says she is happily married. Discovering her trauma to her classmates was a part of long-lasting psychotherapy.

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Author
Croatia
Among the class colleagues, there was a film director Đuro Gavran.
It took him seven days to answer the email. Afterwards, he asked M. for permission to film the story, and she agreed.
"From the very beginning, I knew I didn't want to make a film about her case, but rather about our inability to grasp how much the sexual child abuse issue is present in our society"
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