Creating safe spaces for children, starting with the children themselves

By Ashani Ratnayake | March 30, 2023 | Asia | Freedom from Violence & Exploitation

This article was originally published by Girls’ Globe

To protect children from gender-based violence and sexual abuse in India, GFC partner Enfold has adopted a unique approach: taking personal safety, sexuality, and child rights education to classrooms.

To enfold someone is to hold and surround them with care until they feel safe. Enfold India does exactly this – it strives to create a safe environment for children, supports children affected by sexual violence, and promotes self-empowerment among children and adults alike.

Gender-based and sexual violence cuts across social and economic boundaries and is one of the most prevalent human rights violations worldwide. India has seen some progress in recent times, including the enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in 2012. However, back in 2001, sexuality was still a taboo subject shrouded in a culture of secrecy, HIV was at peak levels among youth, and requests for abortions by young girls were high while child sexual abuse was unacknowledged, ignored, and not considered an issue in India.

Sangeeta Saksena and Shaibya Saldanha, both gynecologists, were dismayed by the situation. The need for child protection, sexuality, and personal safety education, as well as preventive healthcare, was imperative. Both doctors left their profession and committed themselves to building safety nets for children and youth. Enfold India’s journey had begun.

Dr. Shaibya Saldanha (left) and Dr. Sangeeta Saksena (right), co-founders of Enfold.

Dr. Shaibya Saldanha (left) and Dr. Sangeeta Saksena (right), co-founders of Enfold. © Enfold India

Tracing back the root causes of gender-based violence and sexual abuse to a lack of respect for children and almost nonexistent sexuality education, the two doctors decided that to keep children safe, they would need to include children as well as their parents, caregivers, and teachers. They went into schools and classrooms, conducting sessions on personal safety and sexuality for children, along with sessions for adult stakeholders. The sessions centered around respecting your own body and the bodies of others, managing feelings, and fostering safe behavior.

While conducting in-school training, the doctors became aware of the full extent of sexual abuse among children. This raised important questions: why weren’t children telling their parents about the abuse, and why weren’t parents taking action? The answer, they found, lay in a knowledge gap among both adults and young people. This led to the development of Enfold’s curriculum – a series of books on topics such as safety in public and private spaces, clothing-touching-talking norms, and “safe” people. This curriculum, which starts at grade 1, was the first of its kind in India.

An extract from Enfold's “Being Safe” cartoon stories for school children.

An extract from the “Being Safe” cartoon stories for school children. © Enfold India

From there, Enfold continued breaking barriers, with a larger team taking its work across the country. The organization now conducts sessions for adult stakeholders – parents, police, medical personnel, social workers, and the media – on preventing and responding to sexual violence. The team also works with the government and other groups on gender equality and setting up child-friendly systems and processes. In addition, Enfold runs a rehabilitation support service for child victims of sexual abuse, providing them with medicolegal and psychosocial support. Enfold’s restorative practices team trains child care institution staff, school teachers, counselors, and social workers in building a restorative culture and addressing conflict through restorative practices. Its research team works on issues of child protection to advance children’s rights and the implementation of laws.

Despite the nature of their work, “we haven’t faced much backlash,” said Sangeeta. “We believe that is because we have not deviated from our cultural values and have taught respect at all levels. Just like children need to respect adults, adults need to respect children.”

In 2016, Enfold began to emphasize support for children with intellectual disabilities and sensory impairments, as studies found that the risk of sexual abuse among these children is three times greater than among children without disabilities. Enfold developed a kit containing picture books, games, puppets, and charts to enable parents, teachers, and caregivers to help children with intellectual disabilities and sensory impairments learn about reproductive health, sexuality, and personal safety. The kit includes guidance on how to help children recognize and report sexual abuse.

Items in Enfold's Suvindha kit for children with intellectual disabilities.

Some of the items in the Suvidha kit to teach children with intellectual disabilities and sensory impairments about sexual health and personal safety. © Enfold India

Since its founding in 2001, Enfold has reached more than 200,000 children and young people in over 890 schools; nearly 60,000 parents, teachers, and support staff; and large numbers of public service personnel. The organization’s work has progressed year on year, with the Demystifying Sexual Education reference book and handbooks introduced for caregivers, more scientific research undertaken to strengthen the curriculum, and mobile apps launched to provide better guidance for children.

Among the most rewarding parts of the team’s work are when children who have participated in personal safety sessions get the courage to report abuse and seek help, and when adults who attended the sessions as children share how Enfold changed their lives.

A lesson being conducted for young students seated on the ground outside.

A session being conducted by members of the Enfold team for primary school children. © Enfold India

Sangeeta’s care for children is evident. “I can’t stand seeing children hurt,” she said. Together with her co-founder and team, she has many plans for Enfold as it forges ahead with its life-changing work in India, building a future where all children, irrespective of gender, age, disability, or social setting, can exercise their rights and live in dignity.



Enfold India is part of the Increasing Opportunities for Children with Disabilities initiative, which is a partnership between the Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation and GFC.

Header photo: A training session conducted by Enfold’s Renu Singh for university students in India. © Enfold India

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