Is Child Sexual Abuse a reality in India?
It is difficult to come out as a survivor of sexual abuse in a society where blaming the victim is the norm. In this light, child sexual abuse is an issue which is usually not paid much attention to. This is evident from the fact that there was no law in India against Child Sexual Abuse until 2012 and the law in itself remains quite ineffective in addressing this sensitive issue. It is appalling to see that in a report by Ministry of Women and Child Development in India, 53% of children are victims of child sexual abuse in India. Globally speaking, India ranks second in terms of the highest rate of child sexual abuse. What is more worrying is the fact that mostly child sexual abuse is incestuous in nature which means that it is committed by a person who is a family member and has an easy access to the child.
Why is it important to “break the silence” around Child Sexual Abuse?
This issue gained visibility when media hype was created around it. Kalki Koechlin was one of the first celebrities to break the silence on this issue when she talked about how she was sexually abused as a child and her biggest fear was that her mother would find out about it and it will be a cause of utter embarrassment and disgrace for her. This is where the problem is. Most of us have been sexually violated as children but have always feared coming out in the open about it because we associate “embarrassment” and “humiliation” with such acts. The main task is to break away from the taboo to talk about such issues which lead to violation of basic human rights of children within the so called ‘safe’ vicinity of their homes.
In India, RAHI is an organisation that is involved intensively with mental healing of the survivors of incest and child sexual abuse. It is involved at various levels that enable the survivors to have a support mechanism and also to spread awareness regarding CSA. It is a feminist group that has created a supportive environment for survivors. It goes beyond ‘breaking the silence’ and has developed a powerful voice that strives to mainstream the discussion about incest and CSA in India and include it in social dialogue. Addressing the long-term impact of incest and CSA on adult women, RAHI not only forms the backbone of work on this issue in India but has also brought this issue to light and inspired other groups working in this area.
It is not only physically traumatic for a child to be abused sexually but also, mentally. All children are vulnerable to sexual abuse regardless of their age, gender, or where and whom they live with. This is because children are trusting of all adults and in our society they are less powerful, less informed and taught to obey elders.
Children try to hide their dreadful ‘secret’ and suffer in silence but usually experience very strong feelings inside: fear, depression, guilt, shame, betrayal, anger, confusion, helplessness and despair. As a result of sexual abuse, children also inherently feel dirty, damaged and different. They are often unable to verbalize these feelings. This is mainly because they do not know the appropriate language to tell their close ones about it. However, it is necessary to understand that there should be mechanisms provided by the state in order for the healing of the survivor since it is something that shapes their sexuality, behaviour and emotions for life. Following are the ways in which CSA has a long lasting effect on the survivor:
- Emotional reactions: The survivor could blame themselves for being abused and not being able to stop it. This often leads to anger around abuse being directed at themselves or elsewhere, rather than at the abuser. Feelings could also be numbed down. It usually shows up in anxiety and panic attacks, depression, phobias, body aches and other ailments. Severe abuse can also sometimes lead to personality disorders.
- Self-perceptions: They tend to believe they are worthless, have very low self esteem and are unable to take compliments. They appear to be extremely confident on the surface but perceive themselves as not good enough. They feel the need to constantly prove themselves and all this often leads to further victimisation.
- Self-harm: They tend to get into self destructive behaviours in order to cope. Some of these behaviours are over-eating, depriving themselves of food, self mutilation, suicide attempts and alcohol and drug abuse.
- Powerlessness: The are usually gripped by the feeling of being powerless and not in control over their surroundings. Therefore, they use a variety of ways to be in charge. They could be super organised, hyper active and vigilant.
- Physical Effects: Stomach disturbances, frequent illness, gynecological problems, aches and pain.
- Sexual Effects: Abuse also leads to a disturbed sexual life for the survivor. Associating feelings of pain, shame and humiliation with sex and any kind of physical intimacy is common. It can lead to avoidance of sex as they may experience flashbacks of the abuse during sex. On the other hand, they can get into indiscriminate sexual activity and also use their bodies as a way to get power, love and attention.
- Relationships: They feel threatened, so they tend to withdraw from or are uncomfortable in close relationships or become extremely dependent and clingy. It makes them vulnerable to further exploitation of themselves and their children.
If children, who are survivors of abuse, are not given the right guidance to get over that phase of their life, they may turn out to be individuals who would not be able to realize their full potential in so many ways.
My Experience of Child Sexual Abuse
I was eight years old when it all began. I belong to a traditional Indian joint family and my cousin who is not more than five years elder to me came up with this idea. I had no idea what was happening to me since I wasn’t really aware of what sex was. I was not confident enough to confide in anyone, since I was afraid no one would believe me. Despite this, I tried telling my aunt (my cousin’s mother) once but she immediately shunned down the issue labelling it as my “fantasy” and “imagination”. In her eyes, her son was too “innocent” to commit such an act.
The main problem is that there was such a taboo around this issue and denial in my family that I was too vulnerable to talk about it when I was a child. Even though I was very close to my mother and could trust her with this, my parents got divorced when I was six years old and I did not have her around to discuss this with her.
I would constantly feel guilty and ashamed of what was happening to me. I did not have an option but to remain silent. I shared quite a friendly relationship with my cousin. I would not say that he is an unpleasant person in general because he would take care of me otherwise and was also quite protective of me. It was because of this particular reason that I grew up in a constant emotional dilemma whether to love him or hate him and maintain my distance from him.
I asked him to stop several times but he would usually force himself on me saying that it was the last time. However, it stopped when I was twelve years of age and was sent to boarding school for my further education. There was an awkward silence between the two of us because of the relationship we shared. However, he would often visit me in school and we started afresh in terms of the bond that we had begun to develop.
Though my case is different because I was caught up in the dilemma of a love-hate relationship with my cousin, the main issue still remains (which should not have gone unaddressed) – that is, I was sexually violated by him and I couldn’t do anything, absolutely anything about it.
Over a period of time, as I grew up, I realised that I was not the only one who had had such an experience. I gradually came to know of girls who had been a survivor of CSA that was incestuous in nature, committed either by brothers, uncles, cousins and even fathers in some cases. They faced the same problems like I did in speaking up and confiding in a person whom they could trust with helping them out. Sadly, none of us at that time knew how to really communicate it to our confidants. It is very important to teach children at a very young age about sexual abuse and keep the door open for them to approach their parents and confide in them.
Why does it become difficult to admit that one has been sexually violated as a child?
Despite the laws in our country, the main reason the issue of CSA goes unaddressed is because of the social taboo attached to it. In India, the law against CSA is only very recent and although it contains provisions that prevent the tormenting of children during questioning and so on, the long-term effects and issues still remain to be evaluated.
The Indian law does recognize that the victim of child sexual abuse can be a boy, but because of the toxic notions of ‘masculinity‘ prevalent in the society, it is quite difficult for them to tell their stories. Even when they manage to, most people dismiss them saying all sorts of things like, “you must have enjoyed it,” among many others.
In a television show called Satyamev Jayate, equal rights activist Harish Iyer narrated his experience of child sexual abuse and how it took him so many years to come around what was happening with him and finally put an end to it.
It is also necessary to ask whether all the heightened media and social awareness, for all its positive intentions of ‘visibilising’ the issue, has really helped in curbing the occurrence of sexual abuse and challenged the gender/power differences that lead to the exploitation of children in their own homes. In spite of all the social and academic commentary, media hype on sexual abuse and some legal reforms, it is even harder to change mindsets at the ground level: it is hard work to sensitise people who interpret laws and implement them as they still struggle to get rid of their denials and think beyond more ‘traditional’ notions of gender, masculinity–femininity, virtue and childhood. After all, incest and child sexual abuse like any other form of violence is supported by the inherent power discrepancies that inform our families and societies.
In India, the idea of family is a monolithic unit – large, safe, with men obeying the heterosexual norm and the notion that they are meant to defend vulnerable women and children they “own”– remains very strong. Due to this reason, one aspect of CSA that makes it particularly difficult for cases to be exposed and perpetrators subjected to legal sanction is the emotional dilemma it can generate in victims abused by close relatives.
Here are some organisations which are working against child sexual abuse and will be able to help.
RAHI Foundation, New Delhi