By Ravi Sahay:
Children Learn What They Live. Have you heard this popular rhyme?
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice…
And, if children are victims of sexual abuse they may face Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, co-dependency or counter-dependency, lack of trust, fear of intimacy etc. Psychological problems often manifest as high-risk behaviours, for example, may make a person more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, or overeat (undereat). They are more prone to chronic diseases, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle aches, depression and anxiety to name a few.
Child sexual abuse is a problem around the world but India’s problem is an extreme and it needs immediate attention. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 came into force in India on 14th November 2012, which is Children’s Day (Baal Divas) after the birthday of Pandit Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, the first prime minister. India has the largest population of children in the world of more than 400 million – 53.2 percent (40 percent boys: 70% girls) are victims of child sexual abuse according to the Government of India report (2007). This crime has been going on for decades. As a result, today, majority of adult survivors are coping with the effects in their adult lives. It is not surprising that RAHI, New-Delhi based NGO for women survivor’s states that 75% of middle/upper class women have been abused. It affects every cross-section of Indian society.
Parents of abuse victims in India mistakenly think that marriage will solve this problem for their victimized children. It has not worked because it merely pushes the problem under the rug. This abuse, if unresolved, is like a festering wound that would create major problems in their lives later on. This abuse can manifest as marital relationship problems and create other physical and emotional dysfunctions, for example, estrangements, separations, divorce, affairs or prostitution, arguments, physical violence, gender confusion and alcoholism. The Indian society needs education, skills, perseverance, discrimination and compassion to handle this problem.
Dr Neil D. Brick in his paper (2005), “How Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects Interpersonal Relationships” notes, “Child sex abuse was not seen as a major problem in Europe and the United States until fairly recently. Only in the last two decades has childhood sexual abuse been seen in the field of mental health, psychiatry and social work as an important social problem with effects connected to this trauma.”
75% of Indian marriages are still arranged by their parents, who would like to hush up for the fear that their victim daughter may not get married because the groom’s family would not approve of her. “Hush- Hush” approach is damaging to the victim and the society at large. Silence is NOT golden in this case. It backfires in the long-run, prolongs the pain of the festering emotional wound for the victims, their family, friends and loved ones.
“Forget and Forgive” mantra as being practiced by the elders of the “Family of origin” in Indian society is creating a ticking time-bomb. Unfortunately, future generations are at risk also because the perpetrators of this crime are not held accountable and this crime goes on.
Judith Herman, MD in her classic book, “Trauma and Recovery” says, “As the survivor struggles with the tasks of adult life, the legacy of her childhood becomes increasingly burdensome. Eventually, often in the fourth or fifth decade of life, the defensive structure may begin to break down. Often the precipitant is a change in the equilibrium of close relationships: The failure of a marriage, the illness or death of a parent. The facade can hold no longer, and the underlying fragmentation becomes manifest. When and if a breakdown occurs, it can take symptomatic forms that mimic virtually every form of psychiatric disorder. Survivors fear that they are going insane or will have to die (1992 p. 114).
The first step in healing is creating a sacred place for the victim. Though it is very difficult and challenging, the victim needs to muster courage to break the silence, mourn the losses and learn to forgive, renegotiate, reconnect and recreate a trusting environment for their own self and their future generations.
Though forgiveness is the ultimate step after healing has taken place, Judith Herman, MD emphatically notes that premature forgiveness can be harmful for the victim. Nicole Bromley in her recent book, Breathe (2009), warns against premature forgiveness and says “Do not rush forgiveness. We do not expect someone with a broken leg to run a marathon. A survivor who has yet to gain in touch with his/her pain still has a broken leg. Do not make him run a marathon just yet. Forgiveness will come. Survivors can understand the enormity of what they are forgiving only after they have realized the full extent of their losses. Unaccompanied by such understanding their forgiveness will be false and can lead to deeper problems later on. “
The first requirement for healing is safety or security that will create the sacred place for healing. Nicole Bromley advises parents to talk to the child who has been violated, to believe him/her and support him/her against the perpetrators who may be family members or friends. She mentions that sexual abuse affects everyone in the family. The power games, the manipulation, the lies and the deceit that abusers use to cover up their crime allow evil to permeate and slowly suffocate everyone in the home. It is blinding darkness. Only truth will lead us from darkness into light. And, it takes courage to heed the truth.
For married couples, where one or both are survivors, the irony as noted in Paul Hansen’s book, “Survivors and Partners” is that often this problem will surface when the victim feels safe. According to this author and psychotherapist, in marriages where victim fells unsafe, the abuse remains in the unconscious – of course, the personality disorders will be there but the abuse will be hidden from the survivor. This is another important reason that this problem is going to surface at a rapid rate in our society now because the women victims are feeling more secure financially as well as psychologically today in comparison to their mothers who may have been victimized a generation ago.
The task of the other partner (husband or wife) is quite formidable if not impossible when the after-effects of abuse will trigger in the adult life. Every victim’s journey is unique and complex – counter-dependent personalities may want to fly away from their marriage and the co-dependents may become depressed and suicidal. The partner will need to understand the complex nature of this psychological disorder and the partner will also need the support of a few kindred persons including professional therapist who can support and act as a mentor in their joint healing process as a couple. The victim may have a tendency to run away (separate or divorce) or become suicidal but ultimately, he/she would need courage to face the situation for the betterment of their own marriage and their children’s well-being. The victim and the partner will need to team together in opening up the secrecy of abuse, in confronting the perpetrator and in rebuilding their own conjugal relationship.
The healing process has four major steps but it does not always happen linearly. The victim begins the healing by sharing their secret. Second, they realize that the abuse was not their fault. Third, they remember and mourn their losses. Fourth, they forgive to thrive with a renewed outlook on life and reconnection with their loved ones.
The core principle of the healing process is through autonomy and empowerment of the survivor. The survivor wants recrimination for the wrong done by the society and rectifies the damage to their own “inner child” or “inner self” through self-esteem and grieving for their losses. Their partner cannot fix him/her or fight their battle or hasten this process. The partner can only listen and “be there” which is not an easy task. It would require great perseverance, love and wisdom. However, the unconditional support of the spouse is very important for healing of the victim.
How long will it take? It may take a long time – many months, probably years. It is like a chronic disease which needs careful dogged attention and discipline. The cost of leaving it untreated is very high for the individuals and the future generations. A profound transformation in the life of the victim is possible – he/she can thrive by reclaiming their “wounded child” and they can also heal the future generations through their healing journey. It will not be easy but it is worth the challenges involved.
Marianne Williamson, author and poet in “A Return to Love” writes:
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
One victim at a time, the ticking bomb of child sexual abuse will be thus diffused and the men, women and children of India will learn to heal and thrive.[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: Ravi Sahay is an adjunct faculty member at the Sperling School of Business at the University of Phoenix, San Diego Campus, California USA. He also speaks on health and well-being. He can be reached at [email protected] To read his other posts, click here.[/box]