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Undergoing Sexual Abuse As A Child Can Haunt Survivors All Their Life: Time For Change

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By Ravi Sahay

This is a difficult topic – moral corruption of child sexual abuse usually closes our heart and our mind goes into denial. Chetan Bhagat, in his column, ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, cautioned Indians, “..Since we shun it so much we have two major problems around sex in India. One, repressed sexual desire often comes out in unsavory ways. Two, we are unable to discuss or have a meaningful debate around any topic to do with sex. Repressed sexual desire, for instance, is manifest in child sexual abuse which is rampant in India.

For representational purpose only
For representational purpose only

This crime has been going for centuries. In 2012, Aamir Khan, in the second episode of his popular TV series, ‘Satyamev Jayate‘, raised mass awareness on this topic in India. Now, almost every day, from all corners of India, the media is reporting on this crime, and a new criminal law – Protection of Child against Sexual Offence (POCSO:2012).

That is a great opening. UNICEF, along with Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, and many others are speaking against this crime now.

UNICEF India is training all Indian medical doctors to heal and prevent child sexual abuse crimes in India. Smt. Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development has asked schools to screen a documentary film ‘Komal‘ to educate and inform elementary school children about ‘Good Touch/Bad Touch‘. She has also asked students and the school administration to be vigilant against this crime.

But, the healing of the adult survivors of this crime has not started for Indians. The awareness about the devastating long-term damage on health, well-being and close relationships of adult survivors is missing.

Child sexual abuse trauma affects the brain. It changes our biology. In the USA, the largest-scale study to date of the incidence and effects of childhood trauma that includes Child Sexual Abuse known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study links serious illness, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, fibromyalgia sleep disturbances and mental health including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), fear of intimacy, domestic violence, gender confusion, addiction including alcoholism to name a few as the long-term adverse outcomes. One in five victims of child sexual abuse have moderate to serious impact on their wellness.

Denial of this evil is costly. Dr. Christine Courtois, a leading trauma consultant notes, “The unfortunate result of denial and disavowal across cultures has been the extension rather than the amelioration of the suffering of the traumatized, at individual, family, community, society and global levels.

Mass awareness on this topic started some thirty years ago in America – Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, and a pioneer in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder and the sexual abuse of women and children, is the author of the book, ‘Trauma & Recovery’. In this seminal book, Dr. Judith Herman explains why a political or social context is a very important part for the start of the recovery process.

A feeling of “safety” by the victims is a pre-requisite or the first stage of the healing/recovery process. The political or social context is getting ripe in India for victims to undergo the healing process. This fact may explain as to why some of India’s child sexual abuse survivors are writing about it. For generations, the victims were not able to heal their wounds, they suffered physically and mentally in silence and so did their off-springs.

A vicious intergenerational cycle of abuse persists today which is losing its grip as the survivors are starting to heal. The recovery process is not easy. There are several stages to this process– it can take months and years. There is no pill available – awareness of the inflicted wound is the first required step.

Mass education is needed to educate the public that this act is criminal and punishable by law. However, creating a compassionate and nurturing environment where the victims gather strength and courage to heal themselves is paramount. This is a major task for Indians.

Indians need courage to empathetically and honestly discuss the trauma of child sexual abuse which has affected half of its population, both boys and girls. In the face of this denial, all, including their children suffer in silence. Breaking this silence is the first step towards healing.

Svava Brooks, abuse survivor coach writes, “Deep inside, survivors of child sexual abuse want to be heard, validated, and believed. Keeping the abuse as a secret for so long has caused more damage. It manifests in dysfunctional survival mode. The coping strategies may have served them to survive but they have manifested in personality disorders driven by fear and mistrust of others. For victims to heal now, they must gather courage and reach out for support from professionals, friends and trusted family members again and again and again. The survivor needs true friends who will say: I’m so sorry that happened to you! How can I help and support you?

You can help the victim but you cannot cure. You will need your own strength to endure with the victim. Do not ask the victim to forget and forgive. Make sure that the victim puts the blame solely on the predator. It is never the child’s fault.

The same principle applies to a couple where the bruise of child sexual abuse of one or both shows up invariably as dysfunctional relationship. The best advice to the spouse is to read about the ill-effects, recovery and stages of healing. Do remember that you are not alone. Do not take it personally and this too shall pass. However, the turbulence can shake up or break the relationship of a couple like a major storm does. Be resilient!

Dr. Paul Hansen writes, “One of the most healing (and perhaps the most frightening) thing you as a couple can do is to stop keeping the secret. You cannot complete your healing until you do.” Dr. Hansen in the concluding paragraph of his book, ‘Partners And Survivors’ notes, “A useful approach for my wife and me has been to view this healing task as we would any other major health problem for one of us or one of our children. Without blame, we both become willing to be transformed by this healing process. Without blame, we both emerge from it stronger, more loving and more whole persons.”

Fortunately, media, including documentaries, movies, and TV programs are becoming widely available to educate the American public. Oprah is a TV celebrity who openly talked about her child sexual abuse on TV for over two decades and educated the public on ways to heal the survivors of this crime. There are no such public Indian TV role models to coach the survivors towards healing and happiness

India needs its own Oprah Winfrey or a TV program by a spiritual Guru to educate, inform, empower, and heal the wounds of child sexual abuse. Educational programs on TV and Webinars will bring forth two things – compassion for the victims and the resolve (discrimination and wisdom) to stop this evil of child sexual abuse for our future generations.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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