By Barkha Dutt:
I was not even ten when I was first sexually abused. The perpetrator was a distant older relative who had come to stay with us for a short period of time. Like many Punjabi households, ours was an open house, always welcoming to cousins and their friends, and their friends in turn. Today, decades later, I cannot even recall the precise connection of this man to my family. But, to a child’s eye, he was avuncular and affectionate and, in any case, I just assumed I was safe in my own home.
Little did I imagine that this much-older, family figure—someone who would take the kids for piggy-back rides and twirl us around in the air—could be such a monster. Worse still, as a child unable to process the magnitude of what had happened—I was the one who felt grotesque and dirty. The concept of teaching your child to distinguish between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ had not yet become the enlightened norm. But after the first few times I had innocently followed him to ‘play’ with him in his room, I was overcome by panic and disgust.
Ridden with guilt, unable to shake off the feeling of being dirty and trapped in a sink of fear, I finally told my mother that something terrible had happened. My assaulter was immediately thrown out of the house and I buried the awfulness of the memory in a deep, dark place that I hoped I would never have to revisit. As I grew older, what stayed with me, strangely enough, was the rancid smell of hair-oil; even years later, anything that smelt faintly similar made me nauseous. In my growing years, I blocked out the man’s face, his name, in fact the very incident was banished to the recesses of my consciousness; but from that moment onwards, sexual abuse had an odour.
It was the loneliest and most frightened I had felt as a child and the fear lurked in the shadows, following me into adulthood. I discovered that I was often wary, even scared, of sexual relations—a familiar consequence for those who had experienced abuse as children.
I didn’t know it then but my experience, horrible as it was, was hardly uncommon. In 2007, the first ever government survey of child sexual abuse uncovered that more than half the children spoken to (53 per cent) said they had experienced some form of sexual abuse. Twenty per cent of those interviewed said they had been subjected to severe abuse, which the report defined as ‘sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude’. Yet, the silence of young victims and the misplaced shame they felt shielded the perpetrators. These were men deeply embedded in the family structure, it made it that much more difficult to call them out. The report found that 31 per cent of the sexual assaults were by an uncle or neighbour. So it wasn’t surprising that over 70 per cent of children had never spoken to anyone of what was done to them.
The toughest discovery for me was to find that feminism offered no shield against the vulnerability, confusion, guilt and rage you felt when you were abused. As a young adult who experienced violence in a personal relationship for the very first time as a postgraduate student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, my response was less confused but no easier to act on. By now I was a self-aware young woman with strong opinions. I thought I was difficult to intimidate. I believed I would know exactly what to do if a man I was dating ever hit me. Of course I would take him to the cops, I would say with confidence when we sat around discussing how unfriendly the legal system was towards women. I thought I was never going to stand for anything like domestic abuse. It went against every book I had read, every principle I held as sacred and every bit of my self-image. Until it happened.
Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company from the book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.