“Whenever, he comes to meet my parents, as he enters my house, I shiver with fear and want to run away. I turn into that little girl again.” This is a real horror story of a 22-year-old female student at my university. She adds, “I am a healthy, single woman, happy and fun-loving. But every once in awhile, I have to face my abuser, and it’s a traumatising experience, every single time.”
Facing the very relative who sexually abused you when you were a child, is an everyday reality for thousands of people. And it is astonishing how little it is talked about. A study by psychologists suggests that adults who had to go through sexual abuse in their childhood show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety and Depression.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, it is very important to understand that there are three types of culprits:
By definition, child sexual abuse is “an act that involves mental, physical and emotional abuse of a child through overt and covert sexual acts, gestures and disposition – when informed consent or resistance by the child victim to such acts is not possible.”
However, the third category is usually dismissed as “young people experimenting with their sexuality”. The problem is that by definition, it’s still a crime. “I remember when I was 12-year-old, I was playing in the locality with some kids my age when one of my playmates suggested that if I lose, I will have to let him put his hand up my shirt. It was only after growing up that I realised how wrong that was.
But was it a crime? I am unable to answer. Am I traumatised by it? No. But some people might be. How do you categorise such incidences? Was it abuse or not? The key here is to treat cases independently because every individual is different (Psychology 101).”
The first category is a pretty straightforward case of paedophilia. It is the second category which is a labyrinth social problems because the abuser is legally a minor. However, the act is still not innocuous because it physically and mentally affects the survivor.
Limited sex education and a mismatch between the age of consent and the age of puberty, makes this a difficult issue to talk in straight terms. A child reaches puberty between the age of 12-14 (generally) but he or she does not have the right over his or her body, or means to consent till the age of 18. Additionally, Indian society is sexually regressive and it makes these acts of child sexual abuse difficult to accept and confront.
These intertwined social and legal problems make child sexual abuse a very difficult subject to discuss. The survivors are not even sure whether what happened to them was an act of sexual abuse and what they feel about it.
Lokesh, a student, explains, “I don’t know if it was abuse because I was 9 or 10 and my cousin was 15 or 16. He did some things to me. It was really weird but I was too young to understand then. Now, that we are grown up, we never talk about that, and it doesn’t matter because we are not even close. It feels wrong but I guess he was also not sure of what he was doing. I don’t know if it’s right to blame him.”
Here I have to mention that these are not some official categories. I have concurred these categories to understand where a person draws the line when it comes to abuse. While in conversation, people said that they don’t consider some acts they did with other kids of their own age as sexual abuse despite the fact that these acts were sexual in nature. The criteria of sexual abuse are very straightforward; it’s any act that is sexual in nature without consent. But when it comes to abuse by other children, it gets messy.
Neha, a university student shares her story:
“You can say that I did participate in my own sexual abuse because I was too young to know what I was doing. I was 11-years old and my cousin was 21-years old. At that time, I did whatever he asked me to do. It was only after I came to understand what is sex and that what I did with him was a sexual act, that it started to bother me. I can’t share it with anyone because I am afraid people are going to say ‘but you participated in it, so it shouldn’t bother you’. But it does (bother me).
Whenever my cousin visits I can’t sit in the same room. I can’t make an eye contact with him. I have been avoiding him for the last 10 years. One time, when he was in my house, I ran away and climbed a tree in the nearby park and sat there all evening, till dark. I don’t know how to deal with this; facing a family member who has sexually abused you is like having a phobia. It makes me so anxious. That’s all I can think about whenever I discuss anything related to sex. It affects my sexual life as an adult.
I know, I was not at fault but I am mortified that if I share it with my family, nobody is going to believe it and they will assume it was my fault. Because that’s what happened in a conservative Indian family; the accusing finger of a man always finds a woman.”
According to psychologists the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), a disorder often present in adults who were sexually abused as children, frequently, display secrecy and avoid disclosures. The study indicates that the majority of abused children do not reveal abuse during childhood and have a hard time disclosing it as an adult. In India, the stigma attached to sexual assault makes it even more difficult people to come out to report the abuse, or seek help.
Richa, a 27-year old PhD student, shared her story with us:
“It happened when I was seven, or eight. It has been two decades, and I don’t even know if it’s worth perusing confrontation in my case. I have moved on, and now remember the incident as a bad dream, and it is fading away. He is my maternal uncle and I have met him thousands of times since then. I haven’t forgiven him and his company still makes me uncomfortable. I try not to be alone with him or any other of my uncles.
The only thing is that it has affected my relationship with my extended family. I don’t like my uncles and I don’t like their family. I do sometimes wonder if it happened to any of my cousins, but I am too afraid to talk to them. What if I am the only one? What if it has happened to all of us? Either of the possibilities is nerve racking.”
There is a lack of awareness about child sexual abuse. It is a horrible reality that an incident is reported only when a child is raped, causing injury and by someone not in the family. When the sexual abuse is not forced, but rather is done by manipulating, or blackmailing the child, and does not cause a physical injury, or is done by someone in the family, it either goes unnoticed or is not reported due to the fear of bringing shame to the family.
A statement released by Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF Representative to India, clearly establishes that children in India are facing child sexual abuse at such a young age. “One in three rape victims is a child. More than 7,200 children including infants are raped every year; experts believe that many more cases go unreported. Given the stigma attached to rapes, especially when it comes to children, this is most likely only the tip of the iceberg,” Arsenault states.
There comes a time in the early years of puberty when a child realises what sex is. It is only then that he or she discovers that someone they loved and trusted has sexually abused them. It is an extremely stressful realisation and can bring up intense and myriad feelings like shock, rage, confusion, denial, disbelief, and guilt. The child gets overwhelmed with such strong feelings. An incident like that can affect a person their entire life.
But every mind is different and that is why everyone reacts differently. Some people move on, forget and forgive. It doesn’t make it a less of a crime but it does make the life of these people much easier. However, there is a small section of people who are affected beyond repair.
Kiran, a 24-year-old sales executive working in Delhi, says, “I have no feelings or interest in sex. I can’t trust a single person in this world, especially a man.” When Kiran was 14-years old, her father did something that she has never disclosed to anyone. She was one of those brave kids who did not keep it inside and she told her mother, who decided to move out of their house with her children. But no one in the entire family gave them refuge. Running out of money and without any support, they had to move back. It’s been 10 years and she is still living with her father. They don’t talk anymore. Kiran says she has lost interest in men, and relationships.
Minal, a 22-year-old student, shares:
“I was abused by my father’s cousin brother. Not only abused but harassed and bullied. It all started when I was 12 and lasted many years. He made fake accounts on social media and messaged me. He would call me from different numbers and say bad things. Even today when he is in my house, I feel so weak, vulnerable and scared. I am not myself. It is frustrating and infuriating. I am not a weak person. But when he is around I am not me; I am that 12-year-old and she is scared.
I have not been single in the last 10 years. I have dated three men, almost back to back. During the few months when I have not had a partner, I felt restless and lonely. I understand that women don’t need men to be safe. I know women are stronger than men and that this dependence for security on men is so patriarchal but I can’t help it. I don’t like this but it’s the only way I feel safe.
And the reason why I depend on a partner so much because I am the eldest child and I have no heart to tell my father about this.”
Even though all the above experiences were of women, an astonishingly high number of young boys get sexually abused in India. A study was conducted in 2007 by Ministry of Women and Child Development in India covering 13 states. The study reported that among the participants 57.3% boys and 42.7% girls reported being sexually abused as a child.
Unfortunately, I could only convince two men to talk to me about their experiences, and I believe it does affect our understanding of how adult men get affected by child sex abuse.
Manish, a 25-year-old UPSC aspirant studying in Delhi shares:
“I was very young and I don’t remember much. He was my father’s friend and our neighbour. He used to call me to his house, whenever he was alone. He used to give me a lot of chocolates and made my play his sick little games. This went on for a couple of years, a few times in a year. When I was 12 or 13 I realised that what he used to make me do was sexual in nature and I stopped going to his house. I felt disgusted and then forgot about it.
A few years back I watched Satyamev Jayate and became aware of the fact that it was a crime, and that I was abused. That uncle still lives in the same house and has grandchildren. I have seen him a few times. I don’t feel anything about it. It was disgusting what he did but what is done is done. I just hope he doesn’t do it with his grandchildren.
Sadly, there is no one to talk to about these things. I don’t want to tell my family. Between friends, we don’t talk about such things and I don’t think so it will make any difference. But speaking about this here will help people to whom this bothers more than me.”
Child sexual abuse is a social injustice that is given the least attention in our society. Dealing with these reactions and helping your child recover from the abuse, requires time, strength, and support from your extended family, your community, and from professionals in law enforcement, child protection, and mental health services. It may be difficult but it is important to notify law enforcement if your child discloses sexual abuse. This is an important step in keeping children safe in our society. However, the most important thing is that this subject needs to be reiterated, discussed publically so that those who suffer silently for many, many years can overcome this trauma. Hopefully, someday more perpetrators will also be brought to justice.