Sakshi was shocked to see bite marks all over her four-year-old daughter's body. After a lot of gentle persuasion, the child let out that daddy did that to her. He had ensured the child's silence with the threat that he would lock her up in a room full of lions if she told anyone. “Since he was the father, there was no way I would be able to keep him away without registering a case,” says Sakshi, who eventually learnt about procedural apathy the hard way.
“When I went to register the FIR, the people on duty did not even understand the meaning of molestation or abuse,” she says. “The first hearing of the case took place three years after the FIR was lodged. ‘These things happen only in America. What have you brought in front of me?' was what the judge asked me.”
Right from putting up applications for video-conferencing, which was denied, to ensuring her husband stood behind a screen while the little girl was being interrogated during the hearing, Sakshi never gave up fighting for her daughter's rights. The little girl supported her mother's efforts bravely, despite the lawyers who tried their best to confuse and intimidate her. Instead of a one-time statement and interrogation, the seven-year-old was treated like an adult and had to give her statement again and again to the police, doctors, defence lawyers and judges. The duo tasted sweet victory when a settlement was reached where the father would stay away from the girl till she was 13, and the girl could then decide whether she wanted to see him or not.
Sadly, there is never total freedom from abuse. Sakshi's daughter turned into a recluse who did not interact with other children in school. She always had a huge pressure to perform because she feared her father would use it as an excuse to take her away. She fell sick very often and her father's threats left her in perpetual fear of animals. She had low self-esteem and was even scared to cross the road alone.
Now, thanks to innumerable sessions of counselling, Sakshi's daughter has got into the best of colleges and is doing well for herself. “We know we have lot of baggage,” says Sakshi. “But, we are always seeking help and ways to deal with it and taking responsibility for it, instead of getting into the victim mode and saying my life is ruined.”
When the abuser is someone as important to a child as the father, the damage is almost beyond repair. Incestuous child sex abuse is nothing new. A 1997 study on middle and upper-class women of Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Goa by Recovering and Healing from Incest (RAHI) revealed that 76 per cent of respondents had been sexually abused as children, with 71 per cent being abused either by relatives or by someone they knew and trusted.
A recent case of child sex abuse that made headlines was that of Suja and French diplomat Pascal Mazurier, who allegedly abused their three-year-old daughter. Suja claims that the truth about the abuse came to light when her daughter started talking clearly. After she lodged a complaint, the little girl was allegedly questioned for almost an hour in the mother's absence. She reportedly underwent physical examination in a blood-stained labour room with a woman in labour despite having undergone a check in another hospital. “She was screaming and was very upset, and it took a long time for her to be normal again,” says Suja.
Dr Shekhar Seshadri, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore, elaborates on what he calls a question of an index of suspicion. It is food for serious thought when a father claims extra or private time with the child at the expense of family time or contrives his work situation with the child. Claiming parental rights which are inappropriate for the age and gender of the child are all warning signs. As an example: why would a father want to bathe an eight-year-old girl child?
“I feel it is a major victory when anybody wants to talk about the abuse and wants to seek assistance,” says Vidya Reddy, one of the founders of Chennai-based Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (CPHCSA). “Talking about it is half the battle won. The longer we all keep quiet, we are playing to the abuser's advantage. When we teach children parts of the body like eyes, nose, ears, chin and neck, there is a vast expanse in between ‘which doesn't exist' and then we teach them knees, ankles and toes. Why can't we start with body parts that have perfectly biological bodily functions? When we don't give our children the vocabulary, it is a huge problem when abusers target them," says Vidya. “We need to give children the emotional competency to deal with situations, discern them, ask for help and talk about it,” she says. “The biggest problem is we don't give the child the congenial space for establishing communication.”
Vidya and three others started Tulir in 2004. It takes a community to protect a child, she says. No one person, institution or system can be held responsible. “Every time a child is abused, all of us have to hang our heads in shame because we were directly or indirectly involved in allowing it to happen,” she says.
A six-year-old girl in Abu Dhabi threatened her abusive father that she would tell mom everything if he scolded her for not studying. Her father had managed to silence her by saying he would kill the mother if she spoke about it to anyone. When the mother asked her about it, the child said, “Daddy did dirty things to me”.
The mother asked the girl to keep quiet about the matter since they were in a foreign country. She took emergency leave from work and brought the child to her grandparents' home in India and filed for divorce. However, it had to be consensual and she did not file a complaint against the abuser because she did not want her child to go through the trauma of seeing him and repeatedly narrating the incident.
The unfortunate incident left a deep impact on the child who felt guilty that her family broke up because of her. Mumbai-based Arpan helped the child deal with her trauma while ensuring the mother had emotional support.
In the past four years, the NGO has helped at least 17 girls aged three to 16 who were abused by their fathers. The abuse ranged from non-penetrative actions like masturbating in front of the child and showing pornographic material to penetrative actions.
Incestuous abuse has a very specific impact, especially that by a father, feels Anuja Gupta, co-founder of RAHI. “It is one of the most difficult types of abuse in the kind of impact it is likely to have on the particular child,” she says. “It has care-taking associated with it in a very natural expected way, so the child's relationship with the father which concerns trust and emotional bonding, is very automatic. There is nothing the abuser needs to do in order to win the trust of the child. So the child's level of betrayal is very high. When abuse becomes part of the relationship that already exists between father and daughter, the relationship becomes very complex. The feelings of a daughter towards her abuser are not necessarily one of hatred. Often, the thought is: 'I love my father but I hate him. Why did he do this to me? What did I do wrong?'
The child is in a very strange sense of virtual reality, who is the real father, the one at night or the one in the day time who pretends nothing has happened, says Seshadri.
Psychiatrist Dr Vilas Desai believes sex offenders may display sexual addiction on the lines of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Or they could also be paedophiles. For such a person, the easiest and safest target is his own child. He can easily manipulate the household environment to suit his purpose.
Sneha's tutor started abusing her when she was six years old. ‘Safety in numbers' became an irony for her as the abuse continued for six years, five days a week, 10 months a year in the house of a 22-member joint family. Her tuition teacher would blatantly touch her private parts from under the table. Her family trusted him and kept the door shut to ensure no disturbance in study.
Unable to tell anyone about her ordeal, Sneha started performing badly in school. Her mother would beat her up; her tutor also kept a long stick. The abuse took its toll and she kept falling ill very regularly. She complained of vaginal irritation, but her parents did not act. They couldn't make out their daughter had turned into an introvert with low self-esteem, never had friends and was afraid of being with people.
Sneha felt her mother had failed in protecting her by not asking her even once about what was wrong. It was only after she went through counselling that she realised her mother was not to blame for what happened. It helped her understand the fact that the past never gets left behind until one gets help. Today, she regrets that she was not able to perform well in academics. Yet, with counselling she was able to conquer her demons and is today an independent confident young woman working with a good company. She has also learnt to make friends and have fun.
“It's true we are taught to respect elders by our families. But if an elder is doing something wrong, we should stop him,” says Sneha. In fact, child sexual abuse is not limited to any sex or socio-economic background. The Tulir-CPHCSA study conducted in 2006 among 2,211 school-going children in Chennai indicates a child sexual abuse prevalence rate of 42 per cent. While 48 per cent of boys reported having been abused, the prevalence rate among girls was 39 per cent.
Ganesh Nallari believes “life is about creating thyself and true happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done”. It is difficult to corelate this optimistic, energetic and highly successful person with someone who was sexually abused by his uncle for more than a decade.
A dentist with an MA in fashion design from Domus Academy, Milan, Ganesh is also a trained Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer and a theatre artiste. He had worked for almost two years as a dentist, before he realised his passion was something else. He now has a premium clothing line to his name. Yet, he felt he was living two lives simultaneously. While on the one hand he has a highly successful career graph, on the other, “there was this whole darkness because of the abuse which I dealt with silently,” he says. “I always asked myself—why me?”
Just before his uncle died of jaundice, Ganesh went to meet him at the hospital. He walked up close and told his abuser that he had forgiven him. “I cried so much when he died, not knowing whether they were tears of sorrow for the death of a family member or joy at being freed finally,” he says.
Ganesh now conducts workshops at schools to teach children about ‘good touch' and ‘bad touch'. He has no regrets about speaking on a public forum about his abuse as a child. “If my face makes a parent conscious and cautious that this should not happen to their child, it is enough for me,” he says. The film I Am by Onir is based on Ganesh's experience. He and Sneha also shared their experience on Aamir Khan's show Satyamev Jayate.
Child sexual abuse is rampant in every other Indian home and even in schools. Incest itself includes an entire gamut of relationships right from fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on.
Many a time when the abuser is the father, uncle or cousin, the mother's position in the house matters. Is she financially dependent on the husband, do they share a healthy relationship themselves? Even if she wants to help the child, she is forced to keep quiet simply because nothing good may come out of it. Yet there are some brave women who take on society.
We will be fools if we ignore the alarming statistics which are mere findings of surveys on a few thousands of abused children. The fact that the media repeatedly flashes the face of the victim and dwells on the gory details instead of helping punish the abuser, only worsens the trauma of the victim's family. Yes, there is new law in the form of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, but if we don't speak up when our children are abused, the law cannot sniff out the abusers from the homes that shelter them.
Some names have been changed to protect identity.