In the light of such incidents, it is not surprising that sexual abuse of children and the youth is the biggest kept secret in India. A recent study by an organisation called Stop It Now (www.stopitnow.org) revealed that only 12 per cent of the victims (both boys and girls) disclose being abused. Another study by Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (www.tulir.org) notes that over 50 per cent of them were not helped, but instead disbelieved, blamed or told to keep it a secret.
So what is sexual abuse? The involvement of a child/teen in sexual behaviour by an older or more ‘powerful’ person, manipulating, persuading or forcing an individual to engage in any type of sexual act is called sexual abuse, in which both girls and boys are equally vulnerable. It also includes non-contact acts such as exposing one’s private body parts.
First, let us look at the legal aspects. In our country, sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16, with or without her consent, is considered rape. But, if a married girl above 15 years is forced to have intercourse with her husband, it is NOT considered rape. Contradicting all this are child marriage laws that prohibit marriage below the age of 18! Now does this make any sense?
Next is who is a child? In some cultures, anyone below 18 years is a child. Others believe that childhood ends at the age of 12. Let us assume that a child is below 12 years and a teenager or young adult falls between 13 and 18 years.
According to a National Study of Child Abuse by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India, 53.22 per cent of the population has faced sexual violence in some form or the other. Vidya Reddy, the founder of Tulir, stressed the importance of the ‘power dynamic’ involved in abuse. The abuser need NOT be an older person, but a more ‘powerful’ and authoritative one.
We need to clarify here that sexual harassment is NOT synonymous with sexual abuse. Sexual abuse, says Ms. Reddy, occurs in the context of a relationship in which trust, responsibility and authority play a major role. Around 95 per cent of the abusers are well known to the victim; in most cases it is a family member or a close family friend. The abuser can also be a servant, a driver, a baby sitter, a neighbour, an older child looking after a younger child. Authoritative abusers are usually teachers, coaches. In some cases all three factors are present.
Thirteen-year-old Jaya* was finding it difficult to cope with her swimming classes. Her coach offered to teach her “special exercises” and told her not to tell anyone because then he would not be able to give her undivided attention. Jaya, thrilled that her coach was showing special interest, readily agreed. The coach, taking advantage of the churning waters, sexually abused her (finger penetration) in the pool.
This incident also introduces the concept of grooming, a systematic and methodical process by which an abuser gains his or her victims’ trust, thereby reducing the probability of the abuse being reported. In some cases, the abuser gains the trust of the victim’s parents as well, making it even more difficult for the victim to complain.
Society’s ignorance and response to sexual violence against children and teenagers, which is considered “taboo”, discourages the victims from disclosing their abusive history. Emotional involvement is another reason why the victim might not complain or break the relationship. For example, a child who has witnessed domestic violence might grow up with the wrong notion that it is the norm to continue with the relationship despite the violence. Added to this, the media sometimes reinforces or exaggerates these real life incidents.
Sexual abuse may occur during childhood, but the effects can continue into adulthood. Peter* is 36 years, but finds it difficult to make important decisions and becomes an emotional wreck in a situation of crisis. The reason? His geography teacher inappropriately fondled him (masturbated him through his shorts) during class from his sixth standard till his 10th standard. The teacher used to ensure that Peter was always sitting alone in the last bench, thereby placing him in a helpless situation. The trauma of this incident continues to affect his everyday life.
Meera* detests the smell of mangoes, because she associates it with the memories of being raped by her grandfather, who used to smell of mangoes.
Most parents react at first with disbelief and denial. (“How could you say such a thing about Ramu Uncle?”). Some blame themselves (“Where did we go wrong?” or “How could this happen to our child?”). Still others turn a blind eye to such incidents. Most prefer to hush up the issue with an eye to the “future of the child” (and their social status). However, parents should start thinking of the here and now. The shame and guilt of hiding such incidents will eventually haunt the victim.
RAHI (Recovery and Healing from Incest; www.rahifoundation.org), an organisation in Delhi, arranges Peer Education programmes to equip college-going women with knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and beliefs in the area of incest and sexual violence. This is done with the view that teens are more likely to confide in their friends rather than in their parents or teachers. Major aspects include assuring the victims that they are believed; if the abuse continues, discreet steps will be taken to stop it; it is not their fault.
According to Ms. Reddy, a majority of the victims go through life believing they were the reason for the abuse. Also children who have been abused are more vulnerable to future abuse. Most victims think they are the only ones being abused and finding that others have faced similar trauma lightens their burden (visit http://askios.tripod.com). Those unwilling to share their experiences can try self-help workbooks (contact Tulir at 26192026, 26190771).
What can we do? It is essential to voice your views as this is an important step towards stopping abuse and also contributes towards the healing process. An effective support and response structure in terms of family, friends, professional services, law and the society as a whole is essential so that the victims have a chance to address their problems. Most abusers do not stop only with one victim.
If you know or hear of a child/teen being sexually abused, do whatever it takes to ensure the child’s/teen’s safety and inform the parents about the child’s vulnerability. Just think, “What if it was ME or MY child?” Remember, every individual counts!
* Names changed to protect the privacy of the individual
Why they don’t complain
Fear of not being believed
Fear of being blamed
Fear of further harm
Fear of shame and guilt
Fear of losing love
Fear of remembering the incident
Boys as victims
This issue is not taken seriously. In one survey, out of 847 boys, 405 reported sexual abuse. Of that, 179 reported severe sexual abuse (sexual intercourse, oral sex, photographing them in the nude, asking them to touch the abuser’s private parts). Most boys will not report abuse due to the shame involved.
Role of adults
Parents should teach their children the age-appropriate names of all body parts (no more referring to any body part as shame, shame!). Only then will the child be able to report unsafe touches.
Children should be taught the difference between a safe and an unsafe touch.They should be taught that their body belongs to them and they have a right to say NO.
Create a non-judgmental atmosphere at home so that children will feel free to report untoward incidents.
Chapters on reproduction in biology books should be amply descriptive and teachers should explain the concept of sexual intercourse (no skipping pages 92-97!). This will prevent curious teens from getting information from inappropriate sources.
Start peer education programmes schools and colleges. Remember, more than half of the victims just need someone to talk to.
RAHI’s Peer Education Program (PEP) is a unique student peer intervention strategy that works with young women on Delhi’s college campuses for the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse. Students are selected from different colleges in Delhi and are trained as Peer Educators (PEs) over four days. Students learn the art of listening to a friend talking about his or her sexual abuse experiences, how to manage group discussions, make presentations and function as a team. The training is rounded off with some practical goal setting and a concrete plan of action. PEs design and lead educational activities for their peers. They organise debates, poster competitions, theatre events, workshops, book readings, and stalls during college fests. PEP was launched in October 2004. and has trained 86 students from 12 colleges who have reached over 12,000 students.