Imagine for a moment that you are a 12-year-old. Someone close to you is hurting you. You don’t know what they are doing to you, but you know it’s affecting you. You want to talk about it. But no one believes you. They tell you to keep quiet, that you are making things up, that it’s probably nothing.
Or worse, that it is your fault.
Take the case of this 13-year-old boy from Byculla. He told his parents several times about his uncle sexually abusing him, but it was not until he had to be rushed to a hospital for unbearable body pain and a psychiatrist intervened did his parents decide to act.
Experts and NGOs working with child survivors of sexual abuse said their hardest battles are often with the children’s own families, who feel their neighbours will shun them for talking about the abuse.
“In India, any topic related to sex is taboo.It gets worse when the offender is a relative. For instance, if a stepfather assaults a girl child, the mother asks the child if she provoked him,” said Jalpa Bhuta, a child psychiatrist.
The result of this kind of stigma? A growing silence around the issue that only perpetuates further abuse — offenders think they can get away and the victims start believing the abuse is normal, said experts.
The culture of silence
“Don’t tell anyone about what your uncle did to you. They won’t believe you.” “What did you do? You must have provoked him to hurt you.” “I will harm your whole family if you tell anyone about this.” “What will our neighbours say?” “Who will marry my daughter if I speak about what happened to her?”
“Unfortunately, our culture has always been: if you are sexually assaulted, then you have asked for it. It is high time for us to say it is not the fault of the victim,” said social activist Priti Patkar.
“The silence and stigma around the whole problem has made it difficult for families to report the abuse. There is always that fear about what society would think,” Bhuta said.
Why we need to speak up
Many offenders ‘groom’ their victims — they target a child, get to know her, make her comfortable around them, attack and then threaten the child to keep her quiet.
“In many cases, offenders let the victims cross a boundary and then sexually abuse them. We have seen cases where the abuser is so smart, he makes what is happening seem normal,” said Patkar.
“This confuses the child and she doesn’t know if what is happening to her is wrong or right. Perpetrators are constantly manipulating children,” said Patkar.
Finding a way out
The best solution is for parents to make sure their children feel free to talk to them. “Use a doll to teach the child what is good touch and bad touch. If a child builds up the courage to talk about something, listen to them and approach the situation in a non-judgmental way,” said Bhuta.
Patkar said giving children the freedom to speak at home may make them less vulnerable to being groomed by abusers. “It’s time to get rid of the don’t talk, fold your hands, fingers on your lips approach to discipline children. We don’t have a culture of participation, we don’t encourage openness and this is affecting the way children talk to us,” she said.
Another way to keep children safe is to empower them against the abuse. “Children are at risk everywhere. In cities like Mumbai, where both parents work and cannot be with the child all the time, teaching children to identify abuse and defend themselves against it, is the most effective way to keep them safe,” said Rekha Shahani, a former school principal and a trustee in Public Concern for Governance Trust.
Arpan, an NGO, has used a special syllabus to discuss sexual abuse to reach nearly 65,000 children over the past decade — a method that psychiatrists said could make children more aware. Arpan’s syllabus uses different concepts to reach different age-groups.
Social workers said a good support system at home will help make children more aware, and help survivors cope with the attack better.