A three-month old girl was recently brought to the Government Medical College and Rajindra Hospital in Patiala with vaginal bleeding. Her illiterate mother revealed reluctantly that her husband was an alcoholic and had tried to push a toothbrush into the daughter’s vagina, just half-an-inch in size.
After bristles of the toothbrush were removed, the doctor asked the mother to lodge a police complaint to save her daughter from such assaults in the future. She left the hospital refusing even medication for the child.
A nine-month-old girl was brought to the hospital with a carrot protruding out of her vagina. The victim’s father was a drug-addict. Her mother too refused to lodge a complaint saying the child fell on the carrot.
A five-year-old girl came with a tear in her vulva. The mother said her husband did it under “influence of alcohol”. Though she was able to save the child when the father was trying to penetrate her, she was beaten and thrown out of the house for the entire night.
“I cannot lodge a complaint as there is another young girl child at home and the father is the only bread-winner.”
The land of missing daughters, Punjab now has tales of horror from little girls not killed in the womb. Like foeticide, the perpetrator of sexual abuse too is lurking in their homes.
Though the growing menace of drug and alcohol addiction became the main poll issue during the recent parliamentary elections in the state, among those silently bearing its brunt are daughters -- even infants and toddlers -- who are coming to hospitals with complaints of repeated urinary tract infections, frequent vaginal discharge, bed-wetting at night and swelling in private parts.
The case diaries of Dr Harshindar Kaur, assistant professor at the de par tment of paediatrics at Rajindra hospital, have since October seen a surge in cases of incest (sexual abuse by a relative).
A child and woman rights activist, who also appears on a FM helpline programme, Kaur has been dealing with cases of incest. But what alarmed her was the abuser was no more just the stepfather or a relative but even biological fathers, mostly drug or alcohol addicts.
Narrating two recent cases, she said, “A 13-year-old girl came with her mother to seek treatment for repeated urinary tract infections after being raped by her drug-addict stepfather.
"A school principal called me up seeking help for a Class-8 student whose stepfather was refusing to pay the school fee till she came to his bed at night. But to my horror, the abusers are now also their own biological fathers.
"And in almost all such cases that have come to me, the father is either a drug addict or an alcoholic or both,” she says.
Inside the Rajindra hospital, the conditions are equally appalling. There is no enclosure in the OPD room for children. The doctor examines the private parts of girl children on a cot, in the presence of a male attendant while men accompanying other patients look on.
NGOs working on child rights say there is a direct link between child sex abuse and problem of drug addiction or alcoholism in parents.
“We deal with sexually abused children and have come across several cases where the father is the abuser. Parents with drinking or drug abuse problems are a high-risk factor for child sex abuse,” says Bharti Ali from HAQ, centre for child rights.
Dr Bhavneet Bharti of the department of paediatrics at the PGI, Chandigarh, says drug abuse and alcoholism are closely linked to sexual offences as the person loses inhibition.
“Under their influence, a person does not know what he is doing. We had a case of a teenager who turned first-time sexual offender under the influence of liquor served to him by his friends.
But sexual abuse cases come occasionally to hospitals as families prefer to be silent on them,” she says.
Though the cases coming to government hospitals are mostly from lower income strata, Dr Harshindar says incest is rampant in all sections of society. “The mother is part of the conspiracy of silence.
Such is the social stigma attached to the abuse that mothers bury it till the physical or emotional symptoms become telling. Even doctors do not probe this angle if a small girl comes with obvious symptoms of sexual abuse.
While an infant runs a risk to her life in case she develops septicemia (severe infection in her private parts), young girls can suffer other physical complications, such as fibrosis, making them unable to bear children.
The psychological implications are equally damaging. It can result in extreme sexual behaviours -- they can either become too sexually active or fear even a touch -- or they grow into adults incapable of having normal sexual relations. The trauma lasts a lifetime,” adds Dr Harshindar.
The Punjab Child Rights Commission (PCRC) says it can do little in absence of complaints. “The problem of drug and liquor abuse is on the rise in Punjab. There are bound to be social implications. But there is a social stigma attached to sexual abuse.
When the father is an abuser, it becomes a bigger taboo. They also fear further victimisation by the police. Our commission can refer the matter to the police only when we get a complaint. We cannot intrude into the private space of families unwilling to do so,” says PCRC chairman Swaran Salaria.