The Perils of Being a Child

Child Sexual Abuse is more rampant that what is believed to be and there have recent been attempts to raise awareness on the issue, finds out Sukhdeep Singh

India –a country of over 1 billion that takes pride in the fact that more than one-third of the population is below 18 years of age, thus giving India the tag of a “young country”. Yet, when it comes to protecting this young population, the society and the government behave no less like an Ostrich, turning away their faces and thinking that no wrong can happen to these innocent children. Until recently, there didn’t exist a special law which would deal with cases of sexual abuse of children and the much reviled Sec 377 of IPC was used to deal with any such case. Many of the laws for women were extended to include children, and thus were based on the fundamental (flawed) assumption that only a girl child could be subjected to abuse. Also, only penile penetration was considered as a major offence!

WHO defines sexual abuse against child as inappropriate sexual behaviour with a child. It includes fondling a child’s genitals, making the child fondle the adult’s genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism and sexual exploitation. Furthermore, to be defined as ‘child sexual abuse’ these acts have to be committed by a person responsible for the care of a child (for example a baby-sitter, a parent, or a daycare provider), or related to the child. If a stranger commits these acts, it is considered as sexual assault.

It was only in 2005 when the Ministry of Women and Child Development under Smt. Renuka Chowdhury initiated a National Study on Child Abuse that horrific facts about child sexual abuse in India came to the fore and dispelled any myth that our homes are safe for our children. The study, which was the largest of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world, covered 13 states with a sample size of 12447 children, 2324 young adults and 2449 stakeholders. It looked at different forms of child abuse: Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse and Emotional Abuse and Girl Child Neglect in five different evidence groups, namely, children in a family environment, children in school, children at work, children on the street and children in institutions. The study found that 53.22% children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse, of which 52.94% were boys and 47.06% girls, clearly showing that boys are more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

How it all starts

The sexual abuse of a child could start when he/she is as young as 5 years! The study found that ‘the abuse started at the age of 5 years, gained momentum 10 years onward, peaking at 12 to 15 years and then starting to decline. 36.53% of children in the age group 5-12 years reported being sexually abused, while 73% of the total incidence of child sexual abuse was reported among children between 11 and 18 years of age.

Contrary to what one may believe, CSA is a planned process by the abuser, who often abuses the trust that the child has in him/her. Often, the child is also lured by giving chocolates or gifts to build a relationship and gain the trust. According to the National Study on Child Abuse 2007, in 50% of the cases, the abuser was known to the child or was in a position of trust and responsibility. Pooja Taparia, the founder and CEO of Arpan-an NGO in Mumbai that has been working with victims and survivors of CSA-says, “Child sexual abuse is always a planned process by the offender or abuser. It is very important to understand, it is never an accident. Very often luring is one of the key aspects of CSA, where the abuser tries to lure the child by giving chocolates, building a relationship with the child before the abuser commits the abuse. For the child it is never abnormal, because a child does not know what is right and what is wrong, what is Ok not Ok because the child’s awareness is almost nil on these issues.” It is this innocence and confusion that an abuser hops onto to further abuse the child. Aman (name changed) recalls how his abuse started as a child, “I was as a kid, around the age of 5 and it was my neighbour’s dad. At first I didn’t know or understand, I was told this is what all young boys have to go through and that my father wasn’t teaching me the right ways of being a man.”

In fact, the study found out that 31% of the children were subjected to sexual assault by their uncles or neighbours, followed by 29% by friends and class fellows, 10% by their cousins. The abuse of Aman by his neighbour’s father continued for two years and ended only after the family shifted to another place. However, the abuse resumed when he was 17 and continued for another two years, this time from his own uncle who even asked to perform for his friends! “It ended when I slapped my uncle and punched his friend in the crotch. I said enough was enough,” tells Aman. For Sunny (name changed) though, it was his school seniors who were the culprits. His abuse began in his teens, when he was around 12 years and ended only after he moved from his village to city after 10th class for studies.

Why do children keep quiet?

With the kind of trust that the abuser develops, it is often hard for a child to comprehend that something wrong is happening to them. Threat is another weapon in the armoury of the abuser that is employed well against a child. So even though the child may feel what is happening to him is wrong, he may choose to remain silent due to the fear that the abuser may harm him or some other person close to him. In fact, the study conducted by Ministry of and Child Development found that 72.1% children did not report the matter to anyone.

“In the beginning I was scared on both counts, and it was physically hurting. Something within always told me it was not right. Why should another man touch me was the question, especially my private parts!! Why should I have to watch, touch or feel a grown ups private parts? When I questioned I was beaten up as a kid, as a teenager I had no choice; but I fought back and was thrown out of my cousins place,” recounts Aman.

“Very often a child doesn’t talk about it because may be the abuser has used some threat. Second is that the abuser has developed a great relation with the child and gained the child’s trust completely; so when the abuser says that ‘This is a secret game between us, don’t tell anybody,’ the child will not tell; because children are so innocent and vulnerable that they would generally not suspect any inappropriate behaviour. So they think that it is ok. The third reason is also that the child does not have the vocabulary to talk about these issues. So how do they report it, they don’t know how to talk about it. And they also think may be they might not be believed. So various reasons actually contribute to children not talking about the abuse,” explains Pooja.

Self- Esteem and Vulnerability

All this leaves such a deep impact on the child that it leaves him/her completely shattered. The child starts blaming himself/herself for the abuse and withdraws into a shell and completely loses the self-confidence. The scars remain even after they grow up and forming a relation becomes hard for the survivors, because they can’t seem to trust another person again. “I went into a shell, never mixed with boys and girls and grew up alone. Although there were kids my age, I couldn’t relate to them, couldn’t relate to sex and sexuality as I grew up. Today I am stronger but I am still having a little pain, I want to have a relationship, but I don’t seem to trust any man touching me; that explains why I am scared of a commitment, why I never allowed sex in my relationships with my guys,” tells Aman. Similar was the situation with Sunny, who chooses not to visit his village since it brings back the painful memories. “I always wanted to be silent in my village… I want to live there but I could never like my village environment/ village people because of these memories,” he says.

While sexual abuse could lead to low self esteem, low self esteem could also leave a child vulnerable to abuse. “Children who have low self esteem, when they get attention from somebody and the person abuses them, they tend to go with it because of the attention that they are getting. Over a period of time, as adults, when the realization occurs that what happened was not ok and when the shame and guilt sets in, the shame again creates a low self-esteem. So it is like a circle,” tells Pooja Taparia.

Confusion about Sexuality

With so much already happening, as the child grows, if he realises that he is attracted to the same – sex, this may lead to a lot of confusion in the mind and they start blaming the abuse for their sexuality, making it even harder for them to accept their alternate sexuality. “A lot of male survivors ask me ‘I am a homosexual and was sexually abused and is there any connection?’” corroborates Pooja. While science tells us that a person’s sexuality is innate and he/she is born with it, studies have failed to find any link between sexuality and the abuse of a child. “If you have been sexually abused as a child, it does not mean you are a homosexual. The confusion arises because people generally don’t understand the difference between sexual behavior and sexual orientation. Your sexual orientation tells you whether you are a heterosexual or a homosexual, but not necessarily your sexual behavior,” opines Pooja. “A person’s orientation is largely determined by where the attraction is,” she adds. So, even if a person may have had sex with someone of the same-sex, or might have “experimented” a couple of times, it need not to imply that he/she is a homosexual, because the attraction would still lie with the opposite sex.

Read the signs!

Even if children may not speak directly about the abuse to an elder, they do try to convey indirectly about their suffering. A sudden change in behavior should also ring an alarm among the parents that something could be amiss. Sadly, many a times these signs are overlooked or not understood. A sudden withdrawal from social life, drop in academic performance, eating disorders or anxiety and depression, urinary infections or unexplained pain and swelling in genital area could be an indicator that the child is being abused. “Children do try to tell their parents but they are not able to understand what’s going on! Children do not have appropriate vocab, they are not able to express themselves. Second, there are times when the parents are not able to believe the child because it is a case of incest where it is a family member who is involved. It comes as a huge shock and most parents are actually not quite aware about sexual abuse happening in society,” tells Pooja.

Seek Professional Help

Whether it is a child victim or an adult survivor of the abuse, Pooja Taparia strongly recommends seeking professional help to judge the impact of the abuse on a person’s life. “People must go to a counselor and find out what the impact of the abuse has been. I am not saying that every person who has low self-esteem has been a victim of CSA, I am saying that very often we have seen linkages in cases where low self-esteem has added to the problems and vice-versa,” she says. Yet, going by the number of people approaching Arpan for professional help, men seem to be shying away from seeking help. When asked whether they had sought any professional help, both Aman and Sunny denied seeking any help; even though Aman admits that he has trouble getting into a relationship. Pooja blames it on the social taboo of men needing help, which is viewed as a weakness and goes against the macho state they are supposed to be in. “No child I have come across has ever forgotten their sexual abuse in the past. Any and every small incident is remembered and has a deep impact depending on who the abuser was and how long the abuse continued. If any person comes to know about any kind of sexual abuse happening to a child or has happened to an adult as a child they must get help,” she stresses.

How to Teach Children

As they say, prevention is the best cure. Parents must be equally vigilant about their male child. Contrary to perception that the house is safe, the truth, points out Pooja, is that there is a lot of incest happening. Around 31% of the cases received by Arpan are of incest. One cannot monitor their child 24×7, and thus the best way to protect them is to teach them personal safety skills and tell them that it is never right for someone to touch their private body parts except to keep them clean and healthy and it is never all right for someone to ask them to do the same thing.

Through there outreach program, Arpan has been able to reach out to over 20000 children and adults, raising awareness on the issue. “We tell children that if such a thing happens, you should say NO and run and get away from that situation and go and tell a trusted adult and keep telling till they get the help they need. The reason we ask them to keep telling it is that the first adult they talk to might not believe them, so we ask them to keep telling it till they get the help they need,” tells Pooja. “Another very important thing that we tell them is that it is never their fault… When children understand that it is not their fault, they grow up to be not that traumatized because very often children take on the responsibility of what happened and therefore the shame and guilt sets in.”

Society’s effort

As a society, we have largely remained silent on the issue. However, there have been recent attempts to speak about the issue. One such attempt worth lauding is by Onir, whose recent movie I AM (which was a collection of four short stories) dealt with the topic of CSA in one of the stories I AM Abhimanyu. With I AM Abhimanyu, the issue of male child abuse was portrayed on the silver screen for the first time. The movie also helped in opening up discussions about child abuse. Taking inspiration from the movie, a group of bloggers, both parents and non parents, decided to mark April as CSA Awareness month and started a blog. Throughout the month, there were discussions on twitter and the blog as well. Survivors of CSA shared their stories, parents wrote about their anxieties, and various organizations shared their views on how to tackle it.

“Speak up to be heard, cane the hand that touches you, educate kids around, spread awareness, learn to convert your pain to something beneficial,” advices Aman. A vigilant and sensitized society is what can save our children. Most important of all, don’t ignore what a child says! There could be a lot of hidden meaning in those words. After all, a lost childhood is no less than a lost life.

Image Courtesy: Ryan Dino Aréstegui