An­gels and Demons

Ex­perts talk about the im­por­tance of ad­dress­ing child sex­ual abuse and why si­lence is not the best treat­ment


Main­stream cul­ture sel­dom gives chil­dren any cre­dence—ex­cept as vic­tims of cir­cum­stance. They are in­vis­i­ble ex­ten­sions of the happy fam­ily myth that most con­ven­tional nar­ra­tives are wrought upon. Mira Nair’s Mon­soon

Wed­ding broke this rel­a­tive calm, with its nu­anced de­tail­ing of child sex­ual abuse in the ‘elite’ cir­cles of so­ci­ety. Usu­ally a bit­ter pill to swal­low, Nair’s valiant hero­ine claimed more than just screen space when she spoke out against her abuser, an other­wise benev­o­lent un­cle who had touched her when she ‘didn’t even have breasts’. The film cap­tured an ugly truth about In­dian so­ci­ety that we’ve tried our best to shield with de­nial and some­times, com­plete ig­no­rance. It fol­lowed on the heels of an­other shock­ing rev­e­la­tion for the face­tious mid­dle and up­per-classes—pinki Virani’s de­fin­i­tive ac­count Bit­ter Choco­late (2000), one of In­dia’s most com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies of child abuse across class, cul­ture and eco­nomic di­vi­sions. Go­ing be­yond fig­ures, the book delves into the lives of both sur­vivors and vic­tims, with a clin­i­cal yet sen­si­tive nar­ra­tion of what they en­dure be­hind the so­cial ve­neer of be­ing a ‘happy’ fam­ily. Even though, as Virani con­cludes in her book, the ex­act sta­tis­tics are im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine, a 2007 re­port by the Min­istry of Women and Child De­vel­op­ment states that as many as 53.22 per cent of In­dian chil­dren un­dergo sex­ual abuse, of which “50 per cent is done at home, by rel­a­tives and ac­quain­tances close to the child,” claims Virani.

Liv­ing with child sex­ual abuse is a re­al­ity that scores of adult men and women face ev­ery­day. While some are able to reach out for help, oth­ers sim­ply wilt un­der the pres­sure and guilt of be­ing a ‘vic­tim’. When Anuja Gupta started the RAHI (Re­cov­er­ing and Heal­ing from In­cest) Foun­da­tion in 1996, the con­cept of ‘adult sur­vivors’ was com­pletely alien to In­dian so­ci­ety, and ig­no­rance about sex­ual abuse as a crime, ab­so­lute. “Re­jec­tion is at least an ac­cep­tance of the fact that it hap­pens. But in 1997, when we had only one wo­man come to us, there wasn’t even that,” she adds. De­spite the re­cent spurt in aware­ness and the ef­forts made by or­gan­i­sa­tions like RAHI, child sex­ual abuse con­tin­ues to be an ‘in­vis­i­ble’ crime, with un­de­fined pa­ram­e­ters and un­pun­ish­able of­fend­ers. The power dy­namic that Nair de­picts in her film, be­tween that of an un­pro­tected child and an au­thor­i­ta­tive abuser, brings out the re­al­ity of

homes where the child be­comes vul­ner­a­ble to re­peated abuse. “The idea of­sac­ri­fice runs deep in an In­dian con­text where women and chil­dren have no ne­go­ti­at­ing power in the fam­ily struc­ture. To keep it quiet is a sac­ri­fice for the greater good,” says Gupta.

Child abuse thus is a silent be­trayal of trust. But re­demp­tion and re­cov­ery can­not hap­pen in the dark. Nazneen Tonse, 46, a writer, started her sur­vivor blog Askios in ex­actly this spirit. “The idea is to spread aware­ness about child abuse and reach out to other sur­vivors, mak­ing them re­alise that they aren’t alone,” she says. Askios, which means shad­ow­less in Greek, is a re­flec­tion how Tonse wants to deal with her own past—to be free from it’s shad­ows. The story of her abuse be­gan when she was a tod­dler and con­tin­ued till she be­came a teenager and Tonse only re­alised its im­pact on her life when she went into ther­apy. “As a child,” she adds, “I didn’t even know it had a name or that there was any­thing I could say or do about it.” This in­abil­ity, to deal with the per­pe­tra­tor, is of­ten the cause of acute shame and pow­er­less­ness that usu­ally man­i­fests it­self as post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, de­pres­sion and a skewed per­cep­tion of sex­u­al­ity in adult­hood.

“Non-ac­cep­tance, that some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pened to you as a child, is eas­ier to live with than ad­mit­tance,” claims Pooja Ta­paria who heads Ar­pan, an NGO that works with adult sur­vivors. If it isn’t a com­plete de­nial, then it’s the over­rid­ing sense of guilt of not hav­ing spo­ken out as a child. “But what lan­guage can they speak in? When par­ents put a lid on sex­u­al­ity, dis­cour­age talk about sex and bod­ies, how is a child to know what’s been done to her?” asks Vidya Reddy of Tulir (Cen­ter for the Pre­ven­tion and Heal­ing of Child Sex­ual Abuse). While more schools in the coun­try have be­gun to im­part Per­sonal Safety Ed­u­ca­tion to their stu­dents, it’s also the pre­rog­a­tive of par­ents to fur­ther that knowl­edge by keep­ing all chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open. And this in­cludes be­liev­ing and ac­cept­ing the abuse their child might be fac­ing. “It’s an im­por­tant first step,” says Shailja Sen, child psy­chol­o­gist and fam­ily ther­a­pist, “but the hard­est one to take. The anx­i­ety of ac­cep­tance is pet­ri­fy­ing for par­ents.” This of­ten trans­lates into in­ac­tion by the par­ent, and ul­ti­mately be­comes a sec­ond level of be­trayal for the child. “The child grows up with a false no­tion of hav­ing brought the abuse upon her­self, with­out an out­let to vent her anger and frus­tra­tion. There is a com­plete lack of self-be­lief,” adds Sen.

The neg­a­tiv­ity that sur­rounds dis­clos­ing child sex­ual abuse fright­ens sur­vivors as well as their par­ents. But heal­ing can only be­gin by talk­ing about the abuse, by strength­en­ing one­self against its mem­ory and by find­ing self-worth again. For Tonse, it was with the help of a psy­chother­a­pist that she could con­front her past. “Even though I per­son­ally never felt the need to con­front my abuser, it could be a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. Gupta, how­ever em­pha­sises that the in­tial fo­cus, should not be on con­fronting the abuser, but on build­ing one’s own power re­serve through coun­selling. The stigma at­tached to ther­apy, of­ten de­ters sur­vivors from seek­ing help, as be­ing la­belled ‘men­tally un­sta­ble’ can neg­a­tively im­pact their func­tion­ing as adults. Al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies not only di­min­ish this stigma, but also pro­vide sur­vivors a non-threat­en­ing and non­judge­men­tal environment to heal in, where the abil­ity to re­mem­ber is en­hanced, with­out the com­pul­sion to talk. “The fear of an un­known, un­friendly coun­sel­lor is re­placed by the free­dom to ex­press the anger and anx­i­ety in the form that one wishes to,” says So­hini Chakraborty, a dance move­ment ther­a­pist. Founder di­rec­tor of Kolkata Sanved, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that works to re­ha­bil­i­tate vic­tims of abuse through al­ter­na­tive heal­ing, Chakraborty says that dance ther­apy doesn’t work ac­cord­ing a strict cur­ricu­lum, or even a par­tic­u­lar dance form. “We en­cour­age ex­pres­sion through any free-flow­ing move­ments, which help the sur­vivor in build­ing a pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion with her body,” she says. What was the in­stru­ment of abuse, now changes to a medium of ex­pres­sion, and en­ables the sur­vivors to gain self-as­sur­­other al­ter­na­tive that’s proved ef­fec­tive is to ad­dress the is­sue is drama. When Anupriya Das Singh, a ther­a­pist who deals with child sex­ual abuse sur­vivors, couldn’t get 22-year-old Mahi (name changed) to en­gage with her ther­apy ses­sions, she tried the­atre. “Art bridges the gap be­tween the sur­vivor and her own ex­pe­ri­ence. What can’t be ex­plained through words is of­ten done through sim­ple role-play,” says Singh. It was dur­ing a the­atri­cal role in a make-be­lieve fam­ily on-stage, that Mahi was fi­nally able to ac­cept her own abuse as a child and seek coun­selling. “Per­for­mance ther­apy can em­power a sur­vivor to act out, and ab­solve them from a crime they never com­mit­ted,” adds Singh. Both Chakraborty and Singh agree that this form of ther­apy of­ten leads the sur­vivors to the ul­ti­mate goal of con­fronting their fears, since it re­news their self-con­fi­dence, which be­comes a re­source for the ther­a­pist to work with. Singh, who also uses hand-pup­pets and paint­ing to delve deeper into the sur­vivor’s mind, says the way they choose to rep­re­sent them­selves through their sto­ries and im­ages, is an in­di­ca­tor of where they stand in the heal­ing process.

The con­spir­acy of si­lence around child sex­ual abuse be­gins and ends with its de­nial—damning both its vic­tims and sur­vivors. Deal­ing with it needs as many stake­hold­ers in so­ci­ety as its per­pe­tra­tors, and only then can the in­for­ma­tion sent out, be taken in by those who’ve suf­fered in si­lence. The first step is al­ways the hard­est and most painful, but to re­mem­ber is ther­a­peu­tic.

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