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The terrible silence within the family

By Geeta Seshu, Mumbai , Thu, 16 Apr 2009 WFS
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Psychologists and counsellors who deal with child sexual abuse are not surprised at the increasing number of cases of incest in the wake of the complaint filed by a 19-year-old girl against her businessman father and a 'tantrik', who raped her for nine years in Mira Road, a satellite town north of Mumbai.

"This is not a new phenomenon. We get quite a few cases of incest, perhaps because of more sharing and confidence-building due to our counselling," says Pushpa Venkatraman, trainer and counsellor with Arpan, a Mumbai-based organisation that works on prevention and healing of child sexual abuse. "Since these incidents were reported, I have got three calls from adults who were sexually abused and needed help," she says.

Pooja Taparia, a graphics designer from a business family, was so moved by Lillette Dubey's play '30 days in September', that she founded Arpan in 2003 to focus on child sexual abuse. "Earlier, people were in denial but now they are more comfortable talking about child abuse," Taparia says.

However, child rights activists discern a disturbing trend: both victims and offenders are increasingly becoming younger. While the young offenders are older adolescents, there is a growing number of very young victims, some even less than a year old. Clearly, offenders choose more and more vulnerable children, who are too young to even speak up.

"This way, the offender is aware that there is less chance of reporting the crime and less fear of disclosure. I had to deal with an infant of nine-and-a-half months once," informs Venkatraman, disturbed by societal, and often, even parental assumptions that infants would have no recollection of the abuse. The unpleasant memories can make children moody or unduly aggressive and play therapy is recommended but very difficult to sustain.

Arpan offers therapy even to offenders, but there are few takers. They prefer living in denial. For some, the offence may be a result of an underlying abuse in their own childhood and they already suffer from low self-esteem. They may even have tacit social sanction as families are known to say that the man had no 'choice', as the wife was not around or even that the wife would not allow sex!

According to advocate Pratibha Menon, of the India Centre for Human Rights and Law Network (ICHRLN), incest charges are extremely difficult to defend in court without family support for the victim. Sometimes, mothers are abettors and cite livelihood dependency for their silence. "It is easy to threaten the child who continues to stay in the same home. Unless the mother or another family member takes a stand, at least 50 per cent of cases are withdrawn," she says.

The offender is someone the child trusts and sometimes children don't even figure out that what is happening to them is 'abuse'. Sometimes, as Menon mentions, the language of children may change during the passage of the case. So in the complaint recorded by police, the child may say 'woh gandha kaam kiya (he did something dirty)' but when the case comes up in court, the entire meaning of the term may change.

The lengthy judicial process, corruption and the power the accused may have at his disposal can also put pressure on complainants. Poor investigation, the lack of witness protection and little help for victims, results in low conviction rates.

In India, there is no separate law dealing with child sexual abuse and cases are lodged under Sections 354, 376, 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which also covers issues like sexual harassment (eve teasing)! Lawyers and activists have been lobbying for the formulation of legislation either along the lines of the Goa Children's Act or the Offences Against Children Bill, but to no avail. The Maharashtra government has issued a GR (government resolution) to set up children's courts under the National Committee for the Protection of Child Rights but this is yet to materialise, Menon discloses.

There is an urgent need for a separate law or at least changes in existing laws for children, feels Vidya Apte, a veteran social worker and founder member of the Forum Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACSE). The Forum is a coalition of non-governmental organisations that emerged after a Maharashtra-level meeting in 1995 to discuss trafficking issues.

Initially, FACSE had to deal with poor awareness and indifference. One psychiatrist even told them that this was not such a serious issue and that social organisations were borrowing a western problem, Apte reveals. "There is still so much taboo and stigma attached to child sexual abuse and incest. The national level study of child abuse in 2007 put the figure at 53 per cent but this is still random sampling and mainly amongst marginalised sections of society," she points out, stating that the figure could easily be higher.

In an effort to create a safe space for such children, a short stay home was set up in the outskirts of Mumbai. Currently lodging 23 girls, the home has been working at providing healing and therapy for victims of rape, trafficking and incest. Sangeeta Punekar, a social worker and founder of the home (whose name and location is not disclosed to protect the identities of its inmates), felt that very little specialised understanding and care is given to survivors of such abuse. "It is very difficult, given the complexity of human relations and of the violence within homes," she says.

While girls are detached from their fathers, in some instances, the girls are still emotionally attached to their fathers, or to other siblings. Some may have very negative feelings towards their mothers, as a young girl raped by her mother's paramour did. Her mother denied the incident and protected the man and her daughter was full of hatred for her mother.

Dealing with incest is complicated and emotionally taxing, agree activists. In one instance, Apte says, a man had four daughters and had been abusing the first two girls. It was when he began abusing the third daughter that the second child, who started feeling neglected, came forward to complain and social workers had to deal with the abuse on the one hand and the complex emotional dependence and relationship on the other.

Media reports entitled 'Monster Dad' have also focused on the notion of the 'good dad, bad dad', with little analysis of other factors that contribute to child sexual abuse and unequal power equations within the family. "We are trying to develop therapy modules and healing modules, says Punekar, adding that newspaper clippings are read out and there is a lot of discussion and analysis with the girls in the home.

Ultimately, higher awareness and dialogue with children is crucial, feels Venkatraman, referring to the success of the four-step programme (Say No, Run, Tell, Keep Telling Till Action is Taken to Stop it) conducted regularly in a few schools in Mumbai. People must realise that incest and child abuse can happen anywhere - in urban and rural areas, affluent and poor socio-economic localities, with all age groups, by any parent or family member and it must stop.

(© Women's Feature Service)

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