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Let's talk about child abuse PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Malvika Tegta and Shilpa CB   

Social ostracisation of perpetrators and breaking the culture of silence about sex and sexuality can help fight the menace of child abuse, write Malvika Tegta and Shilpa CB

The Fritzl case left a thick heaviness where the heart lies. We were appalled, outraged, unable to fathom how a father could rape his daughter for years. Months later, when three 'Indian Fritzls' was reported closer home, in Mumbai, Amristar and Nagpur, the horror became immediate, for, it wasn't happening out there, in some dysfunctional family, in a distant land. One wonders how many more revelations are in store and how many will muster the courage to come out. With or without these stories, hadn't we always known fragments of such violence were strewn all around? In fact, they were traumatic shards that still cut deep through many a childhood memory, over generations.

A 2007 study among 12,447 children found that one in every two has been sexually abused, and that most perpetrators were people close to the victims, the ones they trusted and emotionally depended upon. Evidently, hands that violate children are right in our homes: an uncle's, a father's, neighbours', teachers', an aunt's or even the local child activist's. Yet, they operate intrepidly, unafraid of being exposed or incriminated. Blame this on the culture of silence we encourage or the highly inadequate legal structure. Case study after case study illustrates that it is these aspects that make our children vulnerable and families helpless. When 12-year-old Shwetha T* revealed to her mother that her father had been molesting her, she was thrashed. "Don't ever say things like that about your father," she was told. The abuse continued uninterrupted for years and stopped only when Shwetha found escape in marriage.

"Most parents react with disbelief or denial. Usually, the victims are accused of lying or imagining things. The matter is swept under the carpet because parents are not equipped to deal with it," says Dr Shoiba Saldanha, a gynaecologist who works with Enfold Proactive Trust. More boys than girls are able to report their ordeal. However, not many adults the children confide in take the side of the child. "Children just want two things — to be believed and for the abuse to stop. Children do not lie about sexual abuse," Saldanha says.

Morality and the culture of silence

Children in conservative Indian societies are especially vulnerable. "We tell our children that certain parts of the body are 'bad'. We don't call them by their proper names. We teach them to associate shame and guilt with functions of private parts. By doing so, we foster a culture of silence about sex. There is no room for communication," says Dr Sangeetha Saksena, a gynaecologist who is part of Enfold. The absence of a vocabulary to discuss so-called taboo topics like sex and sexuality works to the advantage of the abuser. Dr CR Chandrashekar, psychiatrist at NIMHANS, also points out that in patriarchal set-ups, where men are encouraged to and provoked to celebrate their sexuality, women are trained to suppress it." No surprises then, that most of the perpetrators are men. An unexplained guilt apart, most children are threatened with dire consequences, even death, should they reveal it all.

All these emotional manipulations and tactics, however, can only succeed in the absence of a support system. Says Saksena: "Encourage children to be open, teach them to treat every part of the body with respect, call them by proper names, keep them clean." More importantly, the parents should help children understand their sexuality by "age appropriate sex education" after the age of 6-7 and always believe what they say. Dr PS Murthy, consultant psychiatrist at Manipal Hospital, adds: "It must be made very clear to the child that abuse is not his/her fault."

This is just one aspect of the larger picture, counsellors say. Children have to be empowered, their self-esteem and self-respect strengthened, they have to be made to feel secure. "Parents often tend to introduce their children as just another member of the family. Sometimes, even their names are not mentioned. That isn't good for the child's self-esteem. Children have to be recognised as separate entities, as individuals with rights," Saksena says.

Let's talk about it

Instances of abuse are often hushed under the pretext of guarding family honour. Parents are also at a loss of ways to stop the perpetrator. In truth, it's not that difficult, counsellors say. "All one has to do is pick up the phone and inform everyone in the family to be careful of the person and not allow their children alone with him. It's that simple," says Saldanha.

As the legal system does not offer much recourse (see box), activists believe that social ostracism is the only way to stop the paedophiles. "The offender has to be kept in the same environment and everyone around him has to be warned. If he is allowed to leave, he will go elsewhere and pick up more victims," Saksena says. Another member of the anti-child sexual abuse support group, Peggy Devaraj suggests forming a large group of people who will confront the offender and ask him to stop. "Many of us are outraged that the guilty are walking free and forcing themselves on more children. We should get together and fight him on behalf of the victims," she says. Child abusers are usually people who've lost sight of their internal locus of control and are not driven by the external locus of control. Strengthening the external locus of control, i.e., making the society more aware and proactive, is the only way to fight the menace, Saldanha says.

See the signs

If your child doesn't talk about harassment, here are a few cues every parent must be extra perceptive to: sudden changes in behaviour, sleep disturbance, sudden loss of appetite, bedwetting, nightmares, deteriorating academic performance, not participating in pleasurable activities like sports, undue fears, among others.

Wounds that can heal

Abused children tend to grow up emotionally damaged, carrying a load of guilt and mistrust. Their past has a deep negative impact on their future. But that need not be so. "We can empower our children to be so comfortable with their sexuality that they can heal themselves leaving no scars, see the abuse as ephemeral, that it does not scar or spoil their identity," Saldanha says.

Help at hand

  • For counselling, one can contact Dr Shekhar Seshadri of National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Science (NIMHANS) at He designs preventive programmes and conducts workshops for schools, colleges, youth groups and child care agencies.
  • Enfold Proactive Trust conducts human sexuality and life skills programmes. To know more, visit For more details and resources, visit Dr Shoiba Saldanha: 9844112391. Contact Enfold facilitator Neha Raju at 9686350529.

* Name changed to protect identity


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