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We sit, facing each other, on comfortable beanbags in a tiny room that is dimly lit by a beautiful lampshade. We sip coffee and make small talk. She eyes me curiously and tries to size me up with guarded questions, initially hesitant but gradually the tension seems to leave the room. She tells me she is from Northeast India. She talks about her childhood and soon the tears begin to flow and she grimaces hard as if willing the tears to stop. But it seems pointless as the tears choke away her words. She cries gently for a few minutes, and then braces herself and begins to tell me her story of sexual abuse from the age of 5 to 15 years.
It’s hard for me to remain composed and objective as I hear that the perpetrators were her father and his brothers in their large joint family home. She tells me of her conflict between love for them as family and hatred for having snatched away her childhood. She tells me the reason why she has moved to a faraway city—a week’s journey from home. She seeks to get away from their clutches. Although she’s 18 now, she still feels their looming shadow over her life. Distance does not seem to have healed the pain, either. The nightmares and the uncontrolled rage don’t seem to stop. Her designer clothes and Jennifer Aniston hairdo are merely external masks that cover up deeper, well-crystallized traditional loyalties that seem to have her confused. Her mother would rather pretend that it never happened and chides her whenever she wants to talk about it, blaming her for disrespecting her father and uncles.
Hers is not an isolated case. In a path-breaking book on child sexual abuse in India, Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India (New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2000) author Pinki Virani provides some disturbing statistics. According to a study conducted in 1997 among 350 schoolgirls in Delhi by an Indian NGO, Sakshi Violence Intervention Center, 63 percent of girls had experienced sexual abuse, and 50 percent of the time the perpetrator was a family member. A study conducted by Recovery and Healing from Incest (RAHI), a Delhi-based center for female survivors of incest, among 1,000 English-speaking middle- and upper-class women living in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Goa, revealed that 76 percent of respondents had been sexually abused as children, and 71 percent were abused by relatives or someone they knew and trusted. In a 1996 survey by SAMVADA of 348 girls in 11 schools and colleges in Bangalore, 83 percent reported being eve-teased, 50 percent reported being molested, 31 percent were reportedly raped. Of the abusers 75 percent were adult family members, and 50 percent of the time the abuse occurred at home. All classes of young girls were subject to the same level of abuse. The abuse was well planned. Among the abusers 73 percent were gainfully employed males. Most of these men were not sexually starved nor did they come from broken homes. These are alarming statistics for a country where the extended family is regarded as a virtual social safety net. The deep sense of loyalty and family pride also seem to prevent victims from speaking out for fear of letting the family down.
The response of the Indian judicial system to victims of such atrocities has been callous and chauvinistic. In 1996, Sakshi, a feminist legal resource group conducted a survey among 109 judges in India to assess their attitude towards violence against women and found that 74 percent believed that the preservation of the family was the woman’s primary objective even if she faced violence, and 50 percent believed that child sexual abuse was not common. There is a tendency among those sitting in powerful judicial positions to assume that child sexual abuse does not occur in “decent” Indian families. Even among the urban “with-it” crowd who are a miniscule part of India’s population, the desire to maintain family honor is strong and it is with great reluctance that they talk about child sexual abuse. In India child sexual abuse is still not recognized as a distinct crime and is clubbed with rape in the Indian Penal Code. There are no separate procedures set out for the questioning of child-abuse victims, leading to a lot of heartache for the child who is often grilled mercilessly by the defense and has to testify in the presence of the abuser. Even with the in-camera option the victims not only have to testify in the presence of the abuser but also cannot have their supportive family present with them.
Women who complain against husbands that are abusing their children are often regarded as “defiant,” or “wayward,” or foes of “Indian womanhood.” In one instance the victim was returned to the abusive father instead of the mother who had actually lodged the complaint, on the grounds that only an insane person would fabricate such stories about her spouse! In another instance an abusive father who had molested his infant daughter was allowed to go scot-free on the grounds that his presence would be required in the long run to conduct the wedding ceremonies of his two older daughters.
Small wonder then that the psychological impact of abuse is more telling on adult Indian women. A 1999 study on women accessing psychiatric services in India conducted by Purewal and others (Purewal, J.D Bhuyan, I.M. Ganesh, and S. Sanyal, In Search of Her Spirit: A Report on Women, Violence and Mental Health, IFSHA, New Delhi) found that 60 percent of the women reported experiencing violence prior to the onset of psychological symptoms. Among women diagnosed with depression 20 percent were sexually abused as children, 42 percent experienced domestic violence, and 22 percent experienced sexual coercion.
In 1997, the organisation Sakshi filed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking to widen the scope of the term “sexual intercourse” as defined by the Indian Penal Code. This was after the Delhi High Court refused to consider the abuse of an 8-year-old by her father (which included penetration in three orifices) as an “unnatural act” or rape! It was only in May 2004 that the Supreme Court responded to this PIL by stating that victims of rape or abuse could not be forced to answer insensitive and crude questions during the trial. Defense lawyers will now have to make a prior submission of all questions to the presiding officers who would then tone down or edit them as they saw fit. According to this directive of the Supreme Court, a screen can now be used so that the victim doesn’t have to directly confront the perpetrator or feel intimidated by him. Victims were also to be provided with ample breaks as and when required.
The Indian judicial system seems to be taking tiny steps towards delivering justice to sexually abused children. But more than the legalities, it’s the blinkered and archaic views of those in high positions who formulate and implement these rules that need a major overhaul.
Jane Henry is a counselor based in Bangalore.