Thursday, August 30, 2007

The dark side of the moon

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express

Child sex abuse is the silent scourge in Indian and Kerala society

Shevlin Sebastian

One recent Sunday evening, IT professional Suresh Rao, 27, * is
conversing with his younger sister, Lata, 23, at their Panampilly
Nagar apartment about their childhood, when Lata suddenly says, "Did
you know that Ravi molested me many times?"

Suresh is stunned.

Their cousin, Ravi, lived in Trichur and on summer holidays or
Onam vacations he would come and spend a few days with the Raos.

"Why did you not tell Daddy and Mummy?" says Suresh.

"I was scared," Lata says. "I was not sure whether they would believe me."

'Why did you not tell me?' Suresh thinks silently. The other likely refuge:
their elder sister, Hema, 11 years older to Lata, was away, doing college studies
in New Delhi.

And so, whenever the parents went out and Suresh went roaming around
with his friends, Ravi would molest Lata.

Now Suresh moves to confessional mode with Lata: Ravi had also tried to
molest him. He remembers the incident as if it has happened yesterday.

It is late at night. Suresh and Ravi are sleeping on two separate beds.
Suddenly, Ravi gets in beside Suresh, under the sheet, pulls down his shorts and
starts masturbating him. It happens very quickly.

Suresh is ten years old at that time and he can remember the struggle that took place within him: the pleasure colliding against the shame. Thankfully, it is the shame that asserts itself. He sits up and hisses, "Stop it," and the vehemence frightens the 12-year-old Ravi away.

Ravi does not try anything with Suresh again, but, unfortunately, Lata
has become a victim.

"Maybe, it is time to expose Ravi in front of the family," says Lata.

"Maybe," Suresh replies, but both of them look unsure.

There is a silence for a few moments.

Then Lata says, "What is the point? The damage has been done."

"You are right," says Suresh.

It is this wishy-washy attitude that is a prime reason why child sex abusers get away with their crimes.

According to a first-ever national survey (12,447 children in 13 states) by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in April, 2007, 53 percent have suffered from Child Sex Abuse (CSA).

However, this figure does not tally with a CSA study done by the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences and funded by the University Grants Commission. In a study of a thousand children in 12 public and private schools in the Ernakulam district, only 21.6 per cent suffered from CSA. Project Fellow, Sapna Anu Jacob, who conducted the study, under Dr. Mary Joseph, says the percentage could have been a little higher, because a few children later told her they did not want to admit they had suffered abuse. Incidentally, boys suffered more than girls in the national survey while it was vice versa in the Rajagiri study.

The figures may differ but there is no escaping the fact that CSA is a silent scourge in Indian and Kerala society.

So who are the abusers? "The perpetrators are usually closely related
to the children," says Jacob. "They are neighbours, uncles, cousins or maids."

In our society, parents never trust strangers, but, somehow, when it comes to close relatives, they relax their vigilance. "That is the mistake they make," says Dr. Varghese Pudussery, Director, Santhwana Institute of Counselling and Psychotherapy. "These cousins and uncles indulge in sexual abuse not because they had planned to, but because of certain situations.

"Like, for example, the girl is left alone with an uncle and the parents go out. The uncle might hug the girl and things could move on from there. When the uncle makes a move, the child cannot say no, because he is an authority figure."

When CSA occurs, the shock is so great that children are unable to speak about it, sometimes, for years.

"Children usually keep it a secret," says Pudussery (in the national survey,
71 per cent did not report the assault). "Then when they are 13 or 14, they have psychological problems. The guilt has festered inside them for years. It affects their confidence and their studies."

Indeed, a sudden drop in performance in school is a reliable sign that a child
may be suffering from CSA. "The other signs are bruises and marks on
private parts, or stained undergarments," says Jacob. "A talkative
child will suddenly become an introvert and there is a lowering of self-esteem."

It is imperative that when parents uncover CSA, that they deal with it carefully.
“Usually, the first reaction of a parent is that of outright denial,” says Dr. Mary Joseph. “Later, this gives way to anger, which they direct at themselves and the offender. But such overpowering feelings have to be controlled. Only a composed parent can help an abused child.”

Adds Jacob: “Even if the offender is a trusted family friend, a neighbour or a relative, parents should not disbelieve a child’s narration of the event. Any doubts expressed will shake the very foundation of the child’s sense of right and wrong. Family support, love and understanding are crucial and will help in the recovery of the individual.”

The individual may recover, but the key question is: how to prevent CSA from happening in the first place?

"Parents should always keep an eye on their children," says Pudussery.
"They should never allow them to be alone in the company of older boys
or relatives."

Adds Jacob: "Children should be taught to distinguish from good and
bad touches. If there is unwanted behaviour, children should be able to
stand up and say no."

The no at the right place and the right time can avoid trauma that can
blight lives for years.

(* Names and location have been changed).

Do’s and Don’ts for Parents

Keep calm: You should not be angry at the child, but at what happened.
Believe the child: In most circumstances, children do not lie about sexual abuse.

Give positive messages: "I know you could not help it," or "I am proud of you for telling."

Explain to the child that he or she is not to blame for what happened.

Answer the child's questions honestly.

Respect the child's privacy: Be careful not to discuss the abuse in front of other people.

Get help. Get competent professional counseling, even if it is only for a short time.


Don’t panic or overreact when the child talks about the experience. Children need help and support to make it through this difficult time.

Don’t pressurise the child to talk or avoid talking about the abuse. Allow the child to talk at her or his own pace. Forcing information can be harmful. Silencing the child will not help her or him to forget.

Confront the offender or inform the police.


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