“I was abused by a person, a friend of my parents, who they had put before family,” I shared with a friend a few days back. She looked away, sighed and said, “Everyone has a story.”
There are only a few people with whom I’ve shared this detail of my life, and those conversations have been intimate. My heart pounds as I realise that I am writing for a newspaper widely read in the country. I am also scared, as I’ve been taught that details like these have to be guarded like a precious secret.
Recently, when I saw women sharing tales of abuse and assault, during a social media campaign, I kept quiet. But later in the day, on Facebook, my status read: #CSA #Metoo. I did not have the courage to share my story with the world then, it is difficult even now.
I was a victim of what I later learnt was “child sexual abuse”. Or should I say I’m a survivor? A well-wisher had once corrected me, but the word has not really sunk in, to be honest. My story is no different from the thousands of people who’ve experienced something similar or worse. I was abused at the age of 12 by a man my parents trusted. I knew what was happening to me was wrong, I knew I should have revolted. But I got cold feet, did not know how to react, how to refuse. When he dropped me home that night, I did not have the courage to tell my mother — I thought it was my fault, and that she would not trust me.
A word of advice: Next time if you hear any woman on victimhood, don’t brand her a whining feminist. Women do not rant for the sake of it. Back to my story. All of 12, riddled with confusion, guilt and anger, I decided to cope with it on my own. Eventually, there was a moment when I did tell my parents, only to know mine wasn’t the first allegation, but it did add credibility to the previous claims, and ties were cut with the paedophile. In the past 10 years, I’ve met many girls who shared similar or gorier tales of abuse. Tears trickle down my eyes in those moments but the “me too” stories refuse to end.
What was the trigger for me to share all this? A report in this paper reminded me of that strong urge for justice in me that refuses to die. The report, on the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, looked into the reasons why most cases end up in acquittal; the conviction rate is below 20 per cent, it noted. Victims had turned hostile succumbing to pressure from the accused or the family. Also, the legal procedure is long-drawn, giving ample time to both parties for “negotiations”. And, most of the complainants were from the economically weaker strata of the society.
No doubt these are hurdles in the road of justice, but I see small victories hidden in those defeats. The fact that cases were reported, the accused were booked and dragged inside legal corridors is an act of courage. Otherwise, in most cases, stories are muffled inside homes. Speaking from experience, I know how difficult it is to report the crime. Secondly, it puts me to shame to know that a majority of the cases reported are by those in the JJ cluster colonies. The “feminist, educated, upper middle class” couldn’t think of reporting then, and cannot think of it even now.
Even if I want to, it won’t be easy. The POCSO Act, instituted in 2012, does not function on a retrospective basis, like many other criminal laws. Going by the laws of 2007, penetration by finger or tongue could not be defined as rape, as per Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, which changed in 2013. The only law on the rescue would have been Section 354 — assault with intent to outrage modesty — but its implications doesn’t correspond to the gravity of the crime.
The legal system in place has its limitations in dealing with child sexual abuse, but they should be addressed with urgency. The number of courts and judges should be increased, cases should be heard on a fast-track basis, and victims should be counselled daily at the time of the trial. In addition, amendments can be made so can adults can report child abuse retrospectively, albeit a tricky affair.
What I missed was not legal remedy, but a talk on child sexual abuse with my parents and teachers, like the one I had on menstruation. The education system — schools, teachers, and parents — plays a more crucial role in this regard. Workshops or one-to-one counselling should be conducted on a war footing to make children aware of how to identify bad touch, say “no” to the perpetrator, and be able to share the incident with an elder. There are activists and non-profit organisations which hold such workshops, but their reach is limited. The move by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to educate students on good and bad touch, through books and films in the session from next year, is a welcome one. The text, which will also serve as a guide for teachers, will have helpline numbers, a brief on the POCSO Act and the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.
The incidence of sexual assault on children is rising everyday. To lend a non-judgemental ear and talking openly with children is a simple step. They could gather the courage to refuse, report to their friends or elders, or share a past incident. Legal battles could be victories for the victims, but the ultimate aim ought to be the personal growth of the survivors.