India shamed by silence on child sexual abuse within the family

Priya Virmani says a culture of victim-shaming sees abused children carry the scars well into adulthood, while the perpetrators roam free, and calls on the world to hold India to account

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 2:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 7:35pm

Sexual abuse of children has reached alarming proportions in India. A 2013 study by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry said half of all children had encountered some form of sexual abuse and one in five had experienced severe forms of abuse. Yet, between 2001 and 2011, only 48,000 cases were reported.

A 2007 study by the Women and Child Development ministry indicated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys were the victims of abuse in India. That total is more than the combined populations of the UK, France and Germany. Yet, almost nothing has been done by the government to encourage the reporting of cases, to shift the mindset that allows perpetrators to act with impunity and, most crucially, to challenge the space that is the predominant site for such abuse, that is, the family.

Any recourse to counselling, therapy, or the presence of trusted elders who victims could turn to, are conspicuous by their absence

Now, a website set up by young Indian professionals is enabling survivors of abuse, of any age or gender, to post anonymously. The site, www.howrevealing.com, is providing a much-needed space for non-judgmental solidarity for survivors, and their stories highlight the level of abuse in India.

One girl recounts how holidays to visit her grandparents were the best part of her childhood, till the abuse by her grandfather began. Her story offers an insight into the social constructions that shame the victim while the perpetrator goes unchallenged. “I have not shared this with anyone in the family,” she wrote. “I am 28 and married, he is 94 and healthy for his age. I still get the creeps when I meet him.”

A man recounts his shocking story of how an aunt abused him, and how his older sister later took over the role of abuser: “The first time I ‘acknowledged’ my sexual abuse was at the age of 20,” he wrote. “My life and approach to relationships had been ruined. Every time I met my sister, it would twist my soul.”

Any recourse to counselling, therapy, or the presence of trusted elders who victims could turn to, are conspicuous by their absence.

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Moreover, it is unnerving that victims still come into social contact with their abusers who remain free to prey on newer victims.

We need to empower the abused and turn the perpetrators into repositories of shame, even if they are family members. The website is arguably a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.

India is home to 19 per cent of the world’s children, making this a problem that everyone must take note of, and uncompromisingly hold India to account. This code of silence has to be broken.

Dr Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst