Child sexual abuse. It is that insidious cancer in society that silently claims victims and thousands of childhoods, and yet, very few among us are willing to acknowledge or talk about it. According to the findings of a 2007 survey by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 53 percent Indian kids had experienced sexual abuse of some kind in their lives, and almost 22 percent of them had faced severe forms of sexual abuse.
53 percent Indian kids have experienced sexual abuse of some kind in their lives.
Since April is globally considered the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, we spoke to 6 grown-ups who experienced sexual abuse as kids about their stories of abuse and confrontation, but more often than not, learning how to navigate a world where their abusers still roam free, sometimes even sharing their dinner tables and family photographs. How does it feel to know that the person who destroyed a major part of your childhood is living a completely unrepentant, safe and cushioned life?
Karishma P, 31, Delhi
I am estranged from my family because I confronted my abuser, my cousin. It's almost funny how my family is more ashamed about the incest part and not at all horrified that they live with a monster who raped a young girl. I was 14 when it started. He was 24. I used to idolise him. The first time he kissed me was at another cousin's wedding. It felt so wrong. I was terrified; but soon, it became my normal. One night, he slipped into my bed and we had sex. It took me many years to understand that even though I didn't resist him, it was still rape. I had no agency, no consent, in the matter. It continued for almost two years.
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It took me many years to understand that even though I didn't resist him, it was still rape. I had no agency, no consent, in the matter.
The whole sordid story came to light when I got pregnant. My mom had taken me to the gynaecologist because I wasn't getting my periods. She told us that I was pregnant, almost three months in. My mother was horrified. That night, my parents beat me black and blue, asking who I had been a slut with. I told them it was bhaiya, they hit me some more for being a cheap liar. The next day, they took me to Delhi and made me get an abortion. Soon, I was sent to London to live with my maasi and study there.
When I walked into the house, I saw my dad and my abuser playing chess. Looking at them, something in me just snapped.
I didn't come to India for almost 6 years. I was suffering from clinical depression at the time. My therapist thought it was important for me to go back home and work through the anger I felt at my parents for not believing me. When I walked into the house, I saw my dad and my abuser playing chess. Looking at them, something in me just snapped. I yelled and yelled till I lost my voice. Everyone cried. Then they got angry with me for lying. Then came the brainwashing: It's okay, it's in the past, at our age mistakes happen, we should have remembered our boundaries. It was bizarre how deeply in denial they were. After three days of them trying to convince me it was a poor choice we made and not abuse that he perpetrated, I returned to London.
About 4 years ago, I moved to Delhi. I haven't been home, since I came back. My parents came to Delhi to visit me a few times, but we have a relationship in name only. I may someday learn to forgive my abuser, but I don't think I can ever forgive them for not standing up for me. I am the skeleton in my family's closet.
Roohi Sheikh*, 25, Lucknow
I'm too scared of what might happen if I tell anyone in my family that my uncle abused me. He is my dad's older brother and the head of the family. I don't know if anyone will believe me. I know my parents will, but what is the point of telling them, if all it will achieve is the family breaking apart?
I don't even know what I would say. I was very young, 6 or 7 years old, I think, so my memories are very muddled. I just have these weird flashes from the past...Of him pulling down my panties, him showing me pictures of naked girls in magazines, him putting his tongue in my mouth. But I don't know how to stitch them in one coherent sequence.
Sometimes I also wonder if it actually happened or it's all my imagination. It leaves me feeling very bewildered and disoriented.
Sometimes, when I look at him and his behaviour, even I doubt myself. He is one of the most well-respected members in our neighbourhood. Everyone comes to him for advice. He is kind, gentle, and god-fearing. He writes poetry. Prays five times a day. The perfect father figure. He even calls me his "beti" and says he will bear the whole expense of my wedding. Who is going to believe that he abused me? Sometimes I also wonder if it actually happened or it's all my imagination. It leaves me feeling very bewildered and disoriented, but I don't know what to do. I dream about confronting him so that he knows he can't just get away with it, but I don't have the courage. Maybe some day.
This is the first time I've ever spoken about it. I think part of the reason I'm doing it is that if I don't say the words out loud, give them a shape and form, allow them to exist outside of me, I might go mad.
Dharam Karmarkar, 40, California
It took me a long time to understand that what happened to me was abuse. I was 14 and she was a teacher in my school. I used to take after-school tuitions from her in her house, along with two other boys. Once a week, when the other two boys had karate practice, I would be alone with her. I noticed that every time we were alone, she would change into transparent tops with deep necks. Sometimes, she would leave many buttons open. I was a teenage boy with raging hormones. Obviously, I was excited. One day, she caught me looking at her neckline and took me inside to "punish" me. From then on, I'd stay back every day after school and we would have sex.
I told myself it was just nerves and that I was the luckiest boy in school that such a grown-up woman was in love with me.
She told me that I couldn't tell anyone or we'd both be in trouble. Our "affair" continued for the rest of the school year. She'd make me drink vodka and then tie me up and hurt me before having sex. It would confuse me, but I told myself it was just inexperience and nerves and that I was the luckiest boy in school that such a wonderful, grown-up woman was in love with me.
I moved to USA the following year. Exposure in the US made me understand that I had been abused by my teacher. My girlfriend encouraged me to tell my parents, but I couldn't. I didn't want the past to hurt them. I've met her once since that night, about 10 years ago. I had promised myself that if she was still a teacher, surrounded by defenceless kids, I'd out her. She wasn't. I tracked her down with the help of a friend and spoke to her about the abuse. She broke down, but I felt nothing. I learned that she had been abused by her father, which had made her do all those things. All I feel is pity for her.
Saloni Agarwal*, 30, Mumbai
My abuser is my maasi's husband. I was 10 when it happened. For almost a decade after that, I had no recollection of my abuse, but I had several behavioural problems. At 20, my boyfriend, worried about my intimacy issues, convinced me to meet a therapist. Through hypnotherapy, I confronted my repressed memories.
For a while I contemplated telling my mother. A few times, I started to, but the fear in her eyes always stopped me. I think on some level, she knew. But if I said the words, our family would never be the same again.
I used to dream about killing him in the most gruesome ways imaginable. It took a lot of counselling to get over my rage.
It makes my skin crawl every time I have to meet him at family functions. My blood boils when he cracks jokes with my father. For a long time, I used to dream about killing him in the most gruesome ways imaginable. It took a lot of counselling to get over my rage.
Three years ago, we did have a thinly veiled confrontation. He made a sarcastic comment about me being a mama's girl and complaining about everything to my mother. I whipped around and told him that he should be thankful I hadn't complained about the stuff that would have put him in jail. My maasi was in the room at that time. She still hasn't asked me what I meant by that, but I know that she now actively avoids me. I feel bad about my broken relationship with her, but watching the colour drain out of his face was something I desperately needed to be able to finally heal.
Rohit Tyagi*, 24, Mumbai
My cousin abused me for almost a year when I was 12. He was 27. It messed me up really badly. We used to live in the same house and all of us cousins would sleep in the same room. It started with him just touching me at night in ways that made me feel dirty. He would put his fingers in my butt hole and play with my penis. Then he started taking my hand and making me do these things to him. I was too scared to tell anyone. Then one day, when I came home from school, I found that everyone except him had gone to a relative's house for a funeral. That afternoon was the first time he raped me. He didn't even bother telling me not to tell anyone; he was that sure that a timid boy like me would never say anything.
He has two sons. Sometimes, I look at them and wonder if he abuses them too.
For the first few weeks, I would bleed every time he penetrated me. But then my body adjusted. He didn't treat me cruelly, nor did anything to hurt me, but he kept using me for sex for a year, till he got engaged. Everything suddenly stopped the day he got engaged. A few months before the wedding, they moved to another house.
Even though we don't live together, I still see him almost every month. He behaves as if nothing ever happened. There is no shame, no remorse...nothing. He has two sons. Sometimes, I look at them and wonder if he abuses them too. I feel very guilty that by keeping quiet, I am enabling him to abuse other children. But then I feel that he abused me because he is closet gay, not a paedophile. I don't know. I've only ever told one person — my girlfriend — about this. I don't feel anything for him anymore. Not anger, not hatred, not even a feeling of revenge. I just hope that he realised what he did was wrong and has never done it to another child ever again.
Kathakali*, 32, Kolkata
I was about 14 years old when I actually realised I'd been abused as a child. This was the age we were learning about sex and sexual activities in blurry bits and pieces. Which is when I realised, it is not acceptable that your uncle has his tongue down your throat. When it had happened I must have been 6 or 7 years old. It was odd, no one else 'played' these 'games' with me. But it didn't set the alarm bells ringing them because I was in no physical pain. Not when he was kissing me, not when he was fondling my vagina -- in all the trust with which children embrace close relatives, it only seemed like just another thing he was doing alongside watching cartoons with me or mimicking Donald Duck, buying me chocolates, taking me and my brother out for play dates with his son at the park. So when the knowledge sank in, it felt like a pit of dread that I was lugging around for days. I couldn't talk about it with friends, with parents and for the longest time, I tried to block it out of my memory.
Up until I went to college and a friend mentioned how she hated the idea of an upcoming family function because a man who abused her would be there. I didn't allow myself to admit that I was a victim of sexual abuse as well.
She was horrified and confused and asked, "Are you sure? Are you sure he was not just playing with you and his hands touched you accidentally?"
I tried speaking about it with my mother at least a decade later. She was horrified and confused and asked, "Are you sure? Are you sure he was not just playing with you and his hands touched you accidentally?" "Then his tongue must have leaped into my throat accidentally as well," I quipped and ended the conversation. My mother still doesn't talk about it.
As a teenager, I started avoiding the man like plague. I made up excuses to not attend social do-s at his place. I once tried to heat up a thermometer by keeping it on a kettle of tea to convince my parents I won't go to his house. Whenever he met me, he'd try to cuddle me from behind in a way that his hands would touch by boobs. One day I screamed, "Don't touch me, I don't like it." My "diva-like" behaviour became a running joke in the family. Later, fortunately, our families fell out over a property dispute and my father labelled him a goon, during an argument. Not exactly what I expected, but somehow, it helped me move on. And of course, I don't have to see him again, thanks to the dispute.
The last time I met him was at his son's — my cousin — wedding. I didn't reply to his questions and refused to speak to him. He has a grandson now and I often feel like alerting his daughter-in-law about the predator lurking around her child.
(*Names changed to protect identity.)
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