Five-year-old Rajiv Pandey really wanted to ride a motorbike, just like his father did. His father worked out of town, and his mother was busy helping run the big joint family home in Bihar where Pandey lived. The little boy was fascinated by his father's Royal Enfield, and longed to ride it. His caretaker, a male domestic help who was his constant companion, told him there was a special "medicine" that would solve his problem.
In an empty room in the big family home, his caretaker told the child that he had to keep it a secret in order for the "medicine" to work. "He then pulled down my pants, and abused me," Pandey recalled, 35 years later. "It hurt me no end, but I bravely bore it. After all, I was on my way to becoming like my father."
The abuse continued for a long time, until Pandey realised the "medicine" wasn't helping him ride a bike. He told his mother the "medicine wasn't working", only to have her punish him for "getting into mischief". The caretaker was told not to come to work anymore.
It was only years later, after Pandey met his wife Insia Dariwala, also a survivor of child abuse, that his healing process began. Pandey, who is an author and television writer, and Dariwala, a child activist and filmmaker, together started the non-profit 'The Hands Of Hope Foundation' in 2014 to address child sexual abuse in India. They are now petitioning women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi to conduct a study to examine how boys are abused in India and act on addressing the issue. Their online petition launched last month has already gathered over 45,000 signatures.
"I have also experienced such abuse when I was about 8 years old," wrote one signatory, who described how an old man molested him inside a cinema hall. "I got scared and left the place to join my parents who were sitting in the front row."
The online campaign, called "End The Isolation", has male child abuse survivors who have come forward to share their stories in a bid to help others to speak openly about their perpetrators. Through their campaign, they hope that the government will pay more attention to the issue.
The only study on child abuse in India was conducted in 2007, where it was found that over half of such victims were boys. The study, where 12,447 children across 13 states of India were interviewed, found that one in two children were sexually abused. Fewer male survivors report sexual assault, as a result of sex-stereotyping, writes Dr. Girish H Banwari in a medical paper on male sexual abuse.
"Although common, sexual abuse of boys is under-reported, under-recognized and under-treated," according to Dr. Banwari. "Under-reporting is believed to occur due to sex stereotyping, which minimizes male victimization."
While many cases of child abuse go unreported in India, the social and legal structure has an unequal focus. Sexual crimes against children are also recorded under sections that are focussed more towards female survivors--for cases of rape, sexual harassment, assault, voyeurism, stalking, and other sections that deal with outraging a child's modesty, the victim in the case has to be a girl. Only the Protection Of Children From Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, introduced in 2012, which is gender-neutral, can be used in cases of male survivors, besides sodomy laws. In 2015, the perpetrators of over 15,000 sexually assaulted children were booked under POCSO, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Reporting sexual abuse is difficult for most adults--the fear of the perpetrator, social taboo, legal hurdles, psychological toll--all add to the trauma. For obvious reasons, children find it harder to speak out against an aggressor, and many times realise much later in life that a crime was committed against them. For boys, all this also carries an extra layer of social taboo, where they are taught to be "tough".
"As a male child I was always expected to be strong," recalled 23-year-old Praveen Minj, a professional social worker from Pune, who was abused when he was eight years old. "Sadly, more than the abuse, it was the trauma of it changed me as a person."
"It robbed me of who I could have been."
Below are the testimonies of five men who were abused when they were children. They are all part of the 'End The Isolation' campaign.
Photographer Deepti Asthana/Courtesy The Hands of Hope Foundation"I never really understood it then, but now when I look back at my life I understand how much I really suffered. Sadly, more than the abuse, it was the how the trauma of it changed me as a person.
As a male child I was always expected to be strong. My mother’s suffering in her life, forced me to hide my own pain and take the onus of healing, upon myself. Eventually, this kept on adding to my baggage of constant self-victimizing , self criticism, self-doubt, and self-disbelief."
Photographer Deepti Asthana/Courtesy The Hands of Hope Foundation"Sometimes the very wounds that cripple us hold the key to our healing. So here I am, breaking the silence.
In the attic of my childhood, I lost the child within me. I was 5 when my fairy tale turned into a nightmare. Like the caged, mute animals, digging canals to escape the predator, I too found myself, dodging the predator who terrorized my body and soul almost every day. Ironically, he was an officer charged with the responsibility to safeguard me. I know rationally that none of it was my fault. But, the threats then didn’t allow me to see otherwise."
Photographer Deepti Asthana/Courtesy The Hands of Hope FoundationAli was 9 years old when he was first sexually abused at a railway station in Mumbai. His abusers were not one but many--older boys, cops, drug addicts, whoever got hold of him.
Photographer Deepti Asthana/Courtesy The Hands of Hope Foundation"I was taken to a dark empty room in the huge family house. He told me the medicine he had would only work if I kept it a secret. He then pulled down my pants, and abused me. It hurt me no end, but I bravely bore it. After all, I was on my way to becoming like my father.
The abuse continued. So did the pain."
Photographer Deepti Asthana/Courtesy The Hands of Hope Foundation"I was 10-years-old when I was sexually abused for the first time. I was napping in the noon on my bed after a tiring day at school and suddenly opened my eyes to the sensation of someone trying to physically hurt me. I was scared, shocked and I didn’t move a bit. Fear and confusion gripped me that afternoon.
The abuser was unfortunately someone from my family. Every time I was alone, they would touch me in the most inappropriate ways and force me to do the same with them. They would do it as frequent as one or twice a week."