Child Sexual Abuse – What about the ‘Unspeakable’ Rapes?

On this Valentine’s Day, people around the world will be on the streets protesting sexual violence against women as part the One Billion Rising campaign. The aim: To break the silence. We too have been speaking up against sexual violence in all its forms since our very inception.

This post pulls together some of the significant points which are worth emphasizing on this occasion. Silence is the greatest enemy of justice — and it often wins when the crime is sexual violence. And it’s weapons are many. Fear can seal the lips of a child, shame can gag a young man or woman, and family honour becomes an accomplice in the crime. We are all rightfully angry at the many gang-rapes that have made headlines recently. But stranger rape is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the crime that is splashed across the newspapers, debated on late night television, and now — after the Delhi gang-rape — at the dinner table. We prefer not see or speak of the vastness that lurks beneath — where the stranglehold of silence reigns supreme.

If we speak up on this V-day, let us than not forget to also raise our voices against the other kinds of rape that are still unspeakable.

Say the I-word

Anoushka Shankar’s confession of her own experience of being sexually abused as a child by “a man my parents trusted” is brave and laudable. We couldn’t, however, help wondering if the vague language used to describe the perpetrator is intended to protect a family member.

“Incest is the most under-reported child rights and human rights violation in India,” writes human and child rights activist Shoma Chatterji, “The tight-knit family structure, the domineering role of the fathers and uncles, the submissiveness of women who are mute witnesses to gross injustice and the ingrained tendency not to allow ‘family shame’ to be exposed whatever the cost, are factors that help the abusers get away with it all.”

That desire to maintain decorum extends far beyond the immediate family, to the society at large which too colludes in maintaining this silence. Aamir Khan made waves when he dedicated an episode of Satyamev Jayate to child sex abuse, but he remained stubbornly silent on the monstrous elephant in the room – incest.

Satyamev Jayate : Break the Silence

How can you have a show on Child Sex Abuse and talk about the shaming, the silence and the stigma without explicitly facing the greatest betrayal of all – when the abuse is happening not just inside the home but being perpetrated by the very people who are meant to protect the child, the ones Aamir called “the bodyguards”? It is the ultimate abuse of power. And the one most easily silenced. While we flood the streets to protest the rape of nameless women we don’t know, let’s not forget to speak up where it matters the most: for the child closer to home.

Schooled in horror

The school holds a unique place in the Indian psyche as the symbol of parental dreams. A good education is the ultimate prize we can secure for our children. When that dream turns into a nightmare for our child, our first instinct is to look away. Most cases of sexual abuse in schools play out something like this: Everyone knows what’s happening but keeps mum; parents don’t want their children to go through the legal process or endure the social stigma it brings; there is no non-bailable offence under which the perpetrator can be booked; and schools prefer to protect their brand rather than their students. The result: pedophiles enjoy lifelong immunity, free to abuse children over and over again.

According to The Telegraph, “Some of the most common forms of abuse in India include touching, kissing and fondling with sexual intent, exposing one’s genitals to children or coaxing children to expose theirs, persuading them to have sex and exposing children to pornographic material.” Yet most schools are unwilling to even do the bare minimum – list schools included which are often more zealous in protecting their reputation. And the government shows little interest in forcing our educators to do better. Apparently, the right to education does not include the right to be protected from sexual predators.

The government has been unconscionably lax, the schools self-serving. But what about the rest of us? Our blinkered, obsessive attitude toward our child’s education makes us no less callous. All that matters is to get them into the right school and keep them there. No need to rock the boat just because some teacher “behaved badly,” be it with our kid or yours.

In the wake of the Delhi gang-rape, some preschools held classes for young children to educate them on the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch, while parents spoke out on the need to train girls in self-defense. Yes, we should teach our kids to protect themselves. But it’s hypocritical to tell a child to be brave, when we lack the courage to speak up. It’s a big boat, but rock it we must.

Boys are raped too

One Billion Rising may be all about women, but perhaps this is as good an occasion as any to acknowledge that unpalatable truth: Boys and men can and are indeed raped. Male-on-male violence remains the ultimate taboo. There’s an added layer of revulsion that ensures neither those in the know nor the victim himself will speak up. The conspiracy of silence runs deeper.

We never acknowledge the possibility that a male servant or relative can be as much a threat to our son as our daughter. We speak out on girls being sold into sexual slavery but say little about the exploitation of street boys. We call it “ragging” not sexual assault when it happens within the confines of a college hostel or boarding school. And when it comes to paedophilia within the family, we hide behind safely un-gendered words like ‘children’ because the thought of a father who rapes his own son is more horrific than if he assaulted his daughter.

Child Sexual Abuse : A Survivor and Fighter Speaks

One reason for this silence is our construction of masculinity on a notion of sexual invulnerability. It’s the singlemost important reason why boys are far less likely to report abuse than girls. Where girls lose their ‘virtue’ in rape, boys stand to lose their very identity as males. The only way to assert masculinity then is to endure the assault and just “get over it,” as “real men” do. Journalist Nihal Singh’s memoir, Ink in My Veins, recounts being “buggered” by a fruit vendor – but with a stoicism that denies the trauma.

We guard our daughters’ bodies with zealous attention, caution them over and again from a very young age to beware. But we leave our boys to fend themselves, unfettered and unaware. And in our wilful silence, we ensure that if indeed our son were to get unlucky – at the hands of a stranger, acquaintance or a fellow student – he will have no words to even speak of what he has endured.

On this Valentine’s day, may the one billion rise for our sexually abused sons, brothers, fathers, friends, and husbands, as well.
Let us speak up and against sexual abuse in all its myriad forms, and of all its victims. Not just today, but every day after.


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