Sexual abuse of children is rampant but rarely spoken about. Harish Iyer has used his personal experience to show us how we can protect our children.
Growing up in India, we are fed on a heavy dose of films that romanticise the great Indian family. So much so that one would start believing it is an ideal setting to grow up in. I was brought up in a joint family, with mothers more than one. Till the age of four I did not even know who my actual parents were, because I was the apple of everyone’s eye in the family.
My unseen abuse
So, with a family like that, I should have had one of the safest childhoods. But it was not so. I was raped when I was seven, by a relative, who lived outside my home. Ideally, someone should have noticed my unsaid trauma. But no one did. Instead, I was called a sissy who cried in a corner. I was lectured on how I should interact more and be more energetic—from people whom I called family. Not one of them could understand that I had a reason for going from being a rejoicing child to being a reticent one.
The sexual abuse was so severe that I would bleed. Yet, the fear of getting another painful scar made me swallow my words. I lived a dual life, one when I was being abused, and one when I was not. These were two parallel strains of my life, which I thought would never intersect.
When I finally gathered the courage and the voice to explicitly open up about my abuse to my parents and family members, I was already an adult, and had spent 11 years of my childhood suffering traumatic sexual abuse, years that I would never get back. I couldn’t help but ask myself, how and why didn’t my parents or immediate family notice my sudden behavioural change? Why didn’t they notice my face shrink whenever I was asked to stay at my [abusive] relative’s place? Why was I made to respect someone for his age, when what he was doing to me was anything but respectable?
These questions were raging in my head and I was unable to find answers to them. It took me many years to park my past in the past and move ahead with my present like everyone else [who seemed to be presumably doing so].
Viewing my past as an outsider
After a series of challenges, I found a way to deal with my abuse and discover my own strength. Soon, my past became a story, a story of ‘that child’. I learnt the trick of dissociating the emotions of my past and telling the story of my life as just another story. Years of abuse had maimed my memory. It had created blind spots in my memory that would open up when I would speak passionately about my experience. I used to utter things without realising, and when I thought deeper about them, I realised that my subconscious mind had stored away instances of abuse that my conscious mind had forgotten. Slowly, speaking up and sharing my story became my own therapy as my past became clearer and clearer.
Every time I spoke about my abuse, I had more people opening up about similar horrors of their lives. So while speaking was therapy for me, I realised that my speaking up was therapeutic to others. It soon became apparent that familial abuse or incest was a common phenomenon; it had happened to almost everyone I knew. I came across several men who had been abused when they were young boys. What was more shocking was the fact that they had been abused by women. Most of these survivors considered what had happened to them as a ‘fantasy’. They didn’t even know that what they had been put through was actually abuse. These incidents had occurred to boys between the ages of seven to 10 and their innocent minds didn’t know what to make of the events.
What you can do to keep your child safe from sexual abuse
The horrors of familial abuse are many. But one could avert the danger of a lost childhood if parents and guardians followed a few simple steps to safeguard against familial abuse.
- Respect the child’s actions. If the child refuses to visit, greet or speak to a relative, don’t force the child. Also, try to find out what the underlying cause of your child’s fright towards this individual is.
- It’s your responsibility to teach your child that it’s not okay if any adult touches them on certain parts of their body.
- Respect distance. India has the culture of kissing and hugging children. It is good to hug and lovely to kiss. But it is also important to ensure that your child is protected. If your child does not want a certain someone kissing or touching them, don’t force your child. Let your relatives know that your child is not a doll.
- Teach your child to respect elders but not be fearful of them. Don’t force-feed the value of ‘respect’ to the extent that your child will not be in a position to tell you if adults behave inappropriately with them.
- Believe your child. If your child tells you that he or she has been touched in a way that they do not like, even if it is by the most respected person in your family, believe your child. Children don’t lie about these things.
- Don’t get paranoid after reading points one to five. It will not help your child in any way but will only complicate the issue further. Be aware, not paranoid. Let your child enjoy his [her] life. You just have to assure them that you will be beside them to help if needed.
Childhood is the most precious phase of one’s life. As parents, it is up to you to ensure that sexual abuse is not a challenge your child has to face.
Help Organisation sites:
24 x 7 helpline numbers:
Aks Foundation and Neo-Gandhian Aid Organisation India [NGAOI]: 8793088814/15 /16
This was first published in the September 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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