A Tight-Lipped Silence: Surviving the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse

The Offender and the Bystander

In the movie, Haraamkhor, the offender is Shyam – a math teacher, who earns a little extra income on the side by taking tuitions in the evening. He enjoys a perfect sexual relationship with his wife, claims to love her passionately and “emotionally” and, in spite of his paan-stained teeth and blood shot eyes, manages to charm the women force around him.

In the same movie, the bystander is the single father – loving yet distant, mourning for a spouse who had abandoned him and in love with someone else.

Caught between Shyam’s physical and sexual abuse and the need to be acknowledged by her own father, is a confused and bruised 15-year-old Sandhya, who is unable to let go.

Haraamkhor is a tale that rings horrifyingly true.

According to a survey conducted by UNICEF:

• 10% of Indian girls might have experienced sexual violence when they were 10-14 years of age.

• 30% during 15-19 years of age

• Overall, nearly 42% of Indian girls have experienced sexual violence before their teenage.

The Deafening Silence

Dhivya (name changed), an editor of a popular women’s magazineI don’t know whether I see myself as a victim or survivor. Seven months after he started doing ‘bad’ things to me, I could finally muster the courage to tell my mom that Uncle was a bad man. I was 11 at that time. Mom, of course, forbade him from meeting me. But now I am old and married. And so is he. He is leading a ‘respectable’ life and here I am…cringing every time my husband so much as touches me.

“For many of us who have been subjected to CSA, the disclosing comes much later, when the trauma has already seeped into us deeply,” continues Dhivya.

For me, the turning point came when I attained puberty and one night I woke up in cold sweat, thinking I was pregnant. But the pressure to maintain silence through all these years has scarred my psyche to a large extent.

For many survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, secrecy continues to be a part of their inner narrative, the reasons for which are manifold. According to a study by the Human Rights Watch, children – as well as their parents – maintain a tight-lipped silence mainly due to the following reasons:

Emotional Conflict

Even as a child’s body bears the brunt of abuse, they continue to view the perpetrator as a good father/brother/teacher/uncle. With puberty, the impact finally hits them but the conflict never leaves their psyche. They continue to view their perpetrator’s abuse as love and attention.

Fear of Angry Response by Family Members

A mother, who is financially dependent on the perpetrating family member, finds herself at a great risk of being thrown out of the family when she alleges against the said member.

Fear of Ostracism

Indian society places an exceptional weight on honour; communities shun people who choose to make their trauma public. This fear of getting shamed push families into a hell hole of silence. A study conducted in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in India covering 13 states further corroborates this point.

Pressure From Extended Families to Settle Matters Privately

Many a time, the extended family members put pressure on the parents of the affected child, to settle matters privately for the fear of dishonour which such disclosure could bring upon the family.

Other Factors

Lack of faith in the police and judicial systems, traumatic medical examinations and an inconsistent, insensitive attitude towards the survivors make it difficult for the latter to come out in the open and talk about their trauma.

Breaking the Silence

Reporting the crime comes from empowerment. A child who is raised to obey elders without questioning, often finds it impossible to break past the trauma of CSA and report the crime.

Professor P Behre, in his paper, Child Sexual Abuse In Indian Context: Fact Or Fiction, says,

A correlation exists between childhood abuse and sexual abuse to the adulthood psychiatric disorders, the etiopathogenic pathway may vary individually and is difficult to discern. Higher levels of depression, guilt, eating disorders, somatic concerns, dissociative phenomenon and other psychiatric ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder are documented in victims of sexual abuse. Thus, early intervention is highly encouraged and is based on notion of protect, suspect, inspect, collect and respect.

For the survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, breaking their silence is the first step towards healing.

(Sridevi Datta is a freelance writer from Visakhapatnam, India. She writes on women's issues, parenting and personal finances, and also dabbles in short stories and poetry. You can find her writing on her writing portfolio.)