When I was only thirteen years old, a close family member began groping me whenever he could find me alone. From the moment it started, I knew something terrible was happening to me, but I also had an instinct that talking to another family member about his actions was out of the question. The abuser had never told me not to tell anyone else. I covered for him because I knew that in my family unit, the person who would face the consequences would be me, not him. But such a situation is not unique to me. All over India, families like mine, with strong, traditional, patriarchal views, react to child sexual abuse in ways that are more harmful to the victim than the perpetrator. Hence, my abuse continued on and off for five years until I moved away to continue my studies. During that period, I never confided in anyone.
Today, more than a decade later, as a twenty-eight-year-old internal medicine resident practicing in Vellore, India, I continue to struggle with the trauma of having been subjected to childhood sexual violence. After dealing with a range of issues related to dysfunctional coping, I decided to confront my abuser. My conversation with him left me with the painful realization that he was not concerned about any potential consequences. Though wrought with excuses and apologies, our talk did not have the undercurrent of fear that I thought I would see in him. He showed no fear of exposure, estrangement from the family, or law enforcement, which brought me to the disturbing realization that abusers feel very safe in Indian families. Once I decided to go public with my story, I understood that my childhood instincts had been on the mark. Not only did my traditional, conservative, Christian family not confront my abuser, they also tried to silence me from talking about it out of fear for compromising their reputation. This experience lead me to explore the aspects of traditional Indian family systems that could foster an atmosphere that protects abusers.
Upward of 95 percent of children who suffer from sexual violence are abused by a person they know.
Home Is Where the Hurt Is
Child sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions in India, and boys and girls are equally affected. Other studies also state that upwardsof 95 percent of children who suffer from sexual violence are abused by known person, including a member of the family. In India, however, events of child sexual abuse are massively underreported, aptly earning the name “the conspiracy of silence.” Dr. Mona Bhasker, a senior consultant in pediatrics who specializes in adolescent medicine and in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse in CMC Vellore, states that since establishing the department in her hospital, she has seen only a handful of cases reported — around seventy-one from 2017 to 2022, which is only the tip of the iceberg. These statistics attest to a complex interplay of sociocultural factors in India that act as barriers to reporting abuse and allow it to function as a playground for abusers.
Although child sexual violence is a taboo topic across many dinner tables, the silence and misinformation about it in Indian households are as rampant as the prevalence of the abuse itself. Many families try to limit the social interactions of their female children to prevent the occurrence of abuse by not allowing them to visit relatives or go on school trips. At the same time, most Indian families do not know that boys can be abused as well, and fail to educate both boys and girls about what to do when an abusive event happens. Along with the absence of awareness and information for children is a lack of reassurance and support from the families of children who experienced sexual violence and abuse. Children interviewed male child would keep silent out of fear that no one would believe him. A girl might remain silent preserve what privileges and freedom she already has.
Despite being made up of different cultures, India has a common collectivistic nature, where a person’s duty to the family unit trumps their duty to themselves. Cohesiveness with family members confers benefits for both survival and well-being and thus a good relationship with one’s family, as well as the community, is thought to be paramount. Hence, family units are threatened if a child reveals that they have been abused by a family member. Even when the abuser himself is not well liked by the rest of the family, his relationship with his wife, children, or parents can function as a shield that protects him from repercussions. In my story, several members of my extended family pointed out that my abuser’s wife and daughter, both financially dependent on him, are reasons I should not pursue legal action. When my father asked me why I thought it would be okay to ruin the lives of my aunt and cousin for something that happened so long ago, I realized that for a fraction of my close as well as extended family, I am the villain in this story.
Burden of Responsibility
The other component in preserving the silence is an interplay of the Indian society’s overvaluation of a girl’s sexual purity and the importance given to a family’s perceived image in society. Families do not seek legal justice because that would indicate to the outside world that the sexual purity of their daughter has been defiled, which would lead to diminishing romantic and marital prospects for her. As for a boy child, societal ridicule indicating his compromised masculinity and fear of disbelief is considered reason enough to not report. Continued telephone calls from my family members pleading me to stop talking about my abuse come with arguments packaged as concerns for my well-being. “Why would you decide to talk about it at this age when you should be marrying?” is the most common refrain. Sometimes it is followed by questions inquiring whether I am embarking on some new form of self-sabotage.
Seeing someone who harmed you being protected by the people who claim to love you is a special kind of hell.
Indian families, including my own, seem to view sexual abuse as a sunk cost even though it is anything but that. “It happened and it was painful, but nothing can be done now” is the attitude I and many other survivors are met with. ”Why ruin your chances at having a decent public image and the lives of your aunt and cousin for the sins of the father?” Children who have been subjected to sexual violence are predisposed to depression, anxiety, dissociative disorders, and sexual dysfunction, along with a host of other long-term problems, as clinical psychologist Kiran Selvarajan points out. Maintaining the conspiracy of silence, she believes, does not help them in their journey of recovery. It not only reinforces feelings of guilt and shame for having gone through sexual abuse but also results in feelings of isolation from family support. Development of dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as harmful substance use is also possible. Seeing someone who harmed you being protected by the people who claim to love you is a special kind of hell. I see its insides every day.
Every conversation I have at home casts me in roles other than that of the survivor — the wily temptress at age thirteen, the liar who disrupts peace, the vindictive woman who wants to destroy my innocent aunt and cousin and the disgraced daughter who has brought scandal to our doorstep. In her book, Bitter Chocolate, journalist Pinki Virani reiterates the sad truth that perpetrators sexually abuse children because they know they can get away with it. They know their families will stand by them. They know that the list of consequences will be longer for the victim and the other women in their families than it is for them. So, when people ask me why I want to talk about my experience and what it is I hope to gain from telling my story, my answer is that I hope to take away these familial safety nets for perpetrators. What I want to see is the fear of consequences in the eyes of my abuser.