One of the plays that stood out in the recently held Short and Sweet Theatre Festival in Bangalore was a ten minute performance called “For the same reason”. The play starts out with a comedic tone and goes on provoking laughter with the witty lines and sarcastic remarks. Suddenly out of the blue, the female lead reveals that she is pregnant with her father’s child who raped her and the laughter is replaced by an eerie silence in the entire auditorium.
In the history of American law enforcement, a campaign that stands out in the anti child abuse circles is the one titled “Stranger Danger”. The poster shows a strange looking man in a trench coat and a hat, standing next to a tree in a children’s park with a packet full of candy ready to lure little children. This man in the trench coat and hat was the stranger who children were supposed to stay away from. Yet, later in their growth, the Americans began to realise that child sexual abuse was synonymous with incest. The danger was not an unknown man on the street or in the park, but rather the father or the uncle, maybe the grandfather even. Suddenly the dynamics changed altogether and this represented an entirely new challenge. After all, how do you keep children safe from the very people who are supposed to be their protectors?
Whenever I mention this story in my talks to members of our own government machinery in the field of women and child rights, they are quick to dismiss it by saying that Indian morals being different from that of the west, the stranger is still the danger here. First of all I am offended that we would call the west as a world with morals that permit incestuous abuse of children. But even on merits, the attempt to distance ourselves from the American experience is misplaced. As per the report of the Women and Child Development Titled “Study on Child Abuse”, India 2007, it was found that majority of child sexual abusers were known to the children and strangers perpetrating such crimes were a minority. It was further found that sexual abuse of children is very often a pre-planned insidious abuse of a relationship by an abuser over the child. The findings of the Ministry of Women and Child Development are in keeping with the World Health Organization’s estimates which are also quoted in page 74 of the said report.
Recovering and Healing from Incest (“RAAHI”), an organization dedicated to fighting incest in its publication titled “Women’s Experiences on Incest” based on a sample of 600 people, opines that 36% of sexual abuse victims were abused by family members of which 15% involved cousins as perpetrators. 46% of these victims were abused by others in positions of trust. Only 18% of the cases involved a stranger perpetrating such cases. These findings were endorsed by the Helpline personnel at Childline whose own experiences working with children reveal that the offender in cases of child sexual abuse is often someone within the family of the child, if not being an acquaintance of him or her.
The ordinary child sex offender is very often a complex creature with many layers to his personality. The incestuous child sex offender falls loosely under the category behavioural scientists refer to as “morally repressed” (“Child Molestors: A Behavioral Analysis” by Special Agent Kenneth V. Lanning, Federal Bureau of Investigation). In simple terms, they are abusers through and through. Yet what makes incestuous child sexual abuse difficult to detect is that the abusive inclinations in the offender, are hidden under a carefully evolved layer of sophistication and charm. To the outside world this sex offender is the very image of a loving father, a caring husband and a very successful professional and socialite. These skills are used to perpetrate and sustain the pattern of abuse and reduce the chances of social or legal interventions. These personalities exist simultaneously which makes it very difficult for society to resolve this paradox. Place the dexterity, intelligence and the functional thinking of this person on the same plane as the innocence, naiveté and the simplicity of the child victim; and one sees the perfect atmosphere for sexual abuse emerging.
Very often, the fingers point to the mother, wondering what the hell she was doing while her own husband was raping their daughter. As I have discussed, the morally repressed child sex offender is an abuser through and through. While he may be sexually abusing the child in the house, there is a likely chance that he has also battered his wife into submission. In addition, the woman constantly grapples with the fear of being judged by the society around her and is often pressured to maintain the image of a happy family. When she is also financially dependent on the abuser husband and given the hostility our society and our legal system dishes out to those who speak out against crime, one begins to see where the mother’s inaction emerges from. The persons outside of the home won’t be aware of this thanks to the aforesaid traits of the abuser, but professionals on the ground will vouch for these patterns in cases of incestuous sexual abuse of children.
While the picture of the father, uncle, brother, cousin, teacher, neighbor or blood relative committing sexual assault or rape upon a child of tender age inspires nothing but disgust and anger, this is a very real part of the world we live in. It would be virtually impossible for society to peek into every home everyday to identify the incestuous offender and bring him to light. However, what is possible is for all of us to shift our perspectives around children, because the child tells us more than what we care to listen. The next article in this series will venture into what we can do as a society to protect our children and keep them safe from sexual violence. But the first step remains to understand the dynamics within which abuse occurs. It’s uncomfortable and not the most pleasant thing for discussion. However,while we may not be biological parents to the children around us, I do believe that every healthy society will make a conscious effort to take collective responsibility over its children and shield them from harm. The question for us Indians therefore is, “Are we a healthy society?”
By Ashok G.V.
Image Source: Stop Child Abuse@Facebook