Tuesday, April 08, 2014

[CSAAM April 2014]

Child Sexual Abuse – 

the Invisible Demon around Us

When Jaya Menon*’s daughter, then 12, ran around their apartment complexes in Hyderabad with the various gangs of children, Jaya made it a point to call out to her from the windows every half an hour. Her daughter was told to stick to the group and come home for her mother’s permission before entering any flat. Even if it was only to drink water or collect a friend, Jaya’s daughter was to stand outside in the hallway. Now an adult, Jaya’s daughter doesn’t have very clear memories of these strict rules but she does remember that her mother or some trusted adult was never more than a shout away. Unobtrusive, but always present.

What Jaya feared was what many mothers fear – Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). She had been abused herself by a male family member when she was nine, and didn’t get much support when she tried to tell her mother about it. The memories had lingered and coloured her outlook on life. As her daughter grew, she tried to balance her desire to allow her child the independence she wanted with the protection that Jaya knew she needed. Other adults found Jaya’s behaviour overprotective but her husband Amit* who knew her story, supported and encouraged her.

Last May, when Aamir Khan featured CSA on Satyameva Jayate, the episode proved to be a vindication of sorts for Jaya and many other survivors like her. Shut up as a child, she saw on national television a renowned celebrity acknowledge and discuss what she went through. The show began with a nation-wide study by the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India, that concluded that 53% of study’s 12447 respondents, aged 5-24 years, had faced some form of sexual abuse. Jaya was nowhere close to being alone.

What Is Child Sexual Abuse?

Broadly speaking, child sexual abuse is recognized as emotional, psychological and/or sexual exploitation of a child by an adult. It comes in many forms, from forcing a child to perform sexual acts under duress to exposing a child to pornography. It can emotionally and physically scar children for life, compromise their mental and physical wellbeing as adults and in severe cases, impede them from leading well-adjusted lives as responsible members of society.

As concerned parents let us separate fact from fiction in some common misconceptions about child sexual abuse:

Misconception #1
CSA only occurs in lower class, uneducated or broken households.
Studies the world over show that CSA can occur in any kind of a home. A child from a single parent family is not necessarily more at risk than a child in a joint household filled with adults. A child who is taught rules of basic safety and whose guardians are obviously and openly keeping a close eye on his/her well-being, is likely to be safer than more neglected children. Abusers prey on children they can bribe or browbeat into keeping quiet about abuse.

Misconception #2
Our children can only be harmed or abused by strangers.
An unsettling half of the abused children studied by the Ministry of Women & Child Development reported that their abusers were people they knew, usually a close family member but also often a trusted outsider such as a family friend, household help, tuition teacher etc. The devastation of this abuse of power can be incalculable. Sheela Malkani*, 36, a successful work-from-home professional, not only went through years of therapy (with full family support) to help her cope with the after effects of her sexual abuse as a child, but continues to regress into deep depression when forced to be in contact with her abuser at family occasions.

Misconception #3
CSA only happens to girls.
Child sexual abuse is called so because it can happen to a child of either sex. In fact, the study by the Ministry of Women & Child Development noted that approximately 53% of the boys interviewed reported sexual abuse, shattering the myth that only girls are susceptible to abuse and should be protected. Lending open support to this understanding is Harish Iyer, an Equal Rights Activist and vocal supporter of child rights, who has often spoken about the sexual abuse he faced as a seven year-old. His story became inspiration for a character in director Onir’s landmark 2011 film I Am that talked about CSA.

Misconception #4

Children don’t need to know about sex.
Shuktara Lal, a drama therapy professional who has worked with survivors of abuse, begs to differ. She emphasises that “It’s only when we start sex education that we can help our children understand what sex is all about. And it’s only then that we can honestly explain sexual abuse to them and tell them what they need to be careful about and, if they do experience something abusive, who they should go to immediately.” Sex education can be as basic as teaching a toddler to correctly identify and name body parts or as detailed as explaining pregnancy and intercourse to older children. There is no set age to have this conversation but it is best to discuss this with your child before they acquire incorrect information from elsewhere – such as an abuser.

Signs of CSA

Writing about her own abuse in the New York Times this April, Indian journalist and author Nilanjana S Roy noted that “the chief violation [is that] abusers did not ask us for permission to use our bodies as they pleased.” This sense of defilement runs deep in abused children, as adult survivors such as Harish Iyer and Cindrella Prakash know only too well. Like Iyer, Prakash has also appeared on radio and TV shows (including Satyameva Jayate), online chats and interviews to talk about the importance of recognizing, understanding and addressing child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is usually (though not always) indicated by inexplicable injuries, rashes and infections in a child – in the genital regions or elsewhere.

Other signs of possible abuse are overly sexual behaviour by young children, moods swings or depression, sudden terror of familiar faces or strangers, alcohol or drug abuse, problems at school etc.

A Mother’s Role

CSA is the invisible demon that sits on many a mother’s shoulder. Fears of CSA have otherwise indulgent mothers refuse permission for class trips, sleepovers, even birthday parties and play dates. It is the unnamed fear that pervades parenting.
Even mothers who claim not to know or care about CSA, because “it doesn’t happen in decent, educated families like ours” nevertheless follow the ‘rules’ of protection – insisting that a child be home before dark, that children stick together in groups etc. It is a subject that is widely considered taboo or indecent in India but… truth be told, we have all had our share of such ‘uncles’ – the ones who kiss young girls when drunk, or insist on the children sitting on their laps though the child is clearly uncomfortable.

Rohini*, blogger and mother of an 8 year old boy and a 4 year old girl, knows that she cannot protect her children from every danger there is, but she believes in arming herself and them as best she can. Although her mother finds her worries “paranoid” Rohini takes pains to educate herself on possible abusive situations, sifting through mainly online information, and has discussed safety and possible reactions with both her son and daughter. The way she sees it, safety education is vital “so they know right from wrong and are equipped to say no, call for help and confide in their parents if something were to happen to them. I think suffering abuse in a shameful silence can be far more harmful to a kid's psyche and self-esteem than the actual abuse.”

It is important that parents start teaching their children as early as possible where they should and should not be touched, that if they feel uncomfortable they are allowed to say “no”, loudly and repeatedly, that if a child comes to complain of any kind of uncomfortable incident, whether abusive or not, he/she will receive trust and support. We often urge our children to make physical contact such as handshakes or kisses but a friendly “Namaste” or “Hi” or even a smile is perfectly acceptable too. A forced physical gesture confuses a child’s innate sense of boundary. Younger children, especially ones who aren’t yet talking, should be bathed, cleaned or changed by you at least once every day, no matter how trusted your support system. Older children must be made to understand that internet usage is a privilege and comes with safety rules. Teach yourself and your children about online predators. Gowri Shetty* does not allow her teenaged sons to pass on personal information (phone numbers, addresses etc.) except in person and checks their Facebook accounts regularly.

Lastly, it is important that parents retain a sense of perspective. Discussing danger with children is far more important than refusing them permission to engage with the world, whether online or off. Since we cannot guard over our children all their lives, the best gift we can make them to is to teach themselves to keep themselves safe.

How to keep your children safe:
  • Discuss safe touch/unsafe touch.
  • Listen to your children.
  • Teach your child to protest.
  • Do not insist on physical contact.
  • Check your child.
  • Reassure your child.
  • Monitor internet usage.
  • Draw information boundaries.
  • Spend time online with your child.
  • Don’t be paranoid.

This article of mine appeared in Mother's World magazine last September. I'm re-posting it here as a part of CSAAM 2014.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Bombay Then and Now

Read & Reflect Column #2

The Quarantine Papers by Kalpish Ratna
Paediatric surgeon, columnist and novelist Kalpana Swaminathan has made a name for herself in Indian literary circles today with her engrossing mystery novels featuring female detective ‘Last Resort Lalli’. She has also written unusual children’s fiction such as Ordinary Mr Pai and Gavial Avial.
She is equally prolific as half the person behind ‘Kalpish Ratna’, the pseudonym used by her and her surgeon and writer colleague Ishrat Syed, for articles, columns and eight books written together. Their common interests, history and medicine, come together, compellingly, in The Quarantine Papers. Published in 2010, this is a mystery novel set against two historic events in Bombay – the riots of 1993 and the plague of 1896.
‘The Plague Inspectors broke into homes, summarily removed anybody they found having a fever… The quarantine was ingenious. It even dealt with Bombay’s railways and roads. Plague passes were issued for people who wanted to go from Bandra to Mahim… Inspectors were stationed along the causeway. In you boarded the train at Bandra, the carriage doors were locked shut till you reached Grant Road or Mahalakshmi. There you were jumped by the Plague Inspectors, and whisked away to a hospital or a Segregation Camp. They learnt and perfected it here, the British. It would be their model for the Concentration Camps in South Africa that Alfred Milner would establish two years later during the Boer War. This was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee! Hitler was just a copycat. It all sounds sane at this remove, but imagine it happening to you!’
The book is set on a somewhat flimsy premise of a secret pact made by four men that must be honoured by their families down the ages; flimsier still is the story of the protagonist Ratan who lives two lives – one his own in 1993 and one of his grandfather a century before. His grandfather’s memories and experiences of communal tension are sparked into urgent action when Bombay breaks out into riots and communal violence following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Ratan slips in and out of history as he tries to make sense of inexplicable bits of knowledge and a sense of tragedy that must be averted. As a laboratory technician he finds himself working on victims of communal violence; however, his medical knowledge and skills belong to the doctor his grandfather was. He struggles to come to terms with what these flashbacks are trying to tell him even as his modern-day surroundings fill him with anger and despair.
The book works despite its undeniable flaws because of its evocative storytelling. Bombay of 1993 comes alive, with its fear and disbelief, as does the Bombay of 1896 wracked by disease and consequences such as evacuation, segregation and travel restrictions.
A short description of the bubonic plague in Bombay may be found here: http://www.iias.nl/iiasn/25/regions/25SA1.html

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Other People’s Stories

Note: I write a monthly column called Read & Reflect for Indian Weekender these days. I will be posting the pieces here after they are published in New Zealand.

Read & Reflect Column #1

Another Man’s Wife by Manjul Bajaj

Having read Manjul Bajaj’s first book Come, Before Evening Falls with deep appreciation only a year ago, I approached her second offering Another Man’s Wife with high expectations. The latter, a collection of short stories, did not disappoint. Her strengths remain the same: strong characterisation, detailed depiction of period detail and cultural context, and finely nuanced storytelling.
The first story, ‘Ripe Mangoes’, is a stellar example of all this. A young Kathak dancer, married for convenience to her father’s creditor, yet tries to hold on to all that is dear to her. She leaves behind her family orchards, her lover and her old life in Murshidabad and moves to “a grey matchbox of a home” in Calcutta where she looks after her three growing children. A home where she installs a tutor for her sons, the man she has loved most of her life. A life which is now threatened by her adolescent daughter who is unable to bear the weight of her mother’s adultery.
The motif of blurring lines is central to ‘Crossed Borders’ where old crimes follow an immigrant gardener around all his life. As an old man he think he has finally achieved the anonymity needed for a peaceful existence but a yellowed newspaper clipping lands him in the hands of his employer, a vengeful ex-wife looking for somebody to murder her husband’s new love.
 ‘The Birthmark’ is a more fanciful, less satisfying tale. Discussing the female infanticide rampant in the Doab areas, it pits a mother-in-law prepared to keep her bloodline ‘pure’ against the Bihari tribal worker her younger son married. Pregnant with a girl, the daughter-in-law refuses an abortion and her mother-in-law finds herself resorting to scheming against this “strange dark witch” who is teaching her son to accept a girlchild.
Cory Fernandez, in her story ‘Me and Sammy Fernandez’, offers a setting which is almost filmy in its extravagance: an aspiring music journalist falls in love with the son of a celebrated Goan singer. Rejecting the demands of her own Parsi background she enters into a relationship that turns abusive. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is described in disturbing detail as Cory struggles to reconcile her conscience, work and family with her rapidly souring marriage.  The final straw comes when she discovers the truth behind the death of her husband’s singer mother Amethyst, the idol of Cory’s youth.
The young village boy who dreamt of ‘Marrying Nusrat’, of giving the young NGO worker the stability and love she did not find in her marriage finds his path rockier than planned. Nusrat came from “some do-gooder agency” in Lucknow to organise the chikan workers of the village into a co-operative. In the process she opened the eyes of many of the villagers to the world outside the village and herself received unconditional love and support from them in her time of need. This story provides an eye-opening account of the lives and hopes of the men and women who provide the exquisitely hand-embroidered that are sold in ‘Indian’ shops everywhere.
One of my favourite stories in the book is ‘Underneath a Moonlit Sky’, about two couples who meet while honeymooning in Kashmir. Against the backdrop of the violence that destroyed Kashmiri tourism in the 1990s the Kashmiri husband and wife struggle to keep their love and marriage alive; in Madras the ex-honeymooners have their own troubles with childlessness and demanding relatives. Each year Rohini sends a little photo-postcard to Kashmir, unconsciously creating mementoes of happier times as well as of guilt and despair.
The eponymous ‘Another Man’s Wife’ is possibly the highlight of the collection. Kuheli and Devji grow up together in an adivasi village in Gujarat. They plan their lives together, forseeing a future of children, farming, togetherness. The building of a dam disrupts their lives, flooding their villages and making them penniless refugees overnight. Their struggle for survival is further complicated by the government official who wishes to make Kuheli his mistress. The resulting strain on their marriage is almost more than the bonds can bear.
Manjul Bajaj’s poetry and blog posts can be found online at
http://manjulbajaj.blogspot.in/ and