"I don't remember most of my childhood, except for brief flashes of when I was about three. I blocked out the experience of abuse, as many survivors do. I was 13 when I spoke to my parents, who got upset, made sure the perpetrator didn't visit us any more, and told me to get on with my life," recalls Nazu Tonse in Bangalore. "It was only in my mid-30s that I found it impossible to ignore the sexual abuse I had undergone as a child. In about the year 2000, a psychotherapist in Bahrain worked with me
for almost two years to help me to heal..."
Coping with her experiences as a child sexual abuse (CSA) survivor made Tonse, once an advertising whiz kid, set up Askios, a local self-help group for woman survivors like her and an information-rich website. One that could help others cope with suicidal tendencies, low self-worth, addictions, panic attacks, eating disorders, workaholism, dysfunctional relationships, promiscuity and so on.
While Tonse intends to "work with literate, urban, English-speaking women survivors through Askios", she hopes that the other women in the self-help group will reach survivors in different ways. They may work among children, with medical professionals, and use Kannada, Hindu or Urdu to reach larger groups. "The overall picture is overwhelming. But I realize that four of us can make a difference to at least four other women," says Tonse.
Askios (Greek for 'shadowless'), like New Delhi's RAHI (Recovery and Healing from Incest) and Mumbai's Forum Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACSE) are unearthing musty skeletons from collective Indian closets. When will we begin reaching out to the children who have succumbed to male predators, including brothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or male servants? When will we acknowledge that CSA occurs in our innermost family circles?
Our complacence over sexual abuse took a battering when Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' won the 2002 Venice Golden Lion. And when people viewed Bangalore social activist Kirtana Kumar's film 'My children who should be running through vast open spaces'. And watched playwright Mahesh Dattani's '30 Days in September'; and read Pinki Virani's book, 'Bitter Chocolate'.
More recently, Malaysia-born, US-based video activist Grace Poore's 'The Children We Sacrifice' focused on CSA through a South Asian lens, whipping the loin-cloth off generations of socially-transmitted lies at a June screening in Bangalore.
Between November 1993 and March 1994, Samvada - a local NGO working towards youth activism - organized 13 interactive CSA-related workshops engaging 348 girls students between 15 and 21 years from 11 high schools and colleges in Karnataka. Its path-breaking preliminary report is currently being updated on the basis of 80-plus sessions for youth, parents and teachers (post-1994). It states that "any study of CSA is not just about statistics, but about betrayal, pain and recovery."
In a brief recap of the findings, Anita Ratnam of Samvada notes: 47 per cent of the respondents were molested or experienced sexual overtures and 15 per cent of them were less than 10 years old. Fifteen per cent of the respondents experienced serious forms of sexual abuse including rape and 31 per cent of them were less than 10 years old.
In a post Poore film discussion, Ratnam points out, "CSA happens across society, among the rich and the poor, irrespective of class, caste or community. I feel it's the family itself that leads to CSA because it polarizes adult and child, rural and urban, male and female. It's the family that constructs what traumas rise out of the abuse..."
Typically, what are the repercussions intimate confessions like - "My uncle raped me repeatedly between the ages of six and 16" or "My brother used to kiss and fondle me" or "I didn't have the power to say yes or no"? A family rent apart, its trust betrayed from within. Or a teenager who walks through public spaces hugging her bag to her breasts. Or a mistrust of physical intimacy with a loved fiancï¿½.
Is this because in India, we have a startling absence of support systems such as counsellors, legal activists, sex education or public campaigns for awareness? Or is it because women here lead a gender-circumscribed, marriage-centric existence? Or because prevailing norms of morality treat sex as a four-letter word, resulting in doublespeak and double standards? Or because opportunists within the family exploit the ignorance and trust of children?
Privately, Indian society acknowledges CSA but publicly it denies the fact of it. Indian doctors often 'treat' CSA victims without realizing they have been abused, perhaps because medical training overlooks it. As for the Indian Penal Code, it recognizes only outraging the modesty of a woman, sodomy and rape as sexual offences, with the latter covering any sexual intercourse with a girl under 16.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, one out of ten Indian children is being sexually abused at any given point of time. Every 155th minute, a child below 16 years is raped. Every 13th hour, a child below 10 years is raped. That's according to a 1998 working group on the Convention on the Right of
Within this context, Poore's award-winning film acquires an added potency. She is a lesbian feminist writer of Sri Lankan and Indian heritage, a CSA survivor herself. Shot in Sri Lanka, Canada and India, her film culls the voices of CSA survivors, South Asian women's groups, legal activists, psychotherapists, community educators and others - to form a prism of intervention.
"Coming out" has enabled me to shatter the silence for the next generation of children in my family by letting them and their parents know who the abusers in the family are. And if anyone has experienced something similar by these same abusers or anyone else, they don't have to keep it a secret - and they can come to me," says Grace Poore.
Many survivors have spoken of their trauma or their perceptions on CSA through interaction with Poore - during her ongoing video-project on CSA or her website. US-based Sivagami Subbaraman, a survivor who lived in Chennai as a child, says, "What makes this seal of silence so untenable is that we somehow expect children to tell us, to do the process of educating and instructing us." At another sharing Subbaraman says, "I think the best way families and friends can help is by listening, and taking the time to educate themselves."
A South Asian male professional in the US shares his experience of being married for 20 years to a CSA survivor. On intervention he writes: "We cannot presume battle-lines or pre-set boundaries, we cannot assume who our allies or enemies will be. But there is one certainty, no one will leave the field un-bloodied, socially speaking - not the perpetrator, not the victim, not the ones intervening..."
Against these searing experiences and feelings, Tonse's work through Askios assumes a positive dimension. She has opted to follow the 21-step, three-stage Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA) self-help program, developed by the Morris Centre in California. It promises healing, and a great leap forward from tear-blurred compassionate sharing.
Will social intervention occur before more children of both genders are sacrificed at the altar of family honor? "Nobody seems to realize that many social problems rise from the long-term effects of CSA," observes Tonse with feeling. "Until we start respecting women and children as individuals in society, nothing will change..."