Child abuse: Breaking the silence

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Precise statistics on just how common child sexual abuse is are not easy to come by, because many survivors never tell a soul about the abuse

We didn’t know. Because they didn’t tell. You never suspected. Because you thought it can never happen. But it happened.

An uncle, an old friend of the family, squeezed a little girl hard and soft while she caringly sat in his lap. A big brother-like cousin stroked her soft thighs tenderly in some make-belief play. A trustworthy servant fondled her budding breasts. The touching continued. Only the nature and form varied with age… The boss made certain uncomfortable moves. She felt disgust. She told no one. No one knew.

But when we know that in Kasur’s little village Hussain Khanwala as many as 280 girls and boys under the age of 14 are filmed being abused, their stories and pain cannot be pushed under the carpet or downplayed. There is reason enough to create hysteria. Because we know it happened. And we must learn lessons from the silent cries of abuse victims that never spoke up or only whispered for fear of being castigated.

This incident of sexual child abuse (CSA), in the backyard of Punjab’s mega city Lahore, has created a storm in the country. So far, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered a judicial inquiry and some 22 FIRs of the case have been registered with the Ganda Singh police. Also, 10 culprits have been identified and seven arrested.

There were quick and clamorous reactions on social media and some mainstream media about the irony and even hypocrisy of the government officials. No one took an ounce of joy in this revelation. Their impulse is understandable, for this crime is rampant in our society but much hushed up.

Sahil, a non-government organisation working on CSA, released its annual publication Cruel Numbers 2013. In this report, the organisation stated that child abuse has significantly increased over the past few years. The total number of sexual abuse cases in 2014, stand at a staggering 3,508, of which 2,141 are girls and 1,367 boys. Shockingly, it brings the number of abused children to 10 per day. This figure also shows an increase of 17 per cent from the last year.

The major crime category of rape/sodomy including gang rape and gang sodomy show that there were 1,225 cases and 258 cases of attempted rape/sodomy, gang rape and gang sodomy.

A total of 142 victims were murdered after sexual assaults.

The report claims to have a total of 6,531 abusers on record, of which 1,790 were acquaintances and 1,246 strangers to the victims.

Like always, the highest percentage of vulnerable age group among both girls and boys was 11-15 years.

Statistics show 38 per cent of cases of sexual assault took place within enclosed areas whereas 21 per cent cases took place in open spaces.

The urban–rural divide shows that 67 per cent cases were reported from rural areas whereas 33 per cent were reported from urban areas.

Also read: Trial of the media

Precise statistics on just how common CSA is are not easy to come by, because many survivors never tell a soul about the abuse. And, if they never tell, obviously they are not at a place where they feel comfortable seeking professional help to deal with it. This compounds the tragedy as many survivors live their whole lives with the burden of shame – as if it was their fault. According to Dr  Ambreen Ahmad, a diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology who has practiced adult, child and adolescent psychiatry in both the United States and Pakistan, “the abuse continues to influence the survivor’s attitudes, actions and behaviours often in very negative ways but they are not able to connect these with their experience of abuse because they have tried so hard to bury it deep inside of them.”

Dr Ahmad lists a number of reasons for this attitude of keeping silent: First, because “there is a shame attached to anything that is sexual in nature in our society; second, we give very little priority to children’s needs, thoughts, opinions and desires, and we also do not think that children have any rights; third, to openly talk about CSA threatens some of our illusions about the sanctity of the home and family and the credibility of some authority figures whom for various reasons we have given the status of being people who cannot be questioned or doubted; and last, many parents are not aware of the serious short- and long-term consequence of CSA.”

But Dr Asha Bedar, clinical psychologist, believes that comparatively speaking CSA is not as hushed up as it used to be in the mid-1990s. People in general, schools, doctors, and in particular the media are a bit more open to talking about it. “This is just a start. Overall, it remains a huge taboo because it is about sex, and because it often involves people known or close to the child and often occurs in the privacy of our homes or neighbourhood… so CSA becomes a private matter, a private crime rather.”

The Kasur incident has put Amira Shafiq, a single parent of a 12 year old son and a 10 year old daughter, on guard. Although too young, her daughter has followed the incident closely and has felt “gross,” says Amira. Claiming to be “not a psycho mom”, she has warned her children against any interaction with strangers. “I told them both that you have a right to self defense. If you see any one making an inappropriate move towards you just scream, call out for help, talk to me or any family adult”.

Amira has directed her two young ones to “always move around in a group of friends. Never be alone for too long in school or any other public space.”

After the Kasur incident, she has made extra effort to ensure safety of her children, by coordinating their pick and drop from parties or elsewhere with friends. “You know this abuse case has left an indelible mark on my mind. I am a changed mom. Much more vigilant now than before! Like it can happen to anyone.”

I am a working mother with two kids, a son and a daughter, and have always relied on girl maids to mind the babies in my absence. I had my daughter when my son had turned six. In all this period I have had to change maids many a time. When my daughter turned three, I had an eighteen year old girl to look after her. One day, I went to a shop to get something, leaving the three of them on the back seat of the car. When I came back, I saw the maid getting too close to my son, tickling him in a strange way. That alerted me and, in a couple of days, I found her again in my son’s room. I was shocked and fired her that very moment. All my friends said they could not expect this from a ‘girl’.” — Anonymous

Amira’s fear is justified. Often the abuser is someone who is seen as an authority figure — adult family member, teacher, coach or maulvi sahib — and this is the most important dynamic behind the abuse. CSA occurs because the abuser believes himself to be and is in reality more powerful than the victim.

The nature of the abuse, the duration of it, the circumstances around it and the child’s relationship to the abusers can all impact how the child processes the abuse and his or her ability to move beyond it. Experts agree that parents can play a crucial role in ensuring their child’s safety. They must accept that the menace of child sexual abuse is prevalent and must take precautionary measures to prevent it. They must talk to them about good, bad and secret touch without feeling embarrassed.

However, and Bedar agrees, family responses to disclosure in such cases are often unhelpful or even further damaging. “I have come across numerous cases of incest (sexual abuse committed by a close family member) where the child has actually been emotionally strong enough to disclose it to a trusted adult (usually the mother), only to face very negative consequences, such as being doubted, being accused of making up the story, being blamed for attracting or encouraging the abuse, etc. And so these children are often left to deal with the most destructive sexual abuse on their own.”

Perhaps, the most effective way to check them is to break the silence and to empower our children to not be afraid to disclose abuse if it occurs. For our silence on this issue will only empower abusers.

As mature, responsible seniors we must understand, adds Bedar, “Children are vulnerable for two main reasons. At the most basic level, they are sexually abused simply because they are children. Children respond naturally to touch, love and attention; children love excitement and secrets; children love being made to feel important and special; children are taught to obey adults, especially adults in authority; and children are most vulnerable to fear, intimidation and threat.”

Outside my sons’ school, I found a driver trying to get too cosy with an eight year old child who had got free from school and was waiting for his elder brother in the car. I went to the car and asked after the child. He looked frightened. I waited outside that car till his elder sibling came. I got their mother’s number from him. I was a little apprehensive when I called her in the evening and told her about what I had seen. She was much too obliged for what I had told her. I only hope they fired the driver or made some other arrangement about sending their children to school. She said she would. — Anonymous

Another reason why our children are vulnerable to sexual abuse is because of a lack of awareness and skills. “We as a society are largely silent. Leave alone sexual abuse, we even have trouble talking about our bodies, our secret parts, without embarrassment,” adds Bedar.

Alongside, parents must know the facts versus the myths. For example, “CSA does not just happen in villages or in poor families. It happens within all socio-economic classes. Or that it is a myth that only girls can be abused. The fact is that boys are frequently abused or that women cannot be abusers or that sometimes the child is at fault if she is sexually abused” reiterates Ahmad.

Breaking the silence on CSA also means raising awareness of what needs to be done if a child is abused. In a country that lacks expertise in this area, such as paediatric forensic investigators, medical professionals or counsellors to tackle this crime the problem gets compounded. Therefore, Dr Ambreen Ahmad points out, “We do not at this point have enough trained or sensitised professionals at all levels. That is not to say that they do not exist at all but certainly this scarcity of trained professionals does become an obstacle in our being able to provide survivors and their families with the sort of care they need and deserve.”

She further stresses that the more we address this issue openly and boldly, the more steps we will be able to take to protect our children. For example, “there are countries where if an adult has a record of abusing a child, that person cannot be part of any organisation or institution, which involves looking after children. This, of course, requires that more cases are disclosed and prosecuted effectively and we develop systems to make these records public.”

We may be a long way away from this!

I was 8 years old when I was molested. I used to visit my friend once a week. His parents were family friends so my parents were comfortable letting me go to their house. Usually, my friend and his driver would drop me back. Sometimes, we would convince his driver to take us around the local market so we could have chips and coke. My friend would tell his parents that there was lots of traffic and that’s why he would get late in returning. One evening, the driver turned the car in a deserted road and stopped it. He told me he wanted to show me something. Since I had known him since I could remember, I got out of the car. He told my friend to stay inside and he would take us one by one. He took me behind the car and molested me. I tried to get away but he was too strong. He kept telling me if I stayed still it would be over in a few seconds. So, finally I became still. Afterwards we got in the car. He didn’t touch my friend. By that time even my friend knew something bad had happened so he also stayed quiet. The driver told us that we shouldn’t force him to take the car around. I was too afraid to tell anyone because I knew I would be scolded for going to the market with my friend. That was the last time I went to their house. The man worked for the family for another ten years. I don’t know if he did it to any other child. My friend and I never spoke about it. — Anonymous