I know why the caged bird sings
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
When Bollywood star Aamir Khan brought victims of child sexual abuse onto Indian national television in his show Satyamev Jayate it caused a ripple of emotions within families and across boundaries in Indian society. On the show, adults talked about their experiences of being abused in their childhood. Statistics cited in the show indicated that 53 per cent, or 1 in 2 children in India experience some form of child abuse. Helpline experts talked about the need for a comprehensive child sexual abuse act. And in the midst of it was the actor, listening intently, being gentle, empathizing without intruding, humble and shocked and grieved. He helped break the silence.
I watched the show with mixed feelings: I watched in disbelief as people shared what were possibly the most painful experiences of their lives; I was glad that they were able to do it, in a forum which didn’t judge and persecute; I was shaken to the core at the horror that unfolded. And I was angry at our own silence in Bangladesh. Four years ago, I wrote a research paper on child sexual abuse in Bangladesh, and I remember sitting through my interviews with victims of abuse, feeling all these feelings, and guilt, as they struggled to relive their worst nightmares. For some, it was the first time they had talked about it openly. For all, it was a throwback into that time of powerlessness and inability to speak out. For each interview, we sat together for hours three or four times. Once was simply not enough as people choked and cried as they tried to talk about what had happened years back. It started off as just research. It changed the way I perceived safe spaces, family ties, and the need for protection.
It wasn’t news. Child sexual abuse happens. Among the middle classes, there is the tendency to deceive ourselves. We think it happens to ‘them’: people on the streets, people without ‘family values,’ people who are not ‘us’. Some hard facts came to the surface during my research: that 80% of women that I became close enough to ask, had been abused in some form during their childhood; that often the perpetrators were someone they knew and trusted, a family member, help in the house, or a tutor; that when some told their parents, at best, it led to anger and counter accusations, at worst it led to denial; most of them suffered from post traumatic stress disorder at some level; and that there was absolutely no recourse to law, or psycho-social help. The people I interviewed were from middle class families, educated, with good careers. They were people just like us.
What kept on coming back as recurring themes in those harrowing interviews were the feelings of shame and guilt associated with abuse. It was often this guilt that ‘maybe I had done something to ask for it’, that kept victims from speaking out. In some cases, abuse also became a pattern. One woman talked about how, the very next day after she had been molested by an uncle, he had come by, and told her mother he wanted to take her out for ice cream. Even though she was reluctant to go, he had cajoled and convinced the mother, and over ice cream said, ‘I am sorry about what happened, I will never hurt you again.’ She said even though she was shocked and scared, she almost believed him, he sounded so penitent. He raped her again the next week.
Little data exists to quantify the incidence of child sexual abuse inBangladesh. The available information suggests that in a sample survey of child sexual abuse in Bangladesh in 1997, half of the 150 persons interviewed admitted experiencing some form of sexual abuse in childhood. The study findings also show that children as young as five years had been abused. Since that time almost 15 years back, the figures are not really known. National level statistics on this are understandably difficult to come by, because of the stigma associated with discussing this issue, in a country where lesser issues are swept under the rug.
Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – to which Bangladesh is a signatory – says that the State must do its best to protect from all types of sexual abuse and exploitation. Bangladesh, though, has not been able to fulfill this international commitment. Section 10 of Oppression against Women and Children Act 2000 also defines physical sexual abuse, saying that if a man wrongfully touches a sexual organ or any other part of the body of a woman or child with his organ or by any other object, it will amount to sexual abuse, punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years and no less than 2 years .
In Bangladesh, as in India, and to be fair, in many other countries of the world, laws exist only on paper. Except for a few non-government organizations that deal with it, there are no institutional efforts to offer help, recourse to the law, or even raise awareness about child sexual abuse. Many questions need to be asked: do we know that our children are being abused at home? Are we open to the idea of listening to them when they talk about abuse? And if they tell us, what do we do, where do we go? How do we protect them? These are some of the issues that I will be addressing in this blog in the coming weeks.
One of the incidents of sexual abuse that got a lot of publicity recently was the abuse of a student at Viqarunnessa, one of Dhaka’s most prestigious schools, by her teacher. Parimal Joydhor, a 30 year old teacher was accused of raping one of his students at his home when she went for private lessons, and filming it on his cell phone. The victim’s father reported the case to the police, and he was arrested. Here then is the classic case of the abuse of power and trust. Yet there is a small victory. The girl’s father spoke out, and the perpetrator was arrested. He spoke out, risking everything: his daughter’s ‘reputation’, social stigma, media scrutiny. He spoke out.
Pinki Virani in her book Bitter Chocolate, about sexual abuse in India writes, ‘I cannot remember when my sexual abuse began; I cannot recall, no matter how hard I try, whether my recollection of the first time it happened is actually the first time it happened. I know this is not important, but it destroys me: where was everybody when it was happening; damn them, shouldn’t somebody from the family have been there to stop it? So much power abused, so much trust betrayed, where are the parents of these children? The politics of domination, the vulnerability of a woman, the girl’s very gender being a liability to herself as a human being.’
Children who suffer sexual abuse are abused twice: once during the actual event, and all through their lives because of the taboo and the shroud of silence imposed on them because of societal norms, unwillingness to talk about the issue, and the most shameful and damaging of all, the silence of the family. Aamir Khan used his celebrity to draw attention to this issue that is hardly seen or heard. Maybe it is time, for us, to break the silence.
Mashida Rashid is a public health specialist, and a campaigner for women’s rights.