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Healing From Incest And Child Sexual Abuse

It is possible for women to recover from the damaging effects of incest/childhood sexual abuse. Recovery begins with the survivor acknowledging she was abused and that her life is affected by what
happened, and deciding to do something about it. Pallavi Bhattacharya interviews Anuja Gupta, founder of RAHI (Recovery and Healing from Incest), trainer, educator and counsellor on the issue of incest and childhood sexual abuse in India.  

Anuja Gupta, founder of RAHI (Recovery and Healing from Incest) is a trainer, educator and counsellor specializing in incest/ childhood sexual abuse. She does individual and group work with survivors of incest and CSA. She lectures and trains at NGOs and other forums.

RAHI deals with the ‘recovery’ and ‘healing’ of incest and childhood sexual abuse. How would you describe the ‘recovery’ and ‘healing’ processes?

It is possible for women to recover from the damaging effects of incest/childhood sexual abuse. Recovery begins with the survivor acknowledging she was abused and that her life is affected by what happened, and deciding to do something about it. She then goes through several stages such as remembering, breaking the silence, mourning, dealing with feelings, forgiving and trusting oneself, understanding and using one’s strengths, and forming new relationships.

These stages however can overlap. Often the survivor is likely to move through these stages again and again but in doing so, she will reach a point where she can make deep, lasting changes in her life. Though the memories of abuse do not go away, they lose their debilitating quality and the survivor is able to put the abuse behind her and move on to a more fulfilling life.

Please define and differentiate between the ‘survivors’ and ‘victims’ of CSA/ incest.

The word ‘victim’ refers to the child who is sexually abused and is vulnerable and powerless. The word ‘survivor’ refers to adult women and men who have been abused as children. They have had to survive the trauma of sexual abuse and the term reflects the strength and resilience they have shown through adversity.

Why do you concentrate on working with just the survivors and not the victims? Why don’t you work with both? Whereas I do agree with you that it is important to work with survivors as they can recognize abusers and victims and therefore prevent this crime, why shouldn’t you work directly with the victims too as they are helpless, suffering and too young to understand what is happening to them and therefore need urgent help?

It is important to highlight the fact that incest/CSA has debilitating long-term impact. Survivors are also suffering and need our urgent help. When we help survivors come into recovery, they are in a position to shape work in this area, prevent it happening to their/other children and stop the generational cycle of abuse.

In focusing on working with survivors, we do not deny the need to work with victims and other populations. We may not as yet be doing direct work with victims but we work with people who work with them, such as parents, mothers specifically, teachers, child rights organizations and educate and train them on prevention and intervention. 

Who perpetrates child sexual abuse?

There is no profile of a typical abuser. Though we would like to believe that abusers somehow look different, speak differently or act differently, the fact remains that they are more like us than they are not like us. They live amongst us and are most often known to and trusted by the child and her family.

They come from various backgrounds and are members of every race, religion, profession, and socio-economic group. They can be older children, adolescents or adults. Men who sexually abuse children are our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, neighbours and other respected members of the family and community.  It is not possible to tell abusers from non-abusing people unless you know they are abusing.

How do you build a relationship with your child so they feel free to talk about it?

It’s part of regular parenting, isn’t it, to build up a close relationship with your child, regardless of CSA? Those who are parents would know this so well. You need to treat kids as individuals with rights, have dialogues and discussions with them on various things, listen to them, include them in family decision making processes appropriate to their age and not pretend they do not understand what is going on and cannot contribute substantially to family matters, encourage them to talk to you about what is happening in their lives, good and bad, have flexible rules, and so on.

Does Indian society and families need to become more open in talking about and reporting child sexual abuse? Are the taboos still preventing people from reporting it?

Certainly, our society and families need to become more open in talking about CSA/incest. As part of our Peer Education Programme that we run in Delhi colleges, where we train young women students to be incest/CSA peer educators, we run a campaign called ‘Talk Till it Stops’. There is no other way.

One of the reasons CSA/incest continues to happen from one generation to the other is because there is silence around it and it’s brushed under the carpet if it comes to light. This serves only to protect the abuser and not the child. The abuser knows he can get away with it.

Reporting incest/CSA assumes that there are reporting mechanisms that are safe. This is not true. Often reporting a case of CSA, especially incest, causes more trauma to the family and victim, given the state of our judiciary and laws and law enforcement agencies. These are highly insensitive and prejudiced. So reporting such a case has to be done with great care, with full knowledge of implications.

Of course there are taboos preventing people from reporting. When the abuser is a member of the family, it is difficult for people to report. Would you for example, go to the police if you were to find out that your father, brother or any other close relative is sexually abusing kids? I don’t think so. I think you would overlook it or try and find a solution within the family.

There is also the question of shame, family honour, and future of the victim that come into the picture. These are very real issues for people who have abusers in their families. I am not saying that people should protect abusers by not reporting or that abusers should not be punished. This is a serious crime.

A law and legal remedy is very important, as is the provision for treatment for abusers. It’s an indication that our society recognizes CSA/incest as a social problem. All I’m saying, why this over-emphasis on reporting, as if it would take care of the problem? We must find creative solutions to this and often answers lie within the family itself.

How should a parent help a child who has been abused? What would make the recovery process easier?

First of all, when we talk about parents, let’s be clear we are talking about non-abusive parents. Let’s not assume that all parents are safe for the child. A lot of abuse I know of and deal with is father-daughter incest.

The first thing parents need to do to help the abused child is to believe the child. If the child has in some way managed to tell the parents about the abuse, parents should validate the child for having the courage to share and communicate to the child that it was the right thing to have done.

Steps need to be taken to stop the abuse immediately and see that the child is safe. This may mean confronting the abuser and taking concrete steps to see he does not abuse again. The child should be kept in some way informed of whatever action the parents decide to take. Details don’t have to be given to the child but she/he must know that parents are doing something about what has been revealed.

It’s very confusing for a child to have disclosed and then not know what elders are doing with that information. The child must be constantly given the message that the abuse was not her/his fault and that what happened should not have happened.

Parents should apologize to the child for not having protected him/ her and let the child know that they have taken measures to protect her/him and that he/ she will not be hurt again. However, no false promises should be made to the child because if parents fail to live up to them, it adds to the sense of betrayal of trust that the child feels.

The best way to mitigate the long-term impact of incest/CSA is to appropriately deal with it at the time it happens. When children have been believed and protective action is taken then they feel secure and cared for and this has positive impact on their healing process.

How should a parent deal with the fact that their child has been abused? Suggest healthy coping strategies.

Incest/CSA is not just a crisis for the child but also a shattering experience for non-abusive parents, especially mothers who are often entrusted with child care. They will be faced with feelings such as shock, disbelief, fear, anger, guilt, grief and self-blame. Other than focusing on what needs to be done for the child, it’s very important that parents seek support for themselves. This is not the time to put on a brave front and do it all alone, it’s too overwhelming.

The thing to do is to tell others who will be supportive through the crisis. Family, friends, or an appropriate professional.  Feelings parents are going through and strategies for helping the child and themselves need to be worked through with others who care. Of course, this is a very general answer to a very general question. Every case is different, a lot depends on who the abuser is, the relationship between the parents, the level of empowerment of the woman and so on.

Why does RAHI just work with middle class and upper middle class women only? After all not all women can pay the rate (Rs 400 – Rs 600) an hour for professionals and (Rs 150 – Rs250) for a college student. And why do you focus just on urban educated women? What about poor and illiterate women who are / were abused?

It’s necessary to work with all segments of society because this is an issue that affects all. However our intervention is focused on middle and upper middle classes because though a lot of sexual abuse happens in these classes, there is a widely prevalent myth that such abuse happens only amongst the poor and uneducated and that abusers are only poor and uneducated.

If we have to stop incest/CSA  from happening we cannot afford to live under such misconceptions. And this class is a very neglected segment in terms of any intervention. Our education and training programmes target other NGOs who work at the grass roots and with the underprivileged in both urban and rural areas. We equip them deal with incest/CSA that comes up in their communities. This way we reach out to all segments of society.

You said in a previous interview that the abused may have to tie a holy thread around the abuser’s wrist. Also the Hindu system of prohibiting marriage within gotras has been created to prevent incest. Yet incest is so very prevalent in Indian households. Why does Indian society have such double standards?

I really wouldn’t know why Indian society has double standards. Don’t we all have double standards around things we don’t want to confront within ourselves? When we are in denial around uncomfortable issues, part of the denial manifests itself in projecting just the opposite to the outside world. It keeps us from going where we are too scared or don’t want to go.

How and why did the myth that incest and CSA just happens in America or the slums of India originate?

I have no idea how this myth originated. What I do know is that myths serve a purpose. In this case, it serves the purpose of denial. When we believe like incest/CSA happens in America or amongst the underprivileged, we can feel safe, and take the high moral ground and blame all our ills on others. We can pretend to feel good about ourselves and live under the illusion that we are a civil, decent people. Of course such a myth only perpetuates abuse.

Why are the abused generally silent about their sufferings? What strategies are used to break this silence?

Children normally do not talk about sexual abuse. This is for several reasons: because they do not have the appropriate language and do not know how to describe the abuse, they are often confused about what is happening to them, they may have been threatened by the abuser or are scared of being blamed, not believed or rejected, they love the abuser and do not wish any harm to come to him, they are too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it, they believe it is their fault or they may simply not know who to tell. 

Sometimes when children do talk about the abuse are and are not believed, then it makes them feel more ashamed and afraid to tell anyone else. Adult survivors have similar concerns because of which they keep quiet. They think it happened so long back, there is no point in talking, they want to protect their non-abusive parents from this knowledge, they believe they were to blame for the abuse, they don’t want to upset the family status quo, and so on.

Talking about this issue, raising awareness, removing myths and creating safe spaces for victims and survivors to share where they can be believed and not judged or blamed will help those abused to come out with their experiences.

Please explain the connection between women alcoholics were victims of incest and CSA. These were findings in your research according to an article.

Alcoholism is one of the ways some survivors cope with the trauma of abuse. It numbs them from feeling the overwhelming feelings associated with the abuse.

Little boys are victims/ survivors of CSA and incest too. Why don’t you work with both male and female survivors of CSA and incest?

As an organisation, we can choose to work with whoever we wish to. This is our prerogative. We are a women’s rights organisation and put in our limited resources towards the empowerment of women. If men come to us, we don’t refuse them. We invite other people to work on this issue and perhaps fill in the areas we are not currently working in. We would be willing to train them. Prevention and healing from incest/CSA should be everybody’s concern and not only that of organisations like ours.

Why do uncles and male cousins top the incest list? The percentage of fathers and brothers abusing is quite low compared to the percentage of uncles and male cousins abusing. Why?

There are many more male cousins and uncles in a child’s life compared to fathers and brothers.

According to a newspaper report family facts show that 68% of the incest victims lived in nuclear families, 16% in semi-joint families and 15% in joint families. But aren’t uncles and cousins a part of joint families rather than of nuclear families? So how come that incest rate in joint families is less than nuclear families?

I don’t think this can be taken as conclusive evidence. It is only the evidence found in the study you seem to be quoting. However, children in India spend a lot of time with other family members, whether or not they live in nuclear or joint families. Family gatherings, functions and holidays are part of a child’s daily reality.

There is no special law in India covering incest and sexual abuse of children. So how can the guilty be nailed down and punished?

There are laws such as the rape law for example that can be used where there has been penetration in case of minor girls, the molestation law or the Juvenile Justice Act can be used. However, the law is not the only way to take action against the guilty. Solutions can be found within the family itself.

How has RAHI progressed since its inception in 1996?

From a small individual fellowship project it has now moved to being a full-fledged organisation offering a variety of support services to survivors as well as education, training, research and communication projects that reach out to people all over the country.

Please share with us one or two success stories of RAHI with the names changed.

Maya was a college student, who came to us when she was 18. She had heard of RAHI at a workshop we had held in her college. She was being sexually abused by her father. The abuse had started when she was six and was continuing. Within 10 months of being with us in therapy as well as a volunteer, she was able to say ‘no’ to her father and stop the abuse. Within a year, she moved out of her home with her mother.

What are the future plans of RAHI?

Future plans of RAHI include expansion of all its programmes, replicating some of them in different parts of the country as there is a great demand for them, start new programmes focusing specifically on child protection and increase the reach of our support services to survivors. Currently we are facing a financial crisis and our priority is to get funds.

There is so much of internet porn and a lot of it depicts incest. Do you think that encourages incest and CSA?

Plenty of incest/CSA is happening and has been happening without internet porn. Of course, when it is out there so much in the face, it makes it more acceptable for child molesters to do what they are doing.

Freud argued that as children members of the same family naturally lust for one another making it necessary for societies to create incest taboos but Westmarck argued in the reverse that the taboos themselves arise naturally as products of innate attitudes. Who do you think was right? (Though whoever may be right or wrong gives no right whatsoever to abuse children in the family I just want to know your opinion on the psychological theory of incest.)

There are many theories on incest. Frankly, neither do I know them all nor would I like to get caught in them. As you said, no matter what the theories say, no one has a right to abuse another. So let’s keep the focus on that. Incest/CSA is a violation of not only the child’s body but also the trust implicit in a care giving/taking relationship. It has great cost to individuals and society and must end.

The novel Lolita is a controversial story about a paedophile who had a relationship with his minor step daughter. The paedophilic protagonist in Lolita actually got a lot of sympathy from may of the readers. How do you view the protagonist?

Readers tend to engage with the protagonist of any novel as they are invited to delve into their life in all its complexities and nuances. For me as someone who is working with this issue, it is difficult to empathise with a protagonist who is a paedophile or child molester no matter how honest or compelling the portrayal may be. The protagonist had signs of being a typical paedophile, who is incidentally different from who we call a child molester, in that his life centred around wanting to have sex with Lolita. What was happening to Lolita was chilling.

Do you think proper sex education at an early age (at least what good touches and bad touches are and who is allowed to touch them or not) should be imparted to a child? Who should impart this education? The parents or the teachers? What should be the correct way of explaining children these things? From which age should sex education be imparted to a child?

Teaching children about good/bad touch is not necessarily sex education, so let’s not confuse the two. Let’s look at it as rights education, safety education pretty much like learning about how to be careful while crossing the road, it’s learning about being assertive and learning about our bodies. Of course it is important to teach children about good, bad and confused touch.

The correct way to do it is by weaving it in other safety rules one teaches children in a matter of fact way, without instilling fear or mistrust in the child. For this it is very important that whoever is doing this, is not overwhelmed or fearful herself/himself and is fully informed around the issue and has dealt with their own biases and misconceptions so that comprehensive information is provided to the child.

Of course this cannot happen in isolation if otherwise there is not a good enough rapport between adults and children like the kind we spoke about earlier. Other than talking about touch, the message to the child should be that they could come and talk the adult about anything that confuses them or makes them uncomfortable without the fear of being blamed or scolded. Child protection from sexual abuse is really about bringing up and viewing children in an empowered way as individuals with rights and opinions.

You can talk to children as young as four years old provided you know how to explain things to them in a way they will understand. Who imparts this training? Both parents and schools. Schools should have specific child protection programmes.

It’s very important to remember that child protection is the responsibility of adults and not of children. Sexual abuse can take place despite such education to children. We must not think that once children are educated, they will be able to protect themselves. The dynamics of sexual abuse, especially incest is such that no matter what you teach kids, they simply do not have the resources to stop it from happening.

This brings me back to saying how urgent it is for all adults to be fully informed about this issue so that they can be alert and pick up signals. Children do tell in one way or the other, we simply don’t know how to listen.

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