"At the end of it, he told me that I'm a loser. That I can't win. Those words..." 36-year-old Selvi's* voice trembles as she recounts a harrowing episode of sexual abuse that happened nearly thirty years ago.
Selvi, who lived in Coimbatore then, was playing hide-and-seek with her friends. Just a little over six years of age, Selvi ran into one of her neighbour's homes to find a place to hide. "It was a Sunday afternoon. I'd been to that house many times. The man who lived there...he was sleeping under a mat in the hall. There were women from my neighbourhood sitting outside on the stairs. He told me to come inside the mat and hide."
Little Selvi could not have predicted what would happen next. The man asked her if he should penetrate her or not. "He asked me if I wanted it in or out," she says. "He tried to force himself on me. It was very painful." Somehow, Selvi managed to push him away and run but the episode would leave a searing scar on her for life.
Years later, when she was in bed with her husband, the words would come back to haunt Selvi. She had married him, knowing that she may never enjoy sex. The stress of that had made her fall sick before the wedding. Nobody knew why Selvi was so upset, why she had to take sleeping pills to relax.
"I knew what had happened that afternoon was wrong. I didn't know why but I knew I shouldn't tell anyone. As I grew older, I saw this happening in movies...I then understood what exactly had happened," she says.
November 19, Saturday, was World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse.
Child abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. Many a time, it's a combination of all three. The News Minute spoke to three survivors of Child Sexual Abuse who have grown into adulthood, still living with those moments of pain and shock.
31-year-old Amudha* was in Class VI when she went to her neighbour's house to see her friend's science project. "My friend was just a year older to me. We were in the same school. She'd asked me to come and see her project, so I went. But her father opened the door and told me that my friend and her mother had gone out. I said I'd come later but he told me that I could come inside and take a look," Amudha recalls.
At 10, Amudha's breasts were just developing. As she bent over to look at the project, the "uncle" grabbed her breasts from behind and squeezed them. He also made thrusting motions at her. Amudha wriggled out of his grasp and ran out.
She stopped talking to her friend. A year later, Amudha's family moved houses and she never saw the man again.
"That incident made me realise that I'd been abused before. There was a shopkeeper who'd ask me to come inside his shop and take a look at pens and other things. I must have been in Class III...he'd hug me from behind," Amudha says, adding that she didn't understand what it was till the second incident happened.
Since then, the everyday street sexual harassment episodes that Indian girls undergo as a matter of routine have piled up inside Amudha's head, making her shrink from within.
"I used to wear thick glasses. I had really low self-esteem," she says. When she went to college, she had a boyfriend.
"I enjoyed making out with him," Amudha says, "but I didn't like being touched unless I took the initiative."
However, Amudha never connected her reservations about physical intimacy with her childhood.
When she got married eight years ago, Amudha was turned off by sexual intercourse. "My husband would hug me from behind and I'd get irritated and scream. We managed to have intercourse just once and I got pregnant immediately. After that, I'd make excuses not to have sex. I was part of a mothers' groups where women discussed their sex lives and I thought I wasn't enjoying mine because my husband was doing it wrong," she confesses.
When they finally discussed it, Amudha discovered that her husband had been hurt by many instances when she'd turned him away with an excuse.
30-year-old Preethi*'s marriage was on the rocks for the same reason. An auditor by profession, Preethi dated her husband for six years before they got married. But when it came to sex, Preethi couldn't bring herself to do it.
"When I was around 10, my parents sent me to my grandma's house for the vacations. Everyone was sleeping except my uncle who was watching TV. He asked me to sit on his lap. And then he started touching me all over and moving his hands on me," Preethi says.
The molestation continued till her aunt woke up and came outside her bedroom to make a cup of coffee.
"He stopped what he was doing immediately. It must have happened for about 15-20 minutes. It felt like an eternity to me," Preethi says. "I kept crying that vacation. I felt really violated. I felt dirty. I took it out on my parents. That uncle was close to my father. I blamed my parents for sending me to that house, I could never trust their judgment on anything after that."
Though Preethi's husband knows about this episode and other such instances - she recalls being molested in a train station in Ranchi when a stranger felt her up while her mother remained oblivious - he did not realise that Preethi's lack of interest in sex was because of this.
"I didn't know it myself!" Preethi exclaims. "I have a lot of trust issues. I keep checking the lock a hundred times, for example. I didn't connect all this with those episodes."
The couple had frequent fights and nearly called off the marriage.
It was only when a counsellor advised the two of them to write down the issues they had with each other that Preethi came to know that her disinterest in sex had hurt her husband badly. "I'd assumed that my lack of interest was normal. I didn't want to have sex when I was pregnant, then my son needed my constant attention...I didn't realise that my low appetite for it had a reason. It's only now that I'm opening up about it and that has really made a difference," she says.
Selvi and Amudha are yet to tell their husbands about their past. Selvi has two children - a boy and a girl - while Amudha has a daughter. They worry that if the men in their lives come to know about this, they will become overprotective about the children.
"My husband is a very understanding man," Selvi says. "We've been married for 11 years now and he has never ever forced me to do something I didn't want to do. My sex life is as normal as it can possibly get. I can still do it only if I'm very, very relaxed. Otherwise, my mind jumps to that day."
There is a silver lining to all these stories though. These women who're still fighting their demons have already spoken to their children about safe and unsafe touch. They remain on the alert, making sure that their children will not experience the pain that they went through. Their memories may render them vulnerable at times but as lava turns into rock over the years, they too have discovered a quiet strength within themselves. As survivors.