Kerala's wave of child abuse cases and the silence of families: Why we must look inwards

Why do families continue to cover up child sexual abuse and let the perpetrator off the hook?
Kerala's wave of child abuse cases and the silence of families: Why we must look inwards
Kerala's wave of child abuse cases and the silence of families: Why we must look inwards
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While cases of moral policing are on the rise in Kerala, with political parties, the police and members of the public vociferously interfering in consensual relationships, there is just not enough discussion on the shocking instances of child sexual abuse that have been reported from the state.

Outrage, yes. Calls to hang the rapist or throw him to the lynch mob, yes. But barely any self-introspection as a society to understand the unwillingness that those close to the victims show to bring the perpetrators to justice.

We're not even three months into 2017 but already, rape and sexual assault of children at home, in schools, orphanages and even by a priest have made headlines.

In the case of the rapist priest from Kannur, the father of the victim, a farm laborer, actually claimed that he'd raped his own daughter and had impregnated her in order to protect the church and the priest.

In Palakkad, two sisters, aged 14 and 9, hanged themselves within a period of two months. The police confirmed that the younger girl had been sexually abused. The older girl, the family revealed, had been sexually abused by a relative earlier. The parents, construction laborers, did not take any legal action against the abuser and the man had reportedly visited the child in their absence on the day she hanged herself.

Last month, the serial abuse of an 8 year old girl in Kochi by her father's childhood friend came to light. Though the child had told her mother that she hated the abuser, the parents did not take her words seriously. The family claimed that since the father was hospitalised due to an injury, they were not in a position to pay attention to the child.

The child then told her teacher what had happened but the latter tried to cover it up since the accused was the president of the Parent Teacher Association and had powerful political connections, too.

In Wayanad, seven children from an orphanage were abused over a period of time by seven people who captured their crime on video and blackmailed the children with the images to threaten them into silence.

In the most recent case, the post mortem on a teenager from Thiruvananthapuram who had committed suicide in February showed that she had been raped and impregnated. Her parents knew the relative behind the crime. Instead of filing a case against him, they took her for an abortion.

In all these cases, the abuse had gone on for a while before the family or guardians realised what had happened. Or they had no clue how to deal with it, especially when the abuse had been from relatives or friends.

Speaking to The News Minute earlier, Vidya Reddy of Tulir, a Chennai-based NGO which has been fighting CSA for several years, had pointed out that only 33% of CSA cases have any medical evidence, even in cases of gang sexual assault.

She'd also said that in most cases, children do not speak up about the abuse for several reasons: how the abuser has groomed the child, the atmosphere at home, the general behaviour of the parents towards the child's views and opinions and so on.

In many homes, the communication channel between parents and children remains one way with the parents sticking to issuing instructions and not listening to what the child has to say.

There is also an unwillingness to talk about anything to do with the body, even within the educated and socially mobile circles, which makes it difficult for the child to comprehend what has happened and how to talk about it with a person they trust. The conventional way of shushing the child is to exclaim, "Chii!" and change the subject - which only adds to the shame and guilt that a victim of abuse experiences.

A child coming from an underprivileged home might be especially vulnerable with lesser safeguards in place although wealth by itself doesn't guarantee anything, as we time and again see CSA cases from across social classes.

However, what is especially troubling is the conspiracy of silence surrounding most of these cases even after the crime has come to light. A silence that is forced upon victims by the very people who are meant to protect them and offer support.

The primary reason for this is the fear of social backlash - the shame that a family has to live through every time a case of sexual assault is reported. This is doubly relevant when it comes to the girl child. Families tend to link everything to her future marriage prospects and would rather not address the trauma the child is undergoing than risk her “reputation”. They’d rather let off the perpetrator with a warning or pretend that nothing has happened to keep the façade up.

Victim blaming is evidence of a patriarchal and misogynistic society and it comes so naturally that the church's mouthpiece, Sunday Shalom, thought nothing of openly accusing the 16 year old victim in the rape case of seducing the priest. Many mainstream media organisations, too, indulge in insensitive reporting of sexual assault cases, divulging the identity of the victim and “sensational” details with little thought to the trauma they are inflicting on the person.

Indeed, it would seem that nothing has changed since the infamous Suryanelli case where a 16 year old girl was raped as many as 67 times over a period of 40 days by different men. Despite the medical evidence presented by the doctor who examined her which revealed grievous injuries, the girl and her family were subjected to mockery and shaming, including by the courts which cast aspersions on her character and even considered her to be a willing partner in the crimes.

It's not surprising then that families tend to prioritize their "honour" over the victim's well-being, considering how often the justice system lets victims down. Going to court and facing hostility from several quarters, from your relatives and neighbours to the police and the judge, is not something everyone can handle, especially if the family is not wealthy or well-connected - and if they are, there might be bigger things at stake.

It’s a combination of all of these factors that emboldens abusers and rapists, giving them so much impunity. The lack of respect shown to consensual relationships between adults is part of the same spectrum – where we prioritize institutions over individual freedoms and value “honour” over justice. And Kerala, despite its impressive social indices, is no different from the rest of the country in this respect.  

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