Child sexual abuse
Poornima Govindarajulu observes that the legal potential for an adult survivor to report child sexual abuse is marred by the attitude of “too late, too bad”.
Poornima with Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi. Courtesy: change.org/Twitter

I was sexually abused by my cousin’s husband when I was a little girl.

I would wake up at night to find him sitting next to me in the dark. He would put his hands and mouth on my private parts. I would lie there, terrified and disgusted.

I was so ashamed and confused that I told no one about the abuse. It continued till I turned 13.

It was only as an adult that I realized what had happened to me. I also realized that I was not alone.

These are words that would resonate with more Indians than we’d like to admit. After all, one in every two children has been sexually abused as a child. Many are also able to process what happened with them years after the abuse.

Purnima Govindarajulu is one such survivor. The above lines are from her online petition which urges “the Government of India to allow adult survivors to file complaints about childhood abuse.” This she says would prevent repeat offenders from committing crimes against children in the future.

She and DMK’s Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, a supporter of Purnima’s petition, met Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi in Delhi on Monday regarding the issue.

“She (Maneka Gandhi) agreed that it was an important issue and needed to be worked on. She also said that while it would probably take some time to initiate legal change, but she would try her very best,” Purnima tells TNM.

Despite Section 19 of the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act making the reporting of child sexual abuse (CSA) mandatory for anyone who has an apprehension of such an act being committed, Poornima observes that the legal potential for an adult survivor to report child sexual abuse is marred by the attitude of “too late, too bad”.

Purnima argues that as a child, even if you understand that you are being abused, you have very little power. And if the abuser is known to you, even less so. “It’s unrealistic to expect young children to walk to a police station and file a complaint about abuse,” she says in her petition.

“But today, as an adult, the power is balanced. I am financially independent, and have people who support me, and resources to go after him legally. I had none of that as a child,” Purnima tells TNM.  “I should have support and legal means to stop my molester from potentially continuing his offences on other children,” she adds in her petition.

Purnima is, therefore, petitioning to the Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as well as WCD Minister Maneka Gandhi to either issue a clarification or amend relevant laws, including POCSO, to enable adult survivors of child sexual abuse to bring their abusers to book.

Originally from Chennai and now a working biologist based in Canada, Purnima wanted to do something in this regard after a visit back home in 2013. She saw children still going to her abuser’s home, who is still based in Chennai.

While she didn’t know whether he was inflicting the same scars on them as he did on her, she realised she could no longer let the man victimize other children – a cousin had already confirmed that she had been abused by the same man earlier.

“I had told my family about the abuse 25 years ago,” the 53-year-old says, “But I didn’t see any change. My abuser went on with his life.”

Purnima began to look for a lawyer who could help her file a complaint against her abuser, which took a long time. In August 2016 finally, Purnima, along with a renowned lawyer in Chennai, approached the police. “The police commended me for coming forward to lodge a complaint. They told me that I was one of the very few who did. And of those who do file complaints against their abusers, many end up withdrawing them eventually because of administrative hurdles,” she says.

Even so, Purnima writes in her petition, the police “did not know of a law or legal route that they could use to allow an adult survivor to file a complaint about childhood abuse.”

A troubled Purnima consulted psychologists and realised that abusers like her relative often repeat their abusive behaviour towards new victims. Determined to not let other children go through what she did, Purnima started the petition.

She has received a mixed response from her family after taking this up. “Some of them are very supportive. Others would rather that I did not speak about this publicly, because they feel it would hurt my abuser’s family.” After a pause, Purnima asserts, “But no. There’s only one criminal here. It’s not me.”

Taking this step after making a whole new life for herself was hard. Having moved to Canada in 1986, Purnima agrees that it would have been too easy to not revisit her old scars and keep moving forward. “But life has been good to me - I am able to take a stand publicly today. Many others don’t have that. Sometimes fate gives you an opportunity to make a difference. And though it’s hard, it’s important. Because these child abusers won’t stop. We have to ensure that no more children fall prey to them,” she says.

Purnima’s petition has over one lakh signatures so far on change.org. You can access it here.