The stories that don’t make headlines: Aftermath of child sexual abuse and how families cope

After the spotlight is turned off and the media moves on to the next outrage cycle, what happens to survivors and families of child sexual abuse?
The stories that don’t make headlines: Aftermath of child sexual abuse and how families cope
The stories that don’t make headlines: Aftermath of child sexual abuse and how families cope

This is the second in TNM Delve series, 'Scars of Abuse'. The three-part series explores the aftermath of child sexual abuse for survivors and their families. Read our first story here.

It’s nearly 2pm when we reach the area near Bhavya's* house in a nondescript locality of Bengaluru. Her husband Arun*, who comes to receive us, leads us through a quiet, dusty lane, followed by a kuchcha path that is so narrow that we have to walk in single file.

After a three-minute walk, we climb the stairs to their house, their third residence in the past four years, Bhavya would later tell us.

The path leading to Bhavya's house

Their family of four - Bhavya, Arun, and their daughters Nisha* and Nalini* who are 13 and 10 years old respectively - have been moving homes ever since tragedy struck in 2013. Nisha, then only 9 years old, was sexually assaulted by a neighbour, a 40-year-old man.

The assault

For over a month now, Bhavya has been looking for work. What Arun earns working in a furniture factory is not enough to support their family of four. Considering financial trouble has been following the family since Nisha’s sexual assault and the trial in the case, life has not been easy for them.  

"At times, we have felt so frustrated that we've thought, 'Leave the case. Let's go back home'," says Bhavya.

‘Home’ is a village in Sikkim from where Bhavya and Arun migrated to Bengaluru in 2007 with dreams of making a life in a big city.

Arun got a job at a local factory and Bhavya started working as a domestic help, and although their income was modest, they were reasonably content with their lives.

And then one evening in 2013, their whole world came crashing down.

The couple had gone to the market nearby to buy vegetables. On returning, they found Nisha crying incessantly. After much coaxing and pacifying, Nisha would tell them that one of their neighbours, Lakshman had done ‘ganda kaam’ (bad thing) to her.

It came as a shock to the family, who had found Lakshman, who was also a colleague of Arun’s, to be an amicable neighbour.

“He (Lakshman) lived so nicely with us. He was living here alone, and his wife and children were back in his village. He would come to our house often to enquire about us. He used to play with our kids, and I thought he considered them his own,” Bhavya recalls. “We were a small, happy family," her voice trails off.

The aftermath

Bhavya and Arun decided to file a complaint against Lakshman and take the case to its logical conclusion. While Lakshman was arrested, it was only the beginning of an arduous battle, which continues to this day.

Arun lost his job at the factory soon after the arrest. His employer asked him to leave, as he did not want to deal with the police and media.

Losing the job uprooted life as they had known in Bengaluru. The job had come with accommodation, and although Arun only earned Rs 6,000 a month, the family did not have to pay rent or electricity charges.  

“He lost the job, and we, the house,” says Bhavya.

Her employers, however, were more understanding. Not only did they help the couple file the FIR against Lakshman, but also continued to help them financially.

“But Arun did not find proper work, and we weren’t able to find a new school for the kids. We couldn’t find a house either, and had to live in someone else’s house for a month,” says Bhavya.

When the spotlights are turned off

We generally read about child sexual abuse cases when they make the news. The reports are often filled with explicit details of the assault, and flashy headlines.

However, what we don’t usually read about is what transpires between the commencement and conclusion of these cases. In a country where every second child is likely to have been sexually abused, what makes the news barely scratches the surface of this deeply entrenched problem. The lack of follow-up and aftermath stories leaves a huge gap in the families’ narratives.

In Bhavya and Arun’s case, there were a few reports when Nisha was assaulted. But Bhavya does not remember a media person attempting to follow up, or ask her about the case after that.

“Maybe it would have helped if the media followed up on the case,” she says. “Things could have moved a little faster. Lakshman would have been punished for his crime, and perhaps we wouldn’t have had to go through this over and over again,” Bhavya says.

Hasini’s story

The rape and murder of seven-year-old Hasini in Chennai in February this year, on the other hand, saw wide media coverage and outrage when the crime took place.

The accused, 24-year-old Dhasvanth, used to live in the same colony as Hasini and her family. After he allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered her, Dhasvanth burnt the little girl’s body.

“It was a brutal crime, so it became sensational and grabbed headlines. But once the hype died down, except the police, no one really cared,” says Sherin Bosko of child rights NGO Nakshatra, who is assisting Hasini’s family in the legal proceedings.   

So much so, that many only remembered Hasini’s case when Dhasvanth got bail on September 12, reportedly because the TN police failed to file a chargesheet in time, and wrongfully booked him under the Goondas Act to make up for their slow investigation.

Hasini’s story came to spotlight once again when TNM met Hasini’s father, Rajesh* a few months ago.

A family shattered

On a particularly rainy afternoon in July, Rajesh meets TNM’s Priyanka Thirumurthy in Chennai. His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, which are lined with dark patches from exhaustion and sleepless nights.

Rajesh and the reporter enter the car, and the ghost of the smile vanishes from his face as they begin to speak about his dead daughter.

Hasini’s family’s life changed completely after they lost her. They shifted out of Chennai to Rajesh’s native village in Andhra Pradesh. “We had moved to Chennai because we felt education was first priority. But we have to be alive first... Food, education, everything else comes later. We don’t feel safe here,” he says.

The city they called home for three years feels hostile to Rajesh now. He continues to work in the same IT company in Chennai as he did before, and goes to his village on weekends. “My family thinks Chennai is hell,” he says.

But each time he sets foot into the space of his previous life, memories of his daughter threaten to overwhelm him. “Every time I am here, I remember her… I look at things and I’m reminded of how she would like them. When I came home, she would run to me and kiss me,” Rajesh recalls.

“Every moment now is unbearable. The city reminds me of her too much,” he says emotionally.

While Dhasvanth was arrested days after the crime, he was let out on bail on September 12, after the police failed to file a chargesheet in time. Would constant media pressure have made the police file a chargesheet sooner?

The Pascal Mazurier case

If it was the media which slackened once Hasini’s sexual assault and death lost novelty, Suja Jones was treated with evasive replies even though she approached them herself.

Bengaluru based Suja accused her husband, French diplomat Pascal Mazurier, of sexually abusing their daughter Amy* in 2012. He was acquitted by a Bengaluru court in April 2017. But Suja says that the fight is far from over and they are still hoping for justice.

The high-profile nature of the case ensured plenty of media coverage, and the initial reporting did help build pressure on the authorities leading to Pascal’s arrest, says Suja.

But once he was out on bail, three months later the same year, the mainstream media's interest in the story declined, she adds.

"Only some alternate media portals reached out to me. One paper only put out plain copies with basic facts,” Suja says. While she tried reaching out to them, she only got vague responses.

“I had long discussions with two major publications who later did not carry the story. One said they were waiting for my appeal and wanted a 'good story', and the other said they'll just wait and see. They (the media) seemed to be eager to put out Pascal's version. It was as if they had been told by someone to not carry my side of the story," Suja alleges.

The trials and tribulations

If and when the initial trauma subsides, survivors of child sexual abuse are often unable to move past the incident. Many lose their confidence and the sense of autonomy over their bodies. A big reason behind this is the fact that they are made to repeat their testimonies over and over again due to prolonged and insensitive legal proceedings and an overworked judicial and legal system.

For Nisha too, it was no different. Like many other survivors, what upset her most in court was being called a liar.

"Children get thrown off every time you call them a liar," says Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold, a Bengaluru-based NGO which works with child sexual abuse survivors and their families. She has been helping Nisha’s family with the case.

"They’re like, 'I may be naughty, I may be anything else, but I am not a liar.' Every defense lawyer tells them ‘I know you're lying.’ Then the kids start doubting themselves or they get angry, and then they get confused and don’t know how to respond," she explains.

It also didn't help that there was an entire year's gap between her testimony and cross examination, which happened around March of 2015 and 2016 respectively. She was required to narrate her ordeal all over again.

The medals Nisha and Nalini have won at their school

What these years have done is driven the 13-year-old into a shell.

"She is a very serious kind of person. I feel sometimes that something related to the case is going on in her mind. She was not like this earlier. She perhaps feels that her parents have to go through all this because of her," Bhavya says.

What do you tell siblings of survivors?

In families with siblings, child sexual abuse may become a tougher topic to broach, especially when parents are traumatised and also uncomfortable to talk about it. The sibling sees the survivor and the changed behaviour of their family, and may often find the situation a difficult one to navigate.

Bhavya and Arun for instance, had not told Nalini about what had happened to her sister. But Nalini would notice how they would often go out with Nisha, leaving her at home. She did not know that they were going to the court or police station.  

Once in 2014, when Bhavya and Arun had to take Nisha to court, Nalini accused her mother of favouritism. "Mumma, you only love her (Nisha). You don’t care for me. You only take her everywhere," she said.

Bhavya, who felt bad, decided to take the younger one with them as well that day.

"Why have we come here? There are so many policemen, and people in black coats," Nalini enquired when they reached the court. She was told that something ‘bad’ had happened to Nisha, that she had been tortured by a person and so they were all there to ensure the person got punishment.

Bhavya probably thought she was protecting Nalini, then seven, by sparing her the details.

"But Nalini probably heard the word ‘rape’ from someone outside. Later, she told her friends in the neighbourhood that we went to court to give punishment to the person who had raped her sister. And then the children's parents started asking me all sorts of questions. I had to tell them that the case was regarding a dispute with our previous employer and end the discussion there," Bhavya narrates.

Unlike in Hasini and Nisha’s cases, in Amy’s case, the alleged abuser and the man who tore apart their family, happened to be her own father. He still has visitation rights which allow him to meet Amy’s brothers – aged 12 and 7 – twice a month. Both of them know about what he did to their sister.

She also notes that though the boys had told both the family court judge and the mediator that they did not want to see their father, Pascal was still given visitation rights. Suja says she had to explain to her sons that it would be contempt of court if they did not go with him.

“Pascal has been prettily there for them (the children),” Suja observes, referring to the material gifts, and outings Pascal takes the boys for. He would also send presents for Amy with the boys. “Is that not influencing the witness?” Suja argues.

The situation had created a conflict in their young minds earlier. Once, Suja recounts, she saw Amy throwing a stuffed toy that Pascal had sent for her. “I asked her what she was doing because she is very gentle with her dolls and toys. She told me she was doing that because it was from papa,” Suja narrates.

Financial insecurity

Apart from the mental stress, it was the constant financial uncertainty that was weighing down Bhavya and Arun. While both of them were working before the incident, a majority of the strain fell on Bhavya after it.

"Both Arun and I were in a lot of tension back then. There were nights we slept hungry, not facing each other," Bhavya recollects.

Arun, Kushi recalls, became even more frazzled after the assault. “He didn’t know whether to look for work, or to look for schools for the kids, or to look for a house. The entire responsibility of looking after everything just fell on Bhavya,” she observes.

“You know what happens when one person has to handle everything,” Bhavya says, “It’s very exhausting. Arun wasn’t working properly. The expenses for ration, kids’ clothes, projects – it all came on my head. I lost a lot of weight. I was extremely stressed, and fell sick often… fainting, feeling chills, breathing issues… I was admitted to the hospital a lot of times.”

Some time in 2015, Bhavya felt she had reached a breaking point. She left their one bedroom kitchen home, and stayed at her employer's place for a few months. Initially, she didn’t tell her husband and children where she was.

"I was going crazy,” Bhavya says, anxiously, “I wanted to live for some time with a free mind. I did come home 2-3 times a month, and I would leave extra pocket money for my girls. I would take them out to hotels and tell them, ‘Eat what you want. Don’t worry about the money’."

Bhavya looks outside from the in the corridor outside her house

The children would ask her sometimes, why she wasn’t staying with them. “But they knew we weren’t a financially stable family, and I had to work full-time. So they did not complain,” Bhavya says. She finally came back to live with them three months later.

Like Bhavya, it’s Rajesh who has had to bear a majority of the emotional burden after the trial began, and of keeping the family together.

“My wife is depressed and unable to be normal. We don’t tell her much. She doesn’t express anything either,” Rajesh says. “My son… he’s only 6. He keeps asking about his sister. We keep telling him some stories,” he adds.

Even though coming back to Chennai is traumatic for Rajesh, he remains the sole breadwinner. “I have to provide for my family. I cannot afford to be weak. Until he gets punishment I will be strong. The job provides some respite, otherwise I get suicidal thoughts,” he confesses.

Sometimes, blood isn’t thicker than water

Sexual crimes, especially child sexual abuse, carry with them a stigma which no amount of awareness and reportage seems to be able to eradicate. This is why perhaps, families of survivors often find their near and dear ones turn their backs to them in the hour of need.  

The first hurdle Suja faced was when trying to look for an apartment. “It was very difficult,” she recounts. “The broker who got me the place we are currently staying told me that we shouldn’t have a problem because the landlord is very ‘modern’. When I asked him what he meant, he told me that he had let a Muslim family stay here before us,” she says. “What’s modern about that?” she retorts.

Most of her friends broke ties with her once she took the matter up legally.

“Some of them were very close to me,” Suja says softly. However, there were a few others who came forward to help. “Neighbours and colleagues who got to know me after the case weren’t prejudiced," she says.

When it came to Suja’s relatives, their idea of support was to tell Suja to give up on the case. “Every time we spoke, they would just tell me to forget about the case and reach a compromise,” she says.

For Bhavya and Arun, who do not have any family here, it was their church community they turned to for support. But they were bitterly disappointed.

Bhavya says they did not expect any financial help, but they weren't there for her family for emotional support either. The last straw, Bhavya recounts, was when they surpassed open ignorance and made fun of her family’s suffering.

"One day, we had gone for a prayer. We all were asked what we were praying for. When it was my turn, I told them that they all were aware of my problem and asked them to pray for the case so that it closes fast,” she says.

In her community’s native language, ‘hair’ is called ‘kes’. ‘Kes’ and ‘case’ are phonetically similar, but there wasn’t a person in that church who didn’t know what Bhavya was actually talking about.

“The pastor replied, ‘Oh, are you talking about kes?’ And then everyone started laughing. It made me angry. How could they joke about this, I asked them. After that we stopped showing much interest in the prayer meetings, though we continued going to the church,” Bhavya narrates.

The constant anxiety

Bhavya has become a more cautious parent now. She worries about Nalini, for she is the naughtier of the girls.

"She mostly plays with boys. I worry about her and ask her to play with girls. She will say 'yes, I know I will only play outside'. But then she goes and plays with those boys only," Bhavya says.

Once both the girls went out playing and when their father returned around 8.30pm, he couldn't find them. He called Bhavya, who was still at work, far from home.

"I got scared. My neighbours said the girls were not with them. Finally, we found them at one of their friends' houses. Even now when they go somewhere, or even to a shop, I worry that someone will kidnap them. This anxiety started once the incident happened. They are older now, but they are still kids," she says.

Bhavya also worries that Lakshman, who has been out on bail for over a year, may want to seek revenge.

Amy too, is especially very anxious about being separated from Suja. “She keeps telling me, ‘You are the only one’,” Suja says.

But Amy is doing much better than the quiet child she had become before. She is slowly gaining her confidence back, and is even an active participant in co-curricular activities at her school. “The teachers say that the change in her is amazing. She sings. She plays sports. She loves to dance,” Suja shares. “She used to be very insecure about her body after the abuse. But now, she dances very well,” she smiles.

Staying the course

Kushi tells us that it was very difficult to make Bhavya and Arun stay in Bengaluru and see the case through.

This is not uncommon in child sexual abuse cases. The years of delay in justice and unfriendly systems makes many give up, relocate and quietly go on with their lives. And those who do not, often grapple with feelings of hopelessness.

Despite Rajesh’s belief in the system, he is anguished by it, which shows in the statement he makes most calmly. “I am ready to kill him (Dhasvanth) today also,” he says, “But I don’t want to. A small person like me only has the court. We will get justice there,” he states.

Although people advised him against pursuing the case legally, and the company Rajesh works for also gave him the option of moving out of India, he chose to stay here. “I want to fight. I don’t want to forget. Once he is punished I will get some satisfaction,” he says.

Suja, meanwhile, works multiple jobs, is self-sufficient and supports her family. They regularly go for counselling too. While she is determined to get justice for Amy, the long and draining path ahead has given Suja an understanding why many families and survivors don’t choose to take the legal recourse.

“We have been able to make some peace; the counseling has helped. We haven’t totally forgotten it but we are able live our lives in parallel. But I understand why people kill themselves or move away after a compromise,” she says.

Four years later, Nisha's case is still sub-judice. The only motivation for Bhavya to continue with the trial is the hope that justice will be served and they can go back to living their lives.

"I want her (Nisha) to live freely like she did before the incident,” Bhavya says slowly. “We want this to get over as quickly as possible. We don't want to go through the same thing over and over again. We want to go back to living the life we were living before the case started. To live like the happy family we were," she says, her voice full of hope. 

A quote Nisha and Nalini have painted on the wall in their room

*Names changed

Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan

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