Shunned and called liars: When child sexual abuse survivors are forced to relocate

In some child sexual abuse cases, the identity of the survivors is compromised despite the law mandating otherwise, while in other situations, communities turn against their families.
Three girl children in school uniform in a school campus
Three girl children in school uniform in a school campus
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In November 2021, a woman in Hyderabad complained to the police as well as the Telangana State Commission for Protection of Child Rights against her daughter’s school teacher, for allegedly accusing her of copying in an exam and making the teenager strip. The 15-year-old was allegedly made to remove her upper garments in a washroom by the female teacher based on a suspicion that the girl was hiding a mobile phone in her clothes. 

The experience left the student traumatised and unable to return to school. Despite the complaint, and the case getting media attention, the family is considering relocating to another country for a fresh start.

This is the story of many survivors of child sexual abuse and their families. Like the teenager from Hyderabad, many are uprooted from their homes, neighbourhoods and cities, leaving their lives behind, for a multitude of reasons – from the ostracisation due to the social stigma associated with sexual violence, to being unable to go on in a place that has brought them trauma.

Disbelief, and the stigma of sexual abuse 

Thiruvananthapuram-based Anamika* stands tall when she tells her story, with her resolve palpable even when she recounts the years of sexual abuse she allegedly faced at her father’s hands. “I was in class 7, in 2012 when my mother saw my father sexually assaulting me at our house. She informed the teachers at the convent school where I was studying. Instead of complaining to the police, the nuns came home, and simply 'advised' my father to be 'good' and not abuse me,” Anamika tells TNM, as her mother stands next to her at a coffee shop in Thiruvananthapuram. 

The nuns also suggested to Anamika’s mother that she send her daughter to a residential school run by the same management. Not wanting to do so, Anamika’s mother shifted her to a government school in the same village. However, Anamika’s mother did not have the courage then to separate from her husband, and feared the social backlash. And so, they continued to live together and the abuse continued till Anamika was in class 10 in 2014.

In 2013, after Anamika ended up in a hospital after a suicide attempt, she had disclosed the sexual abuse to a nurse and a doctor, who sensed something was wrong. The doctors would have been supposed to inform the police, as mandated under section 19 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act (anyone in the know of or having apprehension of an incident of child sexual abuse must report it). However, no police complaint was filed, for reasons Anamika is not aware of.

Back home, the social isolation made things worse for the teenager. “Though everyone got to know about the sexual abuse after my hospitalisation, they still blamed me. My father had an altogether different image outside the home — he was the nice, acceptable man, and I was the liar,” Anamika shares. The situation got so bad that once a neighbour beat their daughter for merely talking to Anamika. 

Feeling isolated and trapped by her situation, Anamika attempted to take her life the third time, which left her with spinal and leg injuries. However, it was after her third attempt that the hospital filed a police complaint. Her father was arrested and is still in jail. Anamika was shifted to Nirbhaya home in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014. 

The Kerala Social Justice Department started Nirbhaya homes in 2013, for sexual abuse survivors. These are run by the Mahila Samakhya Society. The Mahila Samakhya Programme was launched in 1989 for the upliftment of women, particularly from the marginalised groups. The government programme covers 11 states, including Kerala. Institutionalisation, as per the POCSO Act, 2012, should be the last resort for survivors. However, in cases where the accused are family members or relatives, survivors usually cannot remain in their homes. 

The then director of Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society, PE Usha, instilled confidence in Anamika to appear for the class 10 exam in 2015. “I never thought that I would make it, and I kept telling Ushamma (PE Usha) that I would fail. But she wasn’t willing to see me give up. I studied just for a month but passed the exam with good grades,” she says. Anamika passed her class 12 exams, too, and then started pursuing her BSC from a college in Thiruvananthapuram.

When community turns against survivors

While Anamika could get some respite in Thiruvananthapuram, things were not easy for her mother who remained back home in their village for she faced taunts from her neighbours. Anamika also recounts her experience when she visits her house. "The neighbours would pretend to believe me because they were mindful of the support we had from the police and after the Social Justice Department’s intervention. However, they would still taunt me with questions like, ‘mole (dear one) did it (the sexual abuse) really happen?’” she says.

All these instances culminated in Anamika’s entire family — her mother, grandmother and brother — relocating to another village in the same district in 2017.

In October this year, in a northern district of Kerala, a similar ordeal was unfolding. Eleven-year-old Smrithi* found herself increasingly afraid and unwelcome in her own neighbourhood after her neighbour, who sexually abused her in 2018, was released on bail. The man used to live in a room in the same apartment where the Smrithi’s family were also tenants. “My child used to go and play in his room. I never suspected anything would be amiss because he too has children,” Smrithi’s father Ramesh*, who is a daily wage worker, tells TNM. The accused used to live on his own, and his family was in another district. 

When the alleged perpetrator got bail in October, he returned to the same building, and started telling the neighbours that Smrithi had cooked up the story. “He told the neighbours that we shouldn’t be treated as one of them and are not trustworthy people. My wife heard him, and my daughter also came to know about it. Children in the neighbourhood stopped playing with Smrithi, which affected her deeply. She stopped talking to anyone,” Ramesh says. 

The exclusion and apathy became so overwhelming for the little girl that she avoided using the bathroom which was outside their small apartment. “She would wake up at 3.30 am to bathe so she wouldn’t have to step out and face the neighbours in the day, unless she had to use the toilet. She and her mother would remain shut inside the house until I came back from work in the evening or they would go with me,” Ramesh tells TNM. 

The family ultimately relocated to another place, and are paying a much heftier rent — Rs 2,500 compared to Rs 800 they were paying earlier. “My wife was on a ventilator for a few months after an accident, which has made our financial situation worse. But I am happy that at least my daughter has got her smile back and resumed playing,” says Ramesh, who is the sole breadwinner of the family.

Something similar happened in 2017, when Hasini, a seven-year-old in Chennai was sexually assaulted and murdered by her neighbour, 23-year-old Dhasvanth. Hasini’s pictures and name were splashed across television screens when the news broke, so there was no question of her identity remaining secret. And though Hasini’s father gave TNM permission to use her real name in pursuit of justice for her, he and his family could not stay in that neighbourhood for long. Hasini’s father had told TNM's Priyanka Thirumurthy then that he had come to Chennai with dreams of better education and opportunity for his children. However, after Hasini’s death, Chennai “became hell” for him, he said. His family no longer felt it was a safe place for their son, Hasini’s younger brother. They soon moved back to their hometown. 

For some, their caste and class location multiplies the discrimination they face after such an incident of sexual violence. In Thrissur’s Kattur district, for instance, a Dalit family has been ostracised from the village after Sayuj, a worker from the youth wing of the CPI (M), the Democratic Youth Federation of India, was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing the family’s minor daughter in September 2021. 

Usually, the police are supposed to record the child’s statement at a place the latter is comfortable. However, in this case, it was done at the police station. "This was because the accused was our neighbour and used to be a close friend," the father of the child tells TNM. Sayuj was present at the police station when the girl’s statement was being taken, which should not have happened either. 

What’s more, Unnikrishnan, a local CPI(M) leader, collected over 400 signatures as a mass complaint to the police, alleging that the complaint against Sayuj was false. The Dalit family has been accused of misusing their caste for politics for complaining against the accused. However, the family has been resisting the pressures to move from their home.

When identities are revealed

Section 23 (2) of the POCSO Act prohibits the disclosure of the identity of a survivor of child sexual abuse. The identity includes the name, address, photograph, family details, school, neighbourhood or any other particulars, which may lead to the disclosure of the identity of the survivor.

On the ground, however, keeping survivor identities confidential is much harder, even if the media does not get involved. PE Usha tells TNM that when the police and staff of the Social Justice Department visit a survivor’s house, there is a risk of his/her privacy being compromised. 

"Further, when it's instructed not to reveal the identity, only names are concealed. For example, in certain cases, if a father or a relative or a neighbour is the accused, their identity would become easily known after the arrest, which, in turn, would lead to identifying the survivor," Usha says. Sometimes, details get unintentionally leaked from schools, from where the cases are reported to Childline. 

Social prejudice and stigma also follow survivors in their own social settings. For instance, PE Usha has noticed discrimination against some survivors at government schools, where teachers know they live in Nirbhaya shelters and homes. 

“These children are accused of being bad influences with no merit. Once, I fought at a school after a teacher falsely accused some students, who are survivors of sexual abuse, of using drugs. The teacher argued that usually people who use drugs look a certain way, have a dark complexion etc., which is why she accused the students in question. It was entirely prejudiced," Usha says. False accusations and prejudices like these also result in revealing the identity of the survivors to their own peers. 

A Childline coordinator in the Malappuram district notes, "Families face huge pressure to relocate, especially when the accused are relatives or neighbours. Whatever we do to protect the survivors’ identity, at least a few families do come to know and the information would spread from them. The families then would think of relocating thinking of the future of the children.”

However, there are steps that can be taken to avoid revealing the survivors’ identities. "For instance, the police can visit the survivors' homes in plain clothes, not in uniform, so that it appears to neighbours that guests are visiting. In city areas, not even the close neighbourhood would come to know about it,” says advocate Ajith Prasad, a public prosecutor in POCSO cases. He adds, however, that in villages, this is harder because communities are much more close-knit, and infrastructure doesn’t necessarily encourage privacy.

Incidentally, the relocation, sometimes, impacts the investigation, too. "Police, due to lack of time and the hectic schedule demanded by the profession, won't be able to follow up on each survivor after completing the legal procedures. Hence, if the family relocates, it goes unchecked," a police officer tells TNM.

Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold, an NGO based in Bengaluru, which works on preventing and supporting survivors of child sexual abuse and their families, says that there should be awareness among the public that revealing identity is a criminal, a punishable offence. “By law, the police officials are bound to obey rules for not revealing the identity. The system should hold accountable any person who reveals the identity of the survivor, and take suo motu action against them,” she says. 

Communities can play a crucial role

There are some instances though, which can serve as examples of how communities can come together to support child sexual abuse survivors and their families. 

In a coastal village in Thiruvananthapuram, an 11-year-old girl was sexually abused by a relative when she was five. The abuse came to light in 2005 and the accused was arrested. “At no point did our neighbours blame us or try to ostracise us. My daughter continues to play with the neighbourhood children and goes to school with them. They know she didn’t do anything wrong,” says the girl’s mother, Majeeda*. This support was also instrumental in the last five years after Majeeda’s husband, who was the sole breadwinner and a daily wage worker, passed away due to an illness. It was the community that helped Majeeda’s family get by - now since her daughter is older, Majeeda says she will look for work. 

On both government and communities supporting survivors, Kushi says that the state should create awareness among communities about child sexual abuse, informing them how it is important to report such instances, the mechanisms to report it and the provisions for the child and family, including compensation, witness protection and child-friendly procedures, when they report abuse. 

“At present, society protects the offenders. We should take a 360-degree turn and start protecting the survivors,” she says. 

“Communities and families should also encourage families to report cases, and offer them support when required, like accompanying them to the police station or for the medical examination. So the government's awareness should be in that direction, that those who support the survivor won't be dragged into any legal procedures and that the abuse won't be looked at as a fault of the child and family, even when the offender is a person who is in an authority or someone who holds a powerful position.” 

(With inputs from Priyanka Thirumurthy) 

*Names changed 

Edited by Geetika Mantri

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