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Sexuality and Disability India

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‘It’s not your fault’: Understanding child sexual abuse

After the wedding festivities, exhausted attendees sit on a cot and are discussing the act of kissing when Aliya, a little girl says, ‘I don’t know what the big deal is, I know all about kissing. It’s gross. You open your mouth and he sticks his tongue in. Don’t you know that’s how older people kiss?’

Shefali Shah’s character Ria, who was initially amused, suddenly becomes grave as she sees the little girl walk away. While the others bid each other good night, Ria’s eyes are tailing the girl.

As Aliya walks to her mom for affection, there is a sudden change in her behaviour – she is cranky and wishes to sleep. This is when Tej uncle comes and offers to take Aliya for a drive. As he escorts her to the car, Ria runs towards him and stops the car. ‘Just let her go, just let her go,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t enough when you touched me as a girl, now you have to teach Aliya how older people kiss? What did you get out of it? I didn’t even have breasts then you sick old man.’

She is slapped by another woman as she accuses Tej of abusing her as a young girl. She is also accused of insolence and spreading lies as she seethes with anger about the violence inflicted by Tej on her and now Aliya. Ria tears up even more as the others stand there, watching in disbelief as Tej accuses Ria of lying. The woman who slapped Ria says, ‘Unmarried girls are weird. They make up all these fantasies.’ Distraught, Ria leaves.

This clip, which sheds light on the issue of child sexual abuse is from the film Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair. It shows how child sexual abuse (CSA) is often perpetrated by people known to children, and the way it is denied because a trusted family member or a friend is being accused. The onus is on the survivor to prove that it ever happened.

As per an Indian government study conducted in 2007, CSA happens with all genders. 53.22 per cent children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. Then, why is the issue rolled under the carpet? Why is there a lack of timely data on child abuse, especially on children with disabilities? While there is a dearth of data on children with disabilities and CSA, that does not mean there is no abuse.

The World Health Organisation defines CSA as:

‘… the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to:

-the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity

-the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices

-the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance and materials’.

It is noteworthy that CSA does not always involve touch; abusers often use non-touch based abuse techniques such as clicking sexualised photographs of children, showing them pornography, etc. According to the same government study, 50 percent of abusers are persons known to the child.

Persons who are known to the children often use grooming as one of the techniques to gain a child’s trust so there is little resistance when the abuse takes place. And this process becomes even more complicated when the child is disabled due to an even more skewed power dynamic, for it is assumed that ‘…they would forget soon, they wouldn’t be affected,’ says Janavi Doshi of the H.E.A.L. project, The Foundation. The project works to prevent CSA by raising awareness and running a rehabilitation programme.

Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse. While the reasons for abuse remain similar, disability complicates this terrain as children with disabilities are often not able to communicate the violence or get out of abusive situations. There is also a lack of awareness on tackling abuse among the people who support them.

Further, there remain fewer options for them to report abuse due to dependency on caregivers. ‘Prevalent notions and stigma around disability also induce a sense of disbelief as who will want to touch disabled kids? That everything is done in goodwill and a disabled person should be thankful for what they are getting are often the arguments used to deny abuse,’ says a participant.

In one case, a child with multiple disabilities often approached her teacher, wanting to tell her something, but later refused. This continued for a number of times until she asked her teacher if she has had sex with her boyfriend.

Startled by the girl’s cues, which were very visual, the teacher approached an NGO which fights CSA. On digging deeper, it came to the fore that the girl has been abused by her father. When the counsellor approached the girl’s mother, who had separated from her husband, she completely denied the abuse. This case was of traumatic sexualisation where the abuser had preyed on the insecurities of the girl, including her self-esteem issues. While the mother denied that her ex-husband was the abuser, she agreed that her daughter had been abused, and took her to therapy.

The Monsoon Wedding example and the one above show that it is important for parents, guardians, siblings, caregivers and teachers to pick cues or the changes in behaviour that a child has started to show. It is also important for caregivers to keep in mind that the development stages, pace, behavioural changes and the ability to express them will vary among disabilities.

What next?

It is also important for caregivers to understand The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012, a progressive law which addresses CSA.

Additionally, accessible sexuality trainings and engagement with children with disabilities and caregivers becomes important to understand CSA.

It is beneficial to begin with safe/unsafe touch and not good and bad touch because that’s laden with moral values and also because children learn clear, binarised notions of good and bad and CSA can be ambiguous, says Janavi.

Next, within sexuality education, it is important to talk about consent, intention, choice, age and abuse, she says, adding that it is imperative for trainers to understand and address the specific vulnerabilities of children with disabilities.

Children with specific disability needs can be taught about how to keep themselves safe with different means such as games, videos, skits, among others. Addressing the evolving capacities of a child must be a constant endeavor which gives them space to understand, and process ideas while exercising their agency.

And always remember— abuse is never the survivor’s fault.

(This piece is based on the session by Janavi Doshi of The Foundation at Point of View’s National Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability. It is the fourth in a series of posts documenting the workshop sessions.)

Written by Niharika Pandit