“People just expect you to get up and move on. They don’t realize the trauma that comes after.”
By- Keshav Khanna
Imagine a young, adorable child. Maybe you know her, maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve never seen her before but you feel a kind of joy when you look at her. She has an innocent smile and greets everyone with it. Her few years of life on Earth seem pretty quiet and simple. Her time is divided between school and her seemingly normal life. Little do you realize that she’s keeping a very dark secret. That her smile is only a façade that covers up what has happened to her. That she is a survivor.
It was most probably done by a man she knew; a cousin or an uncle or a family friend. Now she’s going to have to spend the rest of her life dealing with that incident. She won’t speak, no. Not because she doesn’t want to but perhaps because she was threatened, or maybe she wasn’t told that what happened to her was wrong: that no one, no one can or should touch her that way.
This is not just the story of Sonal Kellogg but of crores of Indians. Look around you and you’ll find many “broken adults” who were abused as children, who, as Sonal says, “Feel like they’ll never be whole again.” About half the children in our country have gone through this experience, half. That’s nearly 20 crore abused boys and girls. When you start picturing that, you might get an idea about how serious the issue is.
Why she spoke up
These are the numbers that Sonal read which shook her very soul. She tells us in a phone conversation, “If women as empowered as I do not speak up about being sexually abused, how do we expect others to?”
But it wasn’t only for others, it was also for herself. She wants to heal and she can do that when she talks. “A certain sense of guilt developed in me as I grew older. Could I have stopped it? Could I have fought back?” She was a Dabangg child in her own words. She fought off bullies and beat up unruly boys. Why didn’t she ward off the uncle that violated her space? “This guilt that began when I was only three, went on until very recently. Blaming myself for the crime I didn’t do, until I finally spoke to a counselor.” And things began to change, she began to feel better.
Why there is a need to “Speak up and be free”
“If you don’t speak up, it empowers the molester in a way,” she tells me with a certain palpable rage in her voice. It cannot have been easy digging up those deep memories she had spent all her life, burying. “Millions of people are going through this, mostly boys! But, you see few cases being reported.” That is because of the prejudice that is attached to speaking up. It is not easy for a child to speak to someone about this. “There are so many stigmas attached to speaking up, the reasons that prevented me from talking about it.” She tells me that she feared of being called a liar. She would be branded as someone who is only trying to garner attention. She also feared that people might try to take advantage of her vulnerability.
“My daughter and son-in-law encouraged me a lot to write about my experience.” As a practicing Christian, she believes her faith, too, played an incremental role in encouraging her to talk. “Christ said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” But it’s not really an abundant life if I was abused and remained quiet.” That is why she started Speak up and be free, a platform where people with similar experiences anonymously share their stories and maybe feel some form of redemption.
How being abused shaped her life forever
“It certainly did alter my relationship with men. On one hand, I was very vulnerable and on the other, I was very promiscuous.” It affected her psyche in so many ways. It gave Sonal an unhappy marriage. Her husband, now no more, was a very absent husband. “I just couldn’t say “no” to him.”
“I didn’t think anyone would want to marry me.” We had talked about her low self-esteem. She made me realize the real life consequences of one’s low self-esteem can be permanent.
What should parents do
“Protect your children!” she pronounces. You might feel it’s a simple enough answer. But she elaborates, “Do not leave your child, boy or girl, alone with any man. No cousin, uncle, dada, chacha, bhai, no one!” It was understandable that her trust in family was evaded considering nearly half of all abusers are uncles or cousins. It honestly shakes your belief in everyone when you cannot trust family. She wants parents to talk to their children about the Good Touch, Bad Touch and the Confusing Touch. “Often children cannot tell if it is a good touch or a bad touch. So they must be told that even confusing touches are not okay!” There is an urgent need for parents to learn to talk to their children about them.
Explain your child how anyone touching their private parts must be stopped. I feel simply creating an environment where it’s okay to talk about sexual abuse would go a long way. And, when should parents start this conversation?
“Start when they are 4 or 5. Unfortunately, the abuse begins at such young ages that you just need to! I was abused when I was 3!” No one and I mean No one should be allowed to get away with this. Reporting to the police is essential no matter how close the abuser is to the survivor. But Sonal remains skeptical about this, “For many parents it’s just easier to let their children get abused than to face the family and society. They just don’t report!” She tells us how reporting can ensure the safety of other children, too. “If I don’t report, the assailant then goes on and violates, say 20 more children. But if I report, I have saved those 20 children from the lifelong trauma.” So please report. Child Sexual Abuse is a crime. It’s not just a crime against children but a crime against humanity.
On POCSO (Protection of Children against Sexual Offences) Act, 2012 and therapy
I was quite distressed with the picture that was revealing itself. As Sonal shared her experiences, I got quieter. I was often at a loss for words. Is this the sad reality of the children of this country? This was depressing. But Sonal says that change is slowly coming. “I don’t think there has been a steady increase in the number of abuses. But there has been a steady increase in the number of reported cases, which is very heartening.” The media and the government, too, are paying renewed attention to this matter. The POCSO Act was formulated in 2012 with intentions of addressing child abuse. It broadens the definition of an abuser and is the reason many children are safe today. To see its practical implications, Sonal spoke to the principal of a KV School. “The principal said they were certainly complying with POCSO. If they failed to do so there’d be consequences for the school itself.” But, at the same time we cannot rely on the government to step in. We must take matters into our own hands. “We have to take a stand!” Sonal’s passion and maybe some pain became evident by her demeanor.
The low number of psychiatrists, however, makes rehabilitation a tough task. She narrates to me the tale of a now 70-year-old woman who was abused as a child. But, only now found the courage to speak up and be free. Sonal tells me the soul-shattering words of that lady.
“I am not ready to die with this (the memory of the abuse) in my head.”
This is why we need more psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists, especially for children survivors of abuse. The wounds that were made when they were children can haunt them for a lifetime.
With this, we bid each other goodbye. I, knowing, I can never truly empathize with all of her pain and her, perhaps understanding that. But, even if I can feel an ounce of what her psyche is, I’ll run out to the streets & take an urgent action.
If children are truly the future of our country, we need to do a better job protecting their childhood.
Sonal’s initiative is called “Speak up and be free (SABFree)” and you can find her here.