Austrian incest father Josef Fritzl's trial shook the West like never before. But how serious is the prevalence of incest in India? How safe are our own daughters from their depraved fathers and uncles?
Leading Indian dailies reported the bizarre news of a Mumbai businessman who was arrested for raping his daughter for nine years on the advice of a 'tantrik' to improve his business. The 21-year-old daughter exposed her 'rapist' father after he began sexually abusing her younger sister, a class 10 student, at the astrologer's behest. Following the Mumbai sisters' revelation, a 21-year old college student in Amritsar picked up courage to complain about her father who sexually abused her for eight years. The girl's traumatized mother who knew about it all along said, "My husband would always find a pretext to send me away so he could be alone with our daughter." Likewise, a 15-year old's complaint of prolonged sexual abuse by her father led to the 35-year-old father's arrest in Nagpur.
Various surveys have been conducted on the issue, and many report widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse (CSA) and incest in the country. Though the authenticity of such data and the methodology have been questioned, the point is, sheer anecdotal evidence itself is quite disturbing. "Bitter Chocolate" by Pinki Virani, documenting the dark world of incest and CSA, is based on the author's own devastating experience. The book created a sensation back in 2000. There are many Viranis all around us.
Incest Victim Talks
P Sowmya* (name changed) was barely out of her college when she got a proposal for marriage from a friend. "I almost jumped at it. We got married even before I was out of college, and left for the United States. Of course, it did not have my family's consent."
In the States, life proved tough. Her husband turned out to be an abuser, and it was months before Sowmya could figure out a way to come back to India. "I did not want to go back to my family. I took the help of a lawyer, got divorce and pursued my studies again. It took me a while to get a degree and land a decent job. That phase was nightmarish," Sowmya recalls with a shudder.
Why did Sowmya choose to accept the first proposal that came her way? "Not because I really liked the guy, but I was desperate to escape my father," she responded, trying hard not to betray her revulsion.
Sowmya's father started abusing her sexually ever since she was ten. "When my mother died, it only got more convenient for him. It was sickening, but then he was my dad, who was also showering affection on me and taking care of me...I won't talk to anyone of that, but at the first opportunity, I left him. I didn't realize then, the man I chose was worse..."
When prodded, Sowmya confesses to having sexual problems with her husband. "He was just too violent. I could not handle it. I was reminded of my father, again and again," she says. It is difficult to guess how violent the man was or whether it was the trauma of her childhood that prevented Sowmya from trying to sort out her problems with her husband.
Experts Speak on Incest and Child Sexual Abuse
G. Manjula, an activist with a woman's organization in Chennai observes that Sowmya's case is typical of child sexual abuse victims. "Such persons are bound to have both psychological and physical problems. If left untreated, they would feel a sense of shame, guilt and betrayal. They would have low self-esteem and feel worthless. CSA victims cannot be comfortable in close relationships. Contrarily, they can also be very dependent and clingy. Physical problems include stomach disturbances, illnesses, aches and pains.
"CSA leaves a deep scar in the child's mind. Unless healed properly and in time, it would just not be possible for the child to lead a normal life," adds Manjula.
But Ms.Vidya Reddy, who runs an organization called Tulir-CPHCSA (Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse) in Chennai, asserts that such need not be the case at all and that many can and do summon the inner resources required to get over the trauma and lead a normal life. Of course an appropriate intervention programme and a supportive environment would make a world of difference, she added.
However, she warned,"Most people imagine abusers to be shadowy and frightening strangers with a psychiatric disorder." In fact, often an abuser is a "regular" person who leads a "routine" life and is known to the victim, but has no inhibition or qualms over having sex with children." Abusers can range from family members to acquaintances and someone the victim trusts explicitly. Rarely are abusers complete strangers.
The Hidden Rot in 'Conservative' Families?
Experts apprehend a lot of it goes unreported and say efforts should be made to address the problems peculiar to the Indian familial structure. Possibly the tight-knit family structure, the domineering role of the fathers and uncles, the submissiveness of women who are mute witnesses to gross injustice and the ingrained tendency not to allow "family shame" to be exposed whatever the cost, are factors that help the abusers get away with it all - as perhaps will happen in the case of Sowmya's father, referred to earlier. He will never be brought to justice.
Incest: Legal Angle
Sudha Ramalingam, lawyer and activist with the People's Union for Civil Liberties points out that if a father perpetrates abuse on his daughter, he could well be arrested for custodial offences. "But in a society like India, the family wants to protect both the perpetrator and the victim. That is why most of such crimes go unnoticed. They are anxious to protect the child's future and safeguard the reputation of the family. The psychological and physical impact it would have on a child is rarely taken into consideration."
Interestingly, Indian laws do not even recognize incest as a crime but rape and sexual abuse, especially on minors, are serious crimes relating to incest. In fact, the Delhi High Court is considering framing guidelines for conducting investigation and prosecution in crimes relating to incest in the wake of several incest cases surfacing at present. Ms. Ramalingam believes that the existing laws would suffice to punish the perpetrators of crimes like incest and CSA.
"It is the abundance of laws that sometimes leads to problems. Take Domestic Violence Act for example. Now the All Women Police Stations comfortably shirk their duties because under Domestic Violence Act, a protection officer can be responsible for crimes against women. The victims would be made to run from pillar to post to be heard. Thus choosing a forum to which one can turn in times of a crisis becomes a problem by itself. And so it would do good to use the existing laws with better sensitivity to prevent such horrid incidents," the activist lawyer said.
Incest in the Indian Context
Dr Narayana Reddy, Chennai-based sexologist, says that incest is contextually different in India. "It is customary in our culture for uncles to marry nieces. Technically speaking, that is also incest. We just need to use the term carefully. But beyond that, I would say incest is prevalent in India and there should be a separate legislation to handle the crime."
Dr Reddy, however, says that the offenders too are likely to have psychological problems. "They appear to be normal but they would not be. In several cases, the offenders are adolescents. Adolescence is a crucial time for intervention and treatment."
K. Anand, a Chennai based psychoanalyst agrees that offenders could themselves have serious psychological problems. "In most cases, it could be a traumatized childhood. Even in the case of Joseph Fritzl, his mother was apparently abusive of him when he was a kid. She must have been a single mother because she has worked to raise him. Having said this, I would also like to add that CSA or incest is a crime that should be dealt with severely. The point is that the larger issue of psychological problems should also be addressed to make sure that the issue is tackled effectively."
Anand cites an example of one of his clients. "She was abused by her uncle when she was just ten. It turned out that the person was sexually deprived by his wife who was a god-woman of sorts. But while certainly it does not exonerate such persons, it also helps us to see things in perspective. From a victim's point of view, everything boils down to guilt, self-hatred and a feeling of loss."
Anand also points to another aspect of the issue. "In some ways, our much vaunted spirituality itself could be said to be entwined with sexuality. There are cults wherein the devotees are required to perform sex in front of the tantriks. What happened in the Mumbai businessman's case is an example," he says. In the circumstances, incest in India is different from the West. "So it would not help to use Western methods to deal with the problem," Anand adds.
The consensus then is that child sexual abuse and incest are multi-dimensional problems and accordingly they have to be addressed at different levels. But easily the most important thing is increasing awareness among the girls and encouraging them to speak out against perpetrators of the crime, without fear or shame. Counselors and NGOs who work with victims of sexual abuse and incest agree that awareness could begin in schools. However, in a predominantly 'conservative' Indian society where even sex education is stiffly opposed, raising such sensitive issues in school would be highly controversial. Unless responsible adults wake up to the reality of incest in India, our daughters will continue to believe they are destined to suffer the ignominy of sexual abuse in silence.