Healing from the trauma of child sexual abuse: A male adult survivor recounts his journey

  • India has the largest number of child sexual assault cases in the world.

  • Ishank Chibber’s experience is the gruesome reality of millions of other children in India.

  • But the country and society at large have struggled to address the issue.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series that looks at child sexual abuse in India through the lens of a male survivor’s long journey to recovery from trauma.

The following account contains descriptions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

***

The evening was filled with anticipation. One of the banquet halls in the hotel had been decorated for the event, the dance floor was lit up, the bar was open, and most importantly, the children had been given permission to stay up and party with the adults that night. It was 1998, and Daler Mehndi’s catchy beats were bringing the party to life.

It was a special occasion at the hotel — probably a birthday party for the owner’s child. To eight-year-old Ishank Chibber, the reason for the festivities did not matter as long as the celebration was promised. The unlimited access to ice-cream and the chance of joining both his parents (who worked different shifts in the hotel) were reasons enough for him to look forward to the party.

The beautiful hotel overlooking a hillock in a suburban part of Indore (Rau) was like his second home. Every day, after school, he and his sister would spend hours playing in the hallways and enjoying treats from various members of the hotel staff — their parents’ friends and colleagues. So when one of those colleagues danced with him at the party, Ishank was happy to. A few songs later, they had drifted away from the dance floor and from the crowd. Holding onto Ishank’s hand, the man guided him into a room.

The familiarity of the corridor and the person shrunk abruptly when they entered a dimly-lit room, where four other men chatted in the dark. Ishank, still holding the man’s hand, looked up at him — shocked, searching for the words to form a question or a request to take him out of the room or to describe his fear. Instead of mirroring his own fear and confusion however, Ishan found a deafening silence in the eyes and grin of this trusted friend.

That night he was gang-raped by five known men in a familiar hotel room, while his parents and friends partied outside.

Recollecting his memories of that night, Ishank, now 29, told me: “Once they were done taking turns assaulting me, they helped me get dressed and the same uncle picked me up in his arms and got me back to the party pretending as if I had been dancing with him.”

Ishank did not cry that night — probably because he understood crying as a response to pain and sadness, but that’s not what he felt at that moment. He felt fear, mixed with an intense sense of being dirty. To Ishank, crying did not seem to be the emotion that could help express his disbelief over his shifting realities.

Instead, he decided never to touch his favourite blue shorts with a train engine design again; that’s how his eight-year-old brain decided to cope and reclaim control over himself and the situation.

Unfortunately, the abuse didn’t end that night. It had just begun.

Over the next five years, Ishank was regularly sexually abused, assaulted, and raped by two of the five men from the hotel room, a house help, a male cousin, and a close family member. There were eight abusers, of which one was a woman.

 Healing from the trauma of child sexual abuse: A male adult survivor recounts his journey

Image for representation only. REUTERS

Despite the unimaginable horror he lived through, Ishank didn’t have many memories of the ordeal until he turned 25. That isn’t unusual: repressed memories are a common but under-discussed psychological phenomenon for people who survive traumatic experiences. The physical scars, however — there was no hiding them. The burn marks on his back from stubbed-out cigarettes. The cut on his thighs, made by a blade-wielding man to force Ishank’s legs open. And even without active memories of his abuse, the acute lifelong dislike for the loud Punjabi music that played the very first time he was raped.

Each of Ishank’s abusers had known him since he was a toddler. Most of the abuse occurred within his home — his ‘safe space’.

***

In 1998, the same year Ishank’s rape and abuse began, some key strides were made in understanding and acknowledging the extent of child sexual abuse in India:

A non-profit organisation named ChildLine, with the support of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, launched the first telephone helpline for children in distress, with a particular focus on those living on the streets. India’s first-ever survey to understand the extent of child sexual abuse was conducted by an NGO, Recovery and Healing from Incest (RAHI) Foundation, in which 76 percent of the 600 women interviewed reported being abused during childhood or adolescence. Of these women, 40 percent named at least one family member as an abuser.

In 2007, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) was formed to monitor the implementation of laws protecting the rights of children. Also in 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) conducted a nation-wide survey of 12,447 children from varied backgrounds. The report concluded that 53 of the participants reported an experience of sexual abuse defined as “sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude”. Over 20 percent reported severe sexual abuse.

Of those who said they were sexually abused, 57 percent were boys. Although its limited methodology made drawing broader conclusions about child sexual abuse in India impossible, this report was the first recorded evidence by the government about the issue, putting it in the forefront of discussions about child welfare.

Many similar studies by other non-profit organisations and researchers in recent years have reflected the percentage of participants reporting experiences of abuse (with the number of respondents ranging from 1,000-3,000) as between 30 and 87 percent, with a strong consensus among academicians and practitioners that these numbers are grossly under-reported. “We still don’t know the true extent of this menace. Both the research and reporting about the issue do not match the scale and the intensity of the problem. That to me is the scary part,” said Ashwini Ailawadi, the co-founder of RAHI Foundation, expressing his concerns about the under-reporting of cases.

***

India has the largest number of child sexual assault cases in the world. Ishank’s experience is the gruesome reality of millions of other children in India. But the country and society at large have struggled to address the issue. The issue is not unknown, but was dismissed for the longest time as a ‘western world phenomenon’ — an evil that has no place in Indian culture, with its deeper bonds of family and communities. The lack of discourse around the subject was reflected in the absence of any specific law against child sexual abuse at that time.

Until 2012, these reported cases were prosecuted under laws governing rape, homosexuality (the associated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised in the year 2018), and outraging the modesty of a woman. In 2012, after a series of cases which proved the limitations of IPC in providing justice to a wide variety of child sexual abuse cases, the government finally enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). This was the first time that explicit and clear definitions of child sexual abuse, involving physical and non-physical abuse, were laid out in the law.

Due to the increased awareness, there was a 151 percent rise in the reported cases between 2009 (5,484 cases) to 2014 (13,766 cases), according to the National Crime Records Bureau. More than 1,04,976 cases were registered between 2014-2016. In 2018, amendments in POCSO ordered the setting up of child-friendly courts, gender-neutral laws (thus, making the prosecution of male-child abuse cases easy), and fast-tracked trial timelines.

The increased reporting has not been matched with an improved availability of a support system. Until 2016, only 10 percent of cases were completed in states such as Punjab and Nagaland, with worse indices in others.

“The government often ends up making special legislations or a law after a case hits national headlines or gathers enough public attention — just like POCSO. What does it do? It imposes greater obligations on the state, harsher punishment, that’s it. That is all great but it doesn’t do much for improving execution, which is the real barrier to justice,” says Arunava Mukherjee, a Supreme Court lawyer.

A 2013 Human Rights Watch report supports the assertion of children’s rights advocates that families, communities and state services lack the preparedness to provide the requisite support to protect victims of child sexual assault.

Even at a time when urban India has witnessed the #MeToo movement (a powerful shift pushing the extent of ‘speaking out’ about sexual abuse), it is hard to imagine how long it will take to finally turn its focus within our homes — the place where the abuse and the silencing most often begin.

Read part II: How silencing feeds the trauma of abuse, and how this was reflected in Ishank's journey.

Updated Date: Aug 23, 2019 10:44:15 IST