Acknowledging the Crime
Jennifer Ashraf Kashmi
Fourteen-year-old Samia was awakened at 3 in the morning by the noise of her seven-year-old cousin Sara having a nightmare. She watched in amazement as Sara thrashed around the sheets, tormented by unseen images, finally waking up while screaming repeatedly just one word: “No!” As Samia hugged Sara and attempted to calm her down, she heard her sobbing cousin mumbling, “Don't let him touch me, don't let him touch me.” Curious, she tried to get Sara to explain what she meant and after half an hour of constant persuasion Sara finally opened up. “I don't want to study with my huzur anymore,” she sobbed, “He touches me.” “What do you mean? How does he touch you?” Samia's questions brought forward another barrage of tears and sobs from Sara. Eventually, through much consoling and cajoling, Samia was able to extract the information that Sara's huzur had been sexually molesting her for the past few months.
“Why didn't you tell me before? Does your mother know? Have you told anyone about it at all?” she questioned Sara, who confirmed that she hadn't shared this information with anyone before. Samia then asked the burning question anyone in her position would ask – “Why not?” Sara refused to answer. Samia looked deep into her cousin's eyes and realised the real reason. “You felt responsible for this didn't you?” Sara nodded. “Yes I felt responsible. It was all my fault,” Sara sobbed.
Laws to protect children must be socially effective. Photo: Zahedul I Khan
What Sara was suffering from was a typical case of self-blame and shame. In a society like ours, where sex and sexuality are considered taboo subjects, where parents are reluctant to discuss the basics of “the birds and the bees” with their children, it is the children who eventually suffer. Child abuse has existed since the ages. Children are considered to be easy targets – mainly because often the molester is confident and secure in the knowledge that he can manipulate the child's thoughts and emotions to his advantage. Child sexual abuse is the physical or mental violation of a child's innocence, with sexual intent. It's usually done by an adult or an older person, usually someone in a position of trust and considered reliable. Sara's huzur is a prime example. In our society huzurs are considered are highly respected and revered. Parents do not hesitate to place their children in their care, often leaving both the teacher and the student in secluded rooms. Children, though innocent and young, and can often pick up impressions about the revered person in charge and began to implicitly trust them in turn.
Therefore, when faced with a situation as in the case of Sara, children would somehow calculate that the fault lay with themselves instead of the molester in question. The guilt and the shame forces them to bear their torture in silence, whilst being unable to confess anything to anyone for fear of being ostracized, or worse, being disbelieved. In the meantime, the molester roams freely, whilst possibly continuing to abuse countless other children.
As Sara slept peacefully, exhausted after her outburst and confessions, Samia lay awake trying to decide on the best course of action. Realising that she was entrusted with a huge responsibility and knowing that she would not be able to frankly discuss the issue with her own parents, Samia decided to communicate directly with the involved parties, namely her cousin Sara's parents. It took an entire morning of insistent discussion by Samia before Sara's parents finally realised the gravity of the situation. Sara was called to confirm the facts, she was comforted by her parents, a new huzur was appointed for Islamic education, and new rules were put into place to ensure that Sara would not ever find herself in any such distressing situation.
Today Sara is an undergraduate student studying genetic engineering at a University in the US. She is a confident young woman, which is a far cry from the distressed person she would have become had Samia not stepped in. The lack of self-esteem and self-apportioned blame would have hampered her growth as a person, and she would always suffer from an unconscious fear of the opposite sex.
However, not every single child suffering from child abuse is as lucky as Sara. While male dominance is prominent in our society, child molestation and child rape is automatically assumed to be that of females rather than males. However, that does not make the problem any less non-existent. In a society such as ours, the difference between men and women are embedded into the minds of children starting from a very young and tender age. Boys are encouraged to “be men”, engage in masculine activities and taught that to accept defeat, to cry, or to ask anyone for help can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Therefore, often young male children are also subjected to molestation but these children almost never speak up or accuse their molester because of an ingrained fear of being regarded as being “unmanly” or because they feel ashamed of such an incident happening to them in the first place. So, how come the issue is not being given much significance in Bangladesh, or it is given abroad? In western countries, child abuse is prevalent and adequate importance is given to the support of victims of such abuse and harsh penalties for such offenders. Yet, in Bangladesh we tend to shy away from the whole concept, treating it with almost casual indifference.
Advocate Towhida Khondker, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, comments about the seriousness of the situation and about the perceived importance of Child Molestation and Child abuse in Bangladesh. “The Government has ratified the CRC (Child Rights Convention) already and now the question which has to be addressed is how effectively this is being implemented in our current civil society. It's also a matter of how sensitised the general public is, and it is doubtful as to whether all cases of child molestation and child abuse are being adequately addressed and reported.”
With regards to the adequacy of the current legal provisions dealing with this specific issue, Advocate Towhida states, “We currently have laws in Bangladesh dealing with the issues of children's rights and they have been in existence for quite a while. However, these laws are inadequate in efficiently protecting children's rights and interests. We have already started working on amendments for these laws in order to make them more socially effective. Implementation is an important aspect and that is what we are attempting to achieve with these forthcoming amendments.”
Child molestation is not a myth – it exists. The mistaken concept should be erased that just because such cases are not frequently reported it means they do not concern us. This is an issue of immense importance which concerns each and every one of us. Parents and adults should encourage free and frank communication between children, rather than restricting it in a misguided effort to “protect the innocence” of children and thinking that they may be too young for such candid conversation. Because it is unacceptable that a child is abused because the grownups responsible for protecting the child are not vigilant enough or are not giving the issue the importance that it deserves.
Names have been changed as per request.