Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, November 15, 2007

By Sabhanaz Rashid Diya

The six-years old girl was hyper and playful, and had the natural ability to win people's hearts with her toothy grin. Since they were both working, her parents left her under the care of servants and close relatives. On one such working afternoon, her mother came home to find her little daughter, hiding inside the closet. Assuming it was hide-and-seek, the mother smiled and let her 'play'. However, when she found her inside the closet a few more times in the following weeks, the mother became worried. She tried to talk to her daughter if there was anything she was particularly afraid of, but the little girl only nodded her head and went back to playing.

Two years later, on a medical check-up, it was found that her little daughter has been molested repeatedly earlier. It left marks in several places on her tiny body, but nothing too visible or painful. The molester was the father's young brother, and he was now happily married and living comfortably in Australia.

Facts Will Frighten You
Our society with its age-old conventions does not permit the open discussion of child molestation, domestic violence and sexual abuse. For fear of disgrace, the stakes on family reputation or harassment by the police and media; occurrences like these are always finger-pointed at financially-suffering communities and limited to Page-12, barely noticeable news-scoop. But, for how long will we allow ourselves to be silenced by irrational, social norms? For how long will we allow these monsters to breed amongst the comfort of our silence? For how long will we pretend to not hear the cries of these women and children?

Shocking as it may sound, it is estimated that at least 4 out of every 10 girls and 1 out of every 10 boys are sexually abused by the end of their 13th year. In USA alone, over three million children are molested before they finish their 13th year. In 1998, there were 103,000 reported and confirmed cases of child molestation. For every case reported there are at least three more cases that never get reported. In comparison, at the height of the polio epidemic that struck children around the 1950s, there were only 21,000 cases reported in a year. A recent study has shown that 1 out of every 3 American women are victims of domestic violence. With time, the figures have increased and in 2007, the stakes are higher than ever. In Bangladesh, most of these cases go unreported and there is no definitive count. However, according to a recent research, we risk a fatal epidemic if actions aren't taken immediately.

Why Some Secrets Remain Secrets
A child molester is any older child or adult who touches a child for his or her own sexual gratification. Most children are abused by a family member or close friend. A “stranger danger”, by comparison, is quite rare! 90 percent of the children are afraid of describing these experiences, especially since close relatives are involved and for fear of being misunderstood or accused. Many children, depending on the extent of damage, are unaware of what is being done to them and suffer from intense psychological trauma and insomnia at a later age.

Young women who are brutally abused by their husbands or boyfriends are by nature, more attached to their commitments in a relationship, and feel compelled to 'make it work'. Many abusers use alcohol, drugs or mental illness as an excuse. When survivors are asked why they never contacted friends or family members for support, most reply they were brainwashed by the men and feared social unacceptability. They feel ashamed, believe no one will trust them and does not want to break up the family. They believe it's a personal concern. It must be noted that domestic violence affects everyone, including the children. Nearly 40 to 60 percent of men who abuse their wives also abuse their children. (www.domesticviolence. Org)

Incidentally, a large percentage of such violence occurs in well-educated, affluent families. The stakes on reputation are naturally higher, and we hardly ever get to hear about “incidents”. The abusers consider themselves superior to any legal proceedings or social castigation; and are aware of the submissive nature of their victims. They feel guarded by their flashy cars, US degrees, family commitments and society's tendency of finger-pointing the abused over the abusers.

Break Those Norms
In spite of the millions of victims in our families, many people stick to their mistaken belief that child molestation has nothing to do with them. One of the key reasons why molesters are “encouraged” to continue with their crimes is that they don't fear legal actions or punishments. If we genuinely intend to save our children and women from a bunch of animals, which live off comfortably on our self-nurtured ignorance, then it's about time every member of the society steps up!

# Role of Parents: Parents can play a major role in preventing and exposing child molestation and domestic violence. Most parents fail to create a friendly, communicative understanding between themselves and their children, which results in young boys and girls to 'shrink away'. Often, in my experience, parents consider the conservative 'locked-up' way of life as a protective cloak on their families. Being over-protective and strict; or 'letting your kids grow up on their own' are methods That have proved to be failures repeatedly. The best results come from awareness and open discussions about social issues. Anyone can be a victim, and considering your children above these will not save them. Treat them with respect and trust, and talk to them about possible situations they might face in life. Introduce yourself as a comforting friend, spend quality time with your child and allow yourself to gain their trust. Imposing, forbidding tones never help; on the contrary, open-minded and constructive discussions do.

# Role of Professionals: Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, therapists and rehabilitation centres are given little importance. Although the preliminary steps must come from parents and close relatives, professionals play the next big role. Most people cannot handle sexual abuse alone. They need help from therapists or fellow-sufferers. Sexual abuse and domestic violence may lead to more intense trauma in the future, and it is highly advised one accepts medical attention in such scenarios. It is seen that victims, themselves, refuse therapeutic measures, (again) for fear of communal criticism. However, it has been proved that on average, 80 percent of sufferers have managed to live healthy lives with minimum strain after therapy.

# Role of Law: Every case reported gives an indication to seventeen similar future cases. If one molester is caught and justly punished, it will be a reprimand for others alike. Physical abuse is not a personal matter. It is wrong, and cannot be accepted under any circumstances. It is shocking and depressing to see only a handful of these cases being taken up to court! Nevertheless, NGOs and structured organizations are gradually coming up, giving hope to millions of victims across the country.

# Role of Friends/Neighbours /Relatives: The most significant role that can be played by this group of people is by showing compassion, as opposed to finger-pointing, backbiting and spreading rumours. Nearly 90 percent of the abused suffer from fear of social disgrace, which is usually triggered by a nosy group of insensitive acquaintances. If, for once, the extended families, Indian-culture influenced aunties, pitiful friends and unrelated, interfering neighbours choose to understand the magnitude of the suffering, and provide emotional support to the victim and her family; I believe we have solved one piece of the problem.

The incidents described at the beginning of this article aren't stories picked from research papers or images from Discovery Channel. Those are real people I know, and who have suffered tremendously. While Sanya is an inspiration for all because of her strength and will to bring her husband into custody; the nameless child is another untold story that remains unheard and the molester untouched by law. Thousands of children and women are victimized each day in the same way, or worse. Our self-induced ignorance and conventional social infrastructure nurture such violence. It must stop, and we must step up now! The thought of living in a society that shares the same roof with these heartless monsters not only disgusts me, but terrifies me about the future. They must be exposed and punished, so that every 6-year-old can sleep peacefully at night without having to fear her uncle creeping up to her in bed. Remember, next time, it could be you, your sister, your best friend or your daughter!



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