Every day is different. My work with ENFOLD, an NGO that supports victims of child sexual abuse in India, ensures that I don’t have a typical day: there are no weekdays or weekends as cases get reported every day. Either our office receives the information or I get calls directly from different sources including the police, Child Welfare Committees, hospitals and mental health professionals. My role begins by empowering and encouraging a family to come forward and report to the police. I also accompany the child and family to the hospital for medical treatment and examination; connect them to a mental health professional for counselling or therapy and follow up to ensure complete recovery. I also acquaint the child and family with the legal proceedings.
Measures like explaining legal processes, familiarizing them with the courthouse, providing information on victim compensation, etc., help in making the child a more competent and cooperative witness. I also visit the child to assess, among other things, if the child is back to school, with a normalized routine and no threats. Currently my colleagues and I support about 35 children and their families.
A multitude of challenges
One of the biggest challenges in my work is right at the beginning: convincing a person or family to report sexual violence or abuse. In India, girls and women disclosing sexual abuse are treated poorly by society. The shame and blame is often placed on the victim and not on the perpetrator. So, in addition to having faced the abuse, a girl or woman who would like to report a sexual offence also has to deal with the societal view that she has brought shame to her family. And sometimes, for this reason, these girls and women need to relocate and restart their lives. This is something that makes people think a lot before reporting a sexual offence.
In the case of boys, although data in The National Study on Child Abuse, 2007 shows us that boys aged 0-18 are more likely to be sexually abused than girls, records show that reports of sexual offences against boys make up only 1 or 2% of cases. In Indian society men and boys don’t express their emotions and are required to be “strong”. If a boy comes forward to report a sexual offence, he may be considered weak or even effeminate.
Additionally, it is important to remember that most of the perpetrators (80-85%) are known to the victims. And about half are family members. So, for a child or a woman to report a sexual offence against someone in the family, with pressure and possible threats to stay silent, takes extraordinary effort and bravery.
Everyone can play a role
Anyone who is concerned about sexual violence can do something.
Firstly, as parents, as aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters I think it is very important to have open dialogue within the family; among adults and between adults and children, on issues such as personal safety, not associating abuse with the family’s honour, and allowing children to speak freely. If a child discloses abuse, support them in whatever way you can. Believe a child if they talk about this – whether it is your child or not. Don’t blame, ostracize or stigmatize them.
"Most of the time, the child only wants to be believed and for the abuse to stop."
Lay people can familiarize themselves with the existing systems and laws. Not to become a lawyer but to understand what happens. For example, if your phone gets stolen most people know exactly where they need to go, but if a child is being abused most people don’t know whether to go to the police, a child welfare committee, an NGO, or to a hospital. And today – thanks to the internet – it is much easier to get this information, even in rural India.
#MeToo and similar movements in India
Today, India has mandatory reporting of any sexual offence against a child, so anyone who has a suspicion must report it to the police. But if a crime occurred before 2012 – when the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was passed – there is, in effect, no redress mechanism for that person. Campaigns like #MeToo have encouraged many people to speak about what has happened, but in India it would be very difficult for them to get justice as the overburdened criminal justice system will not be able to respond adequately.
On what motivates her work
When we work with a child and a family we say that we’ll be with them every step of the way, but practically speaking, this is not possible in every case. It would be extremely useful if more people did things similar to my work and supported more families. We don’t have enough people. And one of the reasons for this is that there is no specific financial remuneration or allocation from the State to cover the cost of somebody who is a support person and does the type of work I do. And while this is a challenge, our work would not be possible without the support of the State Government, stakeholders in child protection, funding agencies and other partners.
My motivation is the resilience and strength of the children and the families I work with. I’m also motivated by the people who work in the system – the police, doctors, mental health professionals, prosecutors, judges – they all work under immense pressure yet they are still trying their best, which encourages me to continue to do the same thing.
(Kushi Kushalappa is a social worker working with ENFOLD Trust, an NGO set up by physicians to support victims of child sexual abuse. Based in Bangalore, India, Kushi provides support to these children and helps them through the legal and healing processes. She works tirelessly to support victims at any time of the day or night.)