We often perpetrate our own horror.
We avert our eyes, lower our gaze, and turn our heads. When we don’t want to see what’s so clearly in front of us, we become masters of disguise. We put on our magician’s cloak and turn the elephant in the room into a string lying unnoticed in the corner. Because sometimes the reality is more unimaginable than any lie we can make up to cover it.
Fifty-three percent of children in India are abused, 21 percent of which are violent cases. Most perpetrators are people known to the victim. These are numbers based on reported cases.
But the great majority of child sexual abuse cases in all South Asian countries go unreported.¹
Sexual abuse is often perpetrated by those responsible for the child’s protection: fathers, older siblings, aunts and uncles. Children don’t say anything because they fear stigma or blame, or think no one will believe them. They are afraid that disclosure will harm the family honour, that a family member could end up in prison, or for girls, that they will lose opportunities for marriage.
“If a child does report such abuse to a family member such as the mother, this information may go no further, for she may fear that disclosure will…result in social ostracism.”²
I’m faced with this exact scenario opening night of the London Asian Film Festival, while watching “I Am”. Directed by Onir, it chronicles the lives of four characters, one of whom is Abhimanyu, a film director sexually abused as a child by his stepfather.
Upon his stepfather’s death, Abhimanyu (now an adult) is faced with the decision of confronting his past, or letting it go unnoticed.
When he does decide to tell his mother the difficult truth, we’re left with the even more painful truth that she has known all along.
There is a Q & A session after the movie, and while others ask about productions costs and casting, I’m itching to dig deeper.
I ask: “As parents, we always want what’s best for our children. But often times it is our own husbands, sisters, or uncles that are perpetrating this violence on our children. As South Asian parents, do we need to start being more observant of what is happening in our own homes? Do we need to be more outspoken, less afraid? What kind of shift within the South Asian family system is needed to reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse?”
I don’t get an answer. Instead I’m told hurriedly that things can start to change if people start ‘talking about the issue.’
I think to myself: ‘Well if you’re the actor playing the character of Abhimanyu, and co-producing the film, and even you can’t seem to talk to me beyond a surface level, how is anyone else going to?’
Why are we so afraid to introspect?
What good are films that ask questions if nobody even attempts to answer them?
Awareness is absolutely necessary. But just because we’ve brought attention to an issue, doesn’t mean our job is done.
I’m going to be brave and actually give an opinion—attempt to answer my own question because nobody else wants to.
I think South Asian parents, and the South Asian community, need to be bolder, stronger, and louder. We need to stop being so afraid of what could happen—because what IS happening is so much worse.
If you have the slightest inclination someone is mistreating your child (be it your neighbor, your husband, or your brother) DON’T STAND FOR IT.
Don’t let the limitations of societal pressure numb you to your child’s pain.
Get help—however hard it is. Tell someone. Ask someone.
We all have a shared responsibility to protect the future generation. If you think your brother’s wife’s uncle might be abusing his nephew—find out more. Don’t let your suspicions slide. As South Asians, we so easily poke our noses into other people’s marriages, love affairs, and weight problems. So fear of interfering is clearly not an excuse.
We need to stop talking, and start acting. We need to stop pretending, and start seeing. There is an elephant in the room. And it could be your child hidden behind it.
¹Save the Children, 2004, ‘Child sexual abuse in South Asia: A discussion paper (Regional review submitted to the UN Study on Violence against Children)
²United Nations General Assembly (Pinheiro, P.S.), 2006, ‘Report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violence against children’
It should be noted that although the UNDP funded one of the stories in “I Am” titled “I am Omar”, UNICEF refused for “I Am Abhimanyu”—saying that child abuse was not on their agenda for the year. The film came to be financed by regular people (found through social media platforms) who believed in the importance of the story.