From Stigma To Support- Our Responsibility As Society

From Stigma To Support- Our Responsibility As Society

Victims of Sexual Abuse need support from all sides of society

Priya Parikh Aarti Singh PariharUpdated: Friday, March 08, 2024, 11:35 AM IST
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The story of a small girl Pinky is such a tale, which we all must have heard or seen around us at least once in our lives. Pinky, a playful 8-year-old, who lived in the neighborhood with her parents and siblings; everyone in our colony knew her as a shy but affectionate child. She was usually seen playing in the garden or going to school with her sister, always smiling and happy on her own world.

All this was before the ‘incident’ wherein Pinky suffered from sexual abuse and her world around her changed completely. No one ever got to know the the details of the incident, other than some rumors and except that we helplessly saw the transformation of a budding, sweet little child to one withdrawn in her own shell, who never again came out to play in the park. Her family kept the incident a secret and did not seek justice or formal help, out of fear of societal reaction/ rejection. As a result, Pinky suffered twice- one from the crime and another (much longer) from the ingrained bias in our minds, treating a sexual abuse victim as if she has lost her dignity just because an abuser has committed a crime violating her physical self. The focus somehow shifts away from the perpetrator to victim shaming when it’s a sexual abuse crime.

In the year 2021 alone, 53,874 cases were reported under POCSO (Protection of Children under Sexual Offense Act) according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). There was a 16.2% rise in the registered crimes against children in 2021 as compared to 2020 and every third case was a sexual offense, according to the same report. For 2022 over 1.62 lakhs cases of crime against children were registered in 2022, an increase of 8.7% over 2021 according to NCRB report of 2023.

 These are the numbers where parents were strong enough to report to the Police, however there are many unreported cases like that of Pinky. If we see data of crime against women, it was stated in a report by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation- ‘Women and Men 2022’ that as per NCRB, India reported 5.2 lakh cases under Section 354 of the IPC, which refers to ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’ and accounted for an average of approximately 23 per cent of all crimes against women. However, the same report mentions that nearly one in every three reported crimes against a woman from 2016 to 2021 pertained to the “cruelty” of her husband and/or his relatives (The Print, March 26, 2023). The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annual report 2023 has revealed a distressing surge of 4% in crimes against women in India throughout 2022 and the crime rate per lakh women population rose to 66.4 in 2022 from 64.5 in 2021. These numbers are alarming, especially when many times such crimes are buried under the shadow of social stigma.

The big question is that why a crime against a female, even a child, gets hushed up in the fear of losing prestige in society just because the crime involves sexual assault? Any physical assault, when cured timely, may leave a scar but is not taken as a shame for the victims, however sexual assault may be treated and cured physically but is mostly left as a mental trauma for life.  Why is it that only because of the perpetrator’s wrongful actions, a sexual assault victim feels or is made to feel lesser than what she was before the heinous act?

For ages girls have been seen associated with virtues like physical purity as an important characteristic of the ideal female. Why else would it be that even while sympathizing with sexual assault victims, this idea is deeply rooted in our minds that the victim has lost her purity? While advancements through female education, employment and participation in governance have taken place in our nation, there is still a vast majority with the above mindset. 

One may be tempted to ask here what’s the big deal with this image of girls/ women as icons of purity. The big risk comes forth as that of not reporting sexual assault crimes, such as in Pinky’s case, to the authorities which is a double-edged sword- the victim is deprived of timely professional help to heal from the trauma and secondly, the perpetrator is not brought to  task- which runs the further risk of the perpetrator committing more crimes in the future, before (and if) any victim dares to report/ speak up. Sadly, even well-meaning families fear social backlash or boycott of the victim and keep the ‘incident’ under covers. There is another aspect, a fear of sexual abuse restricts girls’ freedom and education/ career choices and in many places, parents feel safer to get the girl married off in early age and be free from their responsibility. This mindset is a vicious cycle against women empowerment and gender equality in society.

The solution for reported crime has been well thought of after the Nirbhaya case in 2012. The law, regulations, judgments and guidelines are written to safeguard and protect women against sexual assaults. However, there is a need to change the mindset of society. Sexual assault, sexual abuse or sexual harassment is still seen as a crime damaging one’s reputation- victims are forced to face guilt and trauma, for no fault of their own. The need of the hour is that we, as a society should do our part, by not increasing the pain of a sexual abuse victim further by marginalizing them.

So, what should be the way forward- awareness to change the mindset and strengthening support groups should be part of the solution. Spreading awareness among people in general, and victims in particular, that a crime is a crime and should be treated so, and if it involves sexual assault, it is not the fault of the victim.  Changing mindsets to drive in the fact that a female is left no lesser than before in stature/ dignity if her physical boundaries are violated against her wish- in fact, only the perpetrator should be made to feel lesser in society. Secondly, the role of support groups- both formal and informal (such as close family, teachers, counsellors, etc.) needs to be strengthened while justice takes its own course- because the priority must be the person who has suffered the abuse.

Where should we start? The primary unit for changing the required mindset should be the family. They should be made to understand that the victim is not responsible of losing her dignity and it is not her fault that she was sexually assaulted. This advice must come from law enforcement agency’s counsellors, and extended families, friends, neighborhood should be suitably counselled too. A support group with the help of NGOs can be created as per the needs. Second unit is schools/educational institutes, wherein certified professionals should be invited for talks/seminars on this topic. Teachers/Professors must be sensitized and trained to deal with cases/ victims of sexual assault.

Lastly, it is very important to initiate dialogue on this very sensitive but extremely important issue because if each one of us contributes to spreading awareness and changing our own mindsets, we may save another Pinky in the future from becoming a victim twice.

-  by Priya Parikh, Indian Audit & Account Services and Aarti Singh Parihar, Indian Railway Traffic Service

(Views expressed are personal)

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