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CONFRONTING THE SILENCE
By Aditi De
The Hindu Friday Review
Friday, June 13, 2003
"My older brother used to kiss and fondle me..."
"I didn't really have the choice to say yes or no..."
THEIR accents sound South Asian, occasionally American. Their faces are like yours or mine. Their bodies have contours we recognize. But their stories turn back the clock on civilisation, on socially-accepted norms, on basic definitions of familial trust. For incest doesn't happen to someone in a distant place or another planet. It violates an innocent childhood, it scars for life ~ and it makes us face up to how inadequate everyday language proves to voice the twist in its tale.
On screen, a male adult, perhaps an uncle, enters the room. He seats himself in an easy chair. His arm draws a little niece onto his lap. Is his an innocent action? Or one motivated by unbridled impulses? Can a family trust its little daughters to its brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles by blood or visitation, grandfathers, or even neighbours?
Pedestrian Pictures, a non-profit organisation that focuses the public gaze on socially-pertinent issues through film, chose to screen "The Children We Sacrifice" (2000) on June 7 because "the silence that shrouds the issues of child sexual abuse (CSA) is deafening." Featured at international women's film festivals in Korea and New York City, the award-winning 61-minute documentary is a potent, sensitively-rendered sparking tool in the hands of a feminist lesbian writer and video activist, Malaysian-born, US-based Grace Poore, of Sri Lankan and Indian origin, who uses the medium to advocate an end to violence against womankind.
Tumbling this long-hidden skeleton from our collective closets, Poore uses cultural icons, family albums, and conversations drawn from the South Asian experience to share her own story and others like hers. She allows the survivors ~ shot in India, Sri Lanka, the US and Canada ~ their dignity within a private space. She interlinks their stories with observations from community educators, psychotherapists, women's rights activists, advocates and others sensitive to the issue, including Sri Lanka's Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Agaist Women.
Eschewing black-and-white home truths in favour of questions from a grey terrain, Poore's film opens up a global debate on home turf. In a society where all outsiders are scrutinised, how can we recognise an insider as the enemy? Should those abused share insider information with the extended family as a road to recovery? Where marriage is the social norm for womenfolk, how can a girl child protect herself against predators within the family? Why does South Asian society choose the path of least cultural resistance on this long-camouflaged issue?
Images of homes as a comfort zone, zooming in on vivid handloom curtains or prized idols, are intercut with the voices of women as children sacrificed at the altar of family peace ~ highlighting the dichotomy between a safe haven and betrayal. Through story after story, we learn to admire these women who came into the open, whose courage and resilience we can celebrate.
"I'd been making this video for ten years in my head," confesses Poore, who's currently engaged with a follow-up video "Enemy on the Inside," which delves into the world of incest perpetrators, "almost as a series of letters from survivors... to get past the legacy of incest." (More details: www.shaktiproductions.net)
It's a legacy that calls for immediacy of response, for a scrutiny of our daily lives, our intra-family bonding. Especially against the backdrop of statistics from a 1998 Convention on the Rights of the Child working group. In India, one out of ten children is being sexually abused at any given point of time. Every 155th minute, a child below 16 years is being raped. Every 13th hour, a child below 10 years is raped. Do we need to hear more before we listen?
Ten years ago, Bangalore was the hub of public debate on CSA. That's when Samvada, which provides counseling to college-goers in both rural and urban Karnakata, did a CSA survey among 249 girls and 148 boys, sparking engaged interchanges and a helpline.
But all's too quiet in Bangalore today, despite access to CSA counselors at Parivartan, Viswas and Makkala Sahaya Vani (Ph:2943224). Can consciences die out on us?
Even as Poore's filmic images invade our innermost individual sanctums, despite poor public visibility, Anita Ratnam of Samvada points out, "CSA happens across society, among the rich and the poor, irrespective of class, caste or community. I feel it's the family itself that leads to CSA because it polarizes adult and child, rural and urban, male and female. It's the family that constructs what traumas rise out of the abuse..." She narrates the heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year-old rape victim who set herself ablaze with kerosene, unable to face the inevitable social stigma.
Isn't it time victims of CSA could reach out to a sympathetic ear? Isn't it time the Indian penal code ensured fair laws for both prevention and punishment in CSA cases? Isn't it time we recognized children as sexual beings openly, giving nobody a right to abuse them? Isn't it time we stopped speaking of sex as a four-letter word, so that we don't have to whisper of its bylanes in whispers?
Some signposts of hope signal the path into the future. Samvada (Ph: 5587493 /5580585) offers booklets in Kannada and English, guiding parents and teachers to recognize signs of CSA-affected child behaviour patterns. It houses a collection of child-friendly cartoon books on incest from as far away as Germany and Canada. Nazu Tonse, a survivor herself, has set up a free website and self-help group for women like her ('Askios,' the Greek word for shadowless), where sharing experiences leads to healing. (Ph: 98441-30846).
In the schism between therapy for the victim and criminalization of the offender falls the CSA shadow for now. The time seems right to form a national network for an offensive against incest, to recapture the speaking spaces relinquished over the past decade. As individuals with social voices, we owe at least that much to the children ~ of both genders ~ whom we have sacrificed.