I was not even 10 when I was sexually assaulted. An older relative who had come to stay with us for a short period of time. Like many Punjabi households, ours was an open house, always welcoming to cousins and their friends, Today, decades later, I cannot even recall the precise connection of this man to my family. But, to a child’s eye, he was avuncular and affectionate and, in any case, I just assumed I was
safe in my own home.Little did I imagine that this much-older, family figure could be such a monster.
Worse still, as a child unable to figure out of what had happened—I was the one who felt grotesque and dirty. The concept of teaching your child to distinguish between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ had not yet become the enlightened norm.
But after the first few times I had innocently followed him to ‘play’ with him in his room, I was overcome by panic and disgust.I finally told my mother that something terrible had happened. My assaulter was
immediately thrown out of the house and I buried the awfulness of the memory in a deep, As I grew older, what stayed with me, strangely enough, was the rancid smell of hair-oil; even years later, anything that smelt faintly similar made me nauseous. In my growing years, I blocked out the man’s face, his name, in fact the very incident was banished to the recesses of my consciousness; but from that
moment onwards, sexual abuse had an odour In 2007, the first ever government survey of child sexual abuse uncovered that more than half the children spoken to (53 per cent) said they had experienced
some form of sexual abuse. Twenty per cent of those interviewed said they had been subjected to severe abuse, which the report defined as ‘sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude’. Yet, the silence of young victims and the misplaced shame they felt shielded the perpetrators. These were men deeply embedded in
the family structure, it made it that much more difficult to call them out. The report found that 31 per cent of the sexual assaults were by an uncle or neighbour. So it wasn’t surprising that over 70 per cent of children had never spoken to anyone of what was done to them.
The toughest discovery for me was to find that feminism offered no shield against the vulnerability, confusion, guilt and rage you felt when you were abused. As a young adult who experienced violence in a personal relationship for the very first time as a postgraduate student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, my response was less confused but no easier to act on.
By now I was a self-aware young woman with strong opinions. I thought I was difficult to intimidate. I believed I would know exactly what to do if a man I was dating ever hit me. Of course I would take him to the cops, I would say with confidence when we sat around discussing how unfriendly the legal system was towards women. I thought I was never going to stand for anything like domestic abuse. It went against every book I had read, every principle I held as sacred and every bit of my self-image. Until it happened.