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India starts to talk about child sexual abuse

A Victim's Powerful Memoir Sheds Light On A Largely Hidden Issue

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Rituparna Chatterjee's brave memoir "The Water Phoenix" has helped to bring the issue of child sexual abuse into the open in India. (Courtesy of Bloomsbury India/Rituparna Chatterjee)

For years during her childhood, Indian journalist and author Rituparna Chatterjee suffered sexual abuse from adults who were responsible for creating a safe space for her.

Chatterjee's experiences, graphically recounted in her book "The Water Phoenix," were horrific. But she is far from alone. For many children growing up India the "safe space" that should be provided by their homes is where they are most vulnerable.

India's National Crime Bureau estimates that 109 children face sexual abuse in some form every day, irrespective of their socioeconomic circumstances. The number grows every year, but is rarely discussed even within families because people prefer to brush the issue under the carpet for fear of the social stigma attached to it.

Chatterjee, though, has drawn widespread support for her courage in narrating her ordeal, and -- perhaps more important -- her painful memories have sparked widespread comment, both online and in person.

Her five-part memoir, which draws on personal experiences and the literary technique of magic realism, takes the reader through her life of sexual abuse during childhood, her near-death experiences, the development of paranoia about physical contact with males, and finally her transition to forgiveness and healing.

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Children play with balloons in the West Bengal village of Naya. In India, sexual abuse of children is rarely discussed even within families because people prefer to brush the issue under the carpet for fear of the social stigma attached to it.   © AP

Set in different Indian towns, reflecting her father's peripatetic lifestyle, Chatterjee's book chronicles her life from the loss of her mother at 5 years old. Her father places her in the care of an aunt so that she can experience normal family life, but she is subjected to bullying and sexual abuse by her uncle.

Even though she is later moved from the family to a boarding school, she experiences depression and anxiety until she finds healing as a young woman in another country, far from the scene of her abuse. Until then, as she says in her book, "Heaven never lasted, Hell was always around the corner." Sexual and emotional abuse recurred throughout her youth, even in the school.

The book is a painful read for people who have experienced such abuse while growing up. Many of us never understood the act until we grew up and learned to differentiate between consent and violation. We were never told by our elders how to know the difference. Worse still, talking about the issue was discouraged. When complaints were voiced, reality was hidden behind a facade of normality.

For me, Chatterjee's book was like reading a version of my life. It transported me to my own vulnerabilities as a girl who lost her father at the age of 9. My mother worked in odd jobs to provide food and education for me and my brother. Sexual abuse by neighbors and relatives had started even before my father's death, but the frequency of abuses increased afterward.

It was difficult to speak out. I was never taught to identify a bad touch or to speak out. In one instance when I opened up to my family the matter was not handled in the way I had hoped. Like Chatterjee, healing and forgiveness came away from home. I chose to build a life in cities far away, creating new families with friends in each city I lived in.

Young parents in India now are bringing their children up differently. I have watched many of my contemporaries explaining to their children the difference between a bad touch and a good touch, and encouraging them to speak out without fear about any untoward experiences.

Chatterjee, however, says that this is not enough. "While explaining the differences between a good touch and a bad touch is important, I'm afraid it is a very simplistic way of looking at the psychology of abuse. And anybody who has gone through any kind of abuse will tell you this," Chatterjee told me.

"We must understand that all abuse begins with emotional abuse. ... This trickles in complex ways into various aspects, resulting in not understanding what is valid and what isn't, and can result in poor boundaries."

Chatterjee points out that in India, as in some other Eastern cultures, it is common for strangers to sit children in their laps, pulling their cheeks and so on, while children are shamed for resisting, which they are told is bad manners. This is emotional abuse.

She adds that if children have been abused consistently at a very young age the pattern tends to repeat throughout their growing up years, noting that they cannot be responsible for wrongful behavior, while the only shame belongs to adults around who fail to see abuse taking place.

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Children play on a parked cycle rickshaw outside their home in New Delhi. "We must understand that all abuse begins with emotional abuse," says Chatterjee. "This trickles in complex ways into various aspects, resulting in not understanding what is valid and what isn't, and can result in poor boundaries."   © Reuters

"When you have done enough ... therapy, you realize that everything that is a traumatic event, or that is a trigger, is often a reaction to something that happened in childhood," she says, adding that her response to abuse "attracted greater loneliness, situations that I kept feeling very unsafe in, emotional abuse, physical abuse and ultimately (more) sexual abuse."

Chatterjee recounts in her book that going to boarding school helped her to feel less unsafe and lonely. The instances of abuse reduced, and ultimately stopped in her late adolescence. She finally found her healing across the Pacific in San Francisco's Silicon Valley, where she settled down with her husband at the age of 23, and now works as a journalist and author.

I asked her if marrying early and moving to the U.S. was a way to escape bitter memories of home, and of people who could have helped but chose to ignore her pain. This was the case for many young Indian women who opted to study or work away from home or marry early for the same reasons.

"I would agree that getting married so early on in life was definitely escaping the huge baggage of traumatic side effects, [and] every kind of abuse that I had accumulated, " she says. "I love my husband, and he is a wonderful person, but I could have waited a few years to have found myself."

Finding a chance to heal is an opportunity that is denied to many of India's child abuse victims. But Chatterjee's brave book, and her willingness to speak out about this largely hidden problem, has helped to bring the issue into the open. And that can only benefit the many Indian children who are still suffering in unknowing silence.