Issue in Focus : Fear and Loathing In Incest - Annonymous

A spate of reports in the media in the last few months, of cases of incest coming to light, has sparked outrage and fear among parents all over the country. Perhaps the horrific story of the monster dad from Austria has added to this fear…a fear that such madness exists in our children’s world; a fear that children are not safe anywhere, not even in their own homes; a fear that such monsters may live inside of each one of us.

Incest is a nebulously defined, uncomfortably-fit-in offence that is dealt with under the laws relating to rape (Section 375 of the IPC), sexual molestation of women (Section 354) and sodomy (Section 377). The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 which one hoped would deal effectively with child sexual abuse too disappoints in this area.

The problem with incest is that its very definition makes it an offence hard to expose, to investigate and to secure a conviction for. Added to that is the inadequate awareness of the prevalence of the crime and its consequences upon the lives of children.

RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) a Delhi based NGO, in its findings1 describes incest very inclusively. Here ‘incest’ or ‘child sexual abuse’ includes exploitative sexual activity, whether or not it involves physical contact, between a child and another person, who by virtue of his power over the child due to age, strength, position, or relationship used the child to meet his own sexual and emotional needs. The act, though sexual in nature, is also about the abuse of power and the betrayal of trust, because the offender completely disregards the child’s own developmental immaturity and inability to understand sexual behaviour2.

As a survivor of incest, I felt a tremendous sense of liberation when I came across this understanding. Growing up, it seemed to me that all the victims of such crimes were simply horrified children who had passively endured or struggled against the acts of the adult.

RAHI explains how a child’s need for nurture, touch, care and caressing are not the same as an adult’s sexual desires. I had a father who was a successful surgeon and who was very popular with his patients and friends. What many could not see was that he had extremely low self-esteem and was a chronic alcoholic.

His amiable face he saved for the outside world, but at home he was sullen and withdrawn and played hardly any role in my or my brother’s upbringing. It was after his first drink that he was a changed man. He’d play music, tell stories, want to dance, cook, call friends over and have us kids stay up late with him.

It did make us a little uneasy, but it was also so thrilling to be allowed to stay up late and be a part of the party that happened every single night. As mood changes of insobriety go, jocose would soon give way to bellicose, then morose and finally comatose.

When I was eight years old and my brother was a year younger, my mother had to go out of town for a week and we kids were left at home with Dad in charge. Initially the thrill and unease both escalated as we were allowed to stay up as late as we wanted, chat and watch movies with him. He also insisted we sleep in his room.

Then from the second night onwards, after my brother fell asleep, there was more talk, more movies – this time pornography, and touching and kissing. I’d pretend to be asleep or would act as if I was not interested, but if I were to think back, the emotion I felt the strongest would have to be a sense of conflict.

This was the first time that I had received this much attention from my father. He told me I was beautiful. He asked if his touch excited me. I told him it didn’t but that was not true; it did. And it shamed me too. I wanted it to stop, but I loved the interest he was showing in me.

The movies disturbed me and I noticed that they seemed to incite him further, but at the same time I was burning with curiosity and would peek at the television screen from under my blanket.

Somehow by the end of the week I just wanted to be a child again and be clean. I knew everything would be okay again once my mother returned. And she finally did.

I rushed to hug her, crying with relief and told her what happened. Her reaction was not at all what I expected. She was silent for a while, and then asked if I was sure all that I was saying was true. She believed that I had a vivid imagination and tended to exaggerate things.

I suppose I was hurt and shocked but those feelings were clearly suppressed or forgotten. I do remember that I began to wonder whether I did make this all up and decided that maybe it was not so big a deal after all.

A few years later my mother had to move to another city for two years to study and I insisted that I be allowed to move into the boarding house at my school. I do not know if it was my father or me that I did not trust.

We tried it for a year; my father would pick me up every Friday and I’d spend the weekend at home with him and our old nanny and return Sunday evenings. My brother was not allowed home as often.

I do not know which I hated more: the return to boarding school with a drunken father who would make passes at the seniors in school, or the dread of going home to my room whose door had no lock.

By then my feelings towards him were those of dislike. But amazingly, my fear would turn into anger when he tottered into my room at night. I’d shove him out and barricade the door. I knew then that he was never ever going to touch me again.

I found out several years later that he had molested several other women, including my cousins, maids, friends and patients. That knowledge at least convinced me that I had not made up what happened to me.

What did bother me though was the attention I was starting to attract. I was sociable, a performer and a natural leader.

I felt wretched inside each time I found myself singing or speaking on stage or in front of the class. I hated myself for being chosen prefect or captain, even as I loved being one. As for boys, I was so sure they were only interested in me because I was cheap and sluttish that I would never respond, but I was secretly elated.

When I was fourteen I was molested by a friendly stranger at the bus stop. I pulled away and ran home but could not shake the feeling that I had somehow asked for that.

I was probably falling into what Dr Shekhar Sheshadri, psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore called the ‘the survivor’s cycle’3 which describes the violation of a sexually abused child’s physical, emotional and mental state.

I was eighteen when I learnt that over 50 percent of children in India have been sexually abused. More specifically, here are some of the figures relating to Indian children in the age group of 5-12 years4:

  • 53.22% of children have faced one or more forms of sexual abuse
  • Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest percentage of sexual abuse among both boys and girls
  • 50% abuses are by persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility
  • Most children do not report the matter to anyone

I think the first step in my healing process came with the knowledge that I was not alone. I began to understand also that I was simply not capable of giving consent, let alone enticing the adults who committed the abuse into doing what they did. The shame began to lessen.

My next step was to build my self esteem. I began analysing my choices, making new ones that gave me control over my life. I pursued spirituality and through it discovered how to let go of the past and how to feel strong within myself.

I was able to look after my father while he was on his deathbed without revulsion or hatred. I volunteered to do this because I felt I had healed more than my mother or brother who had to endure his alcoholism.

I realize that my journey has been long, I sometimes still question if I’m reacting to a person in a particular way because of any impact my father may have had on me. I wonder if I still might have unresolved issues that a professional might be able to recognize. But mostly, I feel strong, peaceful, happy and grateful for the life I have today.

Dr Shekhar Seshadri speaks of the Exit Cycle5 which allows one to reclaim one’s life. These are steps to self-acceptance and resolution of the consequences of sexual abuse in one’s childhood. They include:

  • Empowerment.
    The sexual abuse was not my fault.
  • Survival Skills.
    I can be myself to myself and others.
  • Clarity.
    I can separate who I am from what I have thought and felt about myself because of being abused.
  • Self-awareness.
    I value my thoughts and feelings. I can make mistakes, learn new things, be flexible and appreciate myself.
  • Self-acceptance.
    I know, like and respect myself. I am strong and able to learn and change. I deserve to be loved and respected by others.
  • Exit.
    Exeunt. To quietly exult.

Today organisations like RAHI and Childline are doing much to give a hearing to abused children or their caregivers who have knowledge of this abuse and feel helpless in the face of societal pressures.

Slowly state machinery too is waking up to the reality of and the complications involved in cases of incest. In a recent judgment of the Delhi High Court, Justice Murlidhar, while dismissing the appeal of 54-year-old Tara Dutt, who was convicted of committing digital rape on a five-year-old relative in 1996 expressed concern at the absence of stricter laws to deal with sexual abuse of children.

He also made reference to the Law Commission’s report on sexual abuse, whose recommendations were lying unheeded by the law makers of the country.

In its report of March 20006, the Law Commission focused on the need to review the rape laws in the light of increased incidents of sexual abuse against minors. It suggested that rather than a focus on the physiological aspects of sexual abuse in defining the offence, the lasting psychological damage to the child ought to be considered and stringent provisions created to prevent such crimes.

Both at the macro and individual level change has to come from the outside as well as from within. Awareness will lead to a change in perceptions both by survivors and by society. But reform of social and legal support systems is crucial if these changes are to become meaningful.

Dealing with Sexual Abuse – Guidelines to teach children

  • Remember that your body is yours
  • No one (including your parents, relatives, teachers and doctor) should touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Just say NO and GO
  • Walk away and tell an adult you trust about what happened
  • If that person does not listen or does not take action, tell another adult until you get help
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help
  • Share your emotions with a counsellor or support group (
  • You can also call Childline 1098 for help and counsel

1 Ashwini Ailawadi (ed.) Voices from the Silent Zone: Women’s Experiences of Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse. RAHI, New Delhi, 1998

2 Maharukh Adenwalla. Child Sexual Abuse. Indian Centre for Human Rights and Law, Mumbai, 2000

3 Pinki Virani. Bitter Chocolate. Penguin Books, 2000, p. 64

4 Ministry of Women and Child Development. Study on Child Abuse: India 2007,

5 Pinki Virani. Bitter Chocolate. Penguin Books, 2000, p. 199

6 Law Commission of India. 172nd Report on Review of Rape Laws. March, 2000, rapelaws.htm