Barefoot Harsh Mander

The dangers that lurk close to home

Most women and children do not approach a police station as soon as they are raped. The agonising decision to report is a long-drawn process, in which family support is critical. But if the abuser is a family member, family support is hard to garner, leading to greater reluctance to report the incident.   | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI

As we strive belatedly to make this country safer for girls and women, our dominant imagination of gravest dangers to women’s safety is of predatory underclass strangers lurking in the dark. We are unable to confront the distressing reality: that rape by strangers accounts for only one of 10 rapes, whereas nine are by family, friends, and acquaintances. Majlis, a centre led by Flavia Agnes who has battled domestic violence herself, has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for three decades in Mumbai. Its account of 500 rape survivors, who were helped by the centre, holds up a mirror to the ugly truth of many Indian homes.



Harsh Mander


Ninety-one per cent of the accused were known to the victim, seven per cent of the victims were raped by fathers and stepfathers, and nine per cent by strangers. A fifth of rapes was within families — abusers included brothers, uncles and grandfathers. Beyond the family, 43 per cent of the accused were acquaintances, including neighbours, boys from the locality, and boyfriends. The actual incidence of family rape is likely to be even higher, because girls are under enormous pressure to remain silent: the father is the ‘breadwinner’ and she must protect family ‘honour’.

Many girls rescued from the streets and cared for by my Aman Biradari colleagues share soul-splintering stories of abuse by their fathers. A majority of Majlis victims were between 11 and 18 years. National crime data reveals a significant rise in reporting and registration of cases of incest rape, and confirm the trend that the majority of the victims are minors. All of this wrecks our long-nurtured assumption that homes are safe spaces for girls, and the world outside is where they walk in peril from strangers.

A half of the cases at Majlis were reported by the children themselves; another quarter by the mothers. The decision to report family rape is a brave and lonely one, made at tormenting personal cost, intense family pressure and social ostracism. There are even cases of the family abandoning the victim.

Jonathan Derby, U.S. licensed attorney, tells the story of Shevya (name changed), raped by her brother when she was 15. He denied the charge, and Shevya’s mother beat her for deceit. Shevya reported the rape to the police, who moved her to a protective shelter and arrested her brother. Her mother blamed her for her family’s hardships, and ultimately in court she retracted her statement, saying she was lying all along.

Most women and children do not approach a police station as soon as they are raped. The agonising decision to report is a long-drawn process, in which family support is critical. But if the abuser is a family member, family support is hard to garner, leading to greater reluctance to report the incident. A further problem with family rape is that the victim typically reports the crime after repeated abuse, often months, or even years, later. Police and defence lawyers then point to the fact that there are no signs of force being used, arguing that sexual intercourse was consensual. Cases are further weakened because crucial medical evidence is lost after 72 hours.

The Majlis report describes many ways by which an oppressive criminal justice system ‘constantly re-victimises the victim, causes her extreme trauma and brings her down several notches in the social ladder’. Pritarani Jha, who does exemplary work in Peace and Equality Cell (PEC) with child rape survivors in Ahmedabad, also reports similar re-trauma endured by abused children from the criminal justice system. Typically police insist that, contrary to rules, the victim be brought to the police station, and forced to wait several hours, and repeat her story before many policemen. Doctors are often disrespectful, and judges sceptical because there are no signs of force in family rape.

Most victims, supported by Majlis and PEC, come from extremely vulnerable households — daily wage-earners, slum or pavement dwellers, single or ailing parents, or the mother herself being subject to domestic violence. Rape destroys them further in innumerable ways. Most often, the family relocates after filing a complaint with the police for fear of reprisal and social stigma, and the girl drops out of school. Eighty-eight victims who reported at Majlis were pregnant; 70 per cent of them were minors. Many had aborted the baby before reporting the crime. In 30 per cent of the cases, minor girls came to public hospitals with complaints of stomach ache where the pregnancy and rape were detected. Several of the cases showed brutal assault. In 31 rapes, weapons like knives, blades, broken beer bottles and acid were used.

Little has been done to ensure children’s safety in our homes and communities.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 12:59:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/harsh-mander-on-sexual-abuse-at-home/article7615539.ece

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