Early this month, a junior staffer in the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department was arrested from Banda district by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for allegedly sexually abusing around 50 children in the 5-16 age bracket over a period of 10 years. He has also been accused of selling photographs and videos of the children to paedophiles around the world via the darknet.
While the case came as a shocker, it’s a reality that more than 100 children are being sexually abused every day in India. And this is just an official number from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). The actual scale and problem of child sex abuse in the country are much bigger as a large number of cases go unreported, say campaigners.
Questions have also been raised over the implementation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012. It’s a comprehensive law to provide for the protection of children from sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography. It requires special treatment of cases such as setting-up of special courts, hiring special prosecutors, and supporting the child sex abuse victims.
While infrastructure and funding remain a hurdle in the way of justice, the predators are often known to the victims. And, thus, the problem needs to be dealt with not just by the police and legal system but the society as a whole, say experts. The so-called taboo and the stigma that haunt the victims need to go. So that more of those who have suffered child sex abuse could speak out.
It is in the context that Rituparna Chatterjee’s memoir ‘The Water Phoenix’ (Bloomsbury) becomes more than relevant. Rituparna Chatterjee, who was born in rural Bengal and now lives in San Francisco, has shown the courage to document, in detail, the sexual abuse she suffered from the age of six. The first at the hands of a family elder. Another predator was a teacher. The list kept growing.
The highly intuitive child’s beautiful world, steeped in magic realism, and described through her razor-sharp gaze, goes haywire. She often finds herself running, literally, from her realities, and has some near-death experiences.
Acute anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression follow her — from her boarding school to her move to Silicon Valley. She finally heals herself after a long process that culminates in her coming face-to-face with her original rapist. She eventually becomes a healer.
Set in five parts — Childhood, Boarding School, Bombay, Forgiveness, and Freedom — the story is spread across 21 chapters. ‘The Water Phoenix’ is haunting, evocative, and brave. It is not just as a catharsis for the author but may help many others open up about their horrors. The final chapter is aptly titled “I Am Not My Story: Life as Art”. What matters more today is what you do with the past.
A senior office-bearer at Child Rights and You (CRY), said, “The increasing numbers of crimes against children are extremely alarming, but they also suggest an increasing trend in reporting which is a positive sign as it reflects people’s faith in the system.”
“It also provides a direction in which government interventions must be made and evidence needs to be created. While some major efforts have been taken to ensure child protection, a lot more is needed to see expected results on the ground,” she said.
From mental health experts to spiritual gurus, they all never seem to emphasise enough on the importance of forgiveness for child sex abuse victims. “Forgiveness is the most selfish choice you can make. It is the most self-loving choice you can make. Forgiveness is the last step but you cannot rush or force it. You cannot just wake up one morning and decide to forgive,” Rituparna Chatterjee writes in her book.
Rituparna Chatterjee’s take on forgiveness may resonate with many, “… you can only forgive when you are ready. Forgiveness often comes naturally when you have healed enough to truly know your Own Power and realise that there is nothing left to forgive,” she adds.
We need more such stories so that we deal with child sex abuse more effectively, and there is a collective catharsis.