Two instances of incest were widely talked about in the media over the last week. The first pertained to the Austrian Josef Fritzl who has just been sentenced to life imprisonment for incarcerating his daughter in a purpose-built prison beneath the family home in Amstetten for 24 years, raping her more than 3,000 times, fathering seven children with her and causing the death of a twin son. Sounds too horrible to be true; and the fact that it was his own daughter make it sound even more monstrous.
The other story, more home grown, is that of a businessman, who allegedly raped his daughter over a period of nine years following a tantrik’s advice for getting rich. The traumatised girl, now 21, had been silent about her ordeal but mustered courage to approach the police after her father attempted to rape her 15-year-old younger sister, again on the advice of the tantrik. The mother was arrested by for abetting the crime, and if any thing, the fact that the mother actively helped out as her daughter was being violated makes it if anything; more ghastly.
Just how big an issue is incest in India? Well obviously a topic like this will always be in the shadows and one may have even to look at the definition of the word “incest”. In South India, marriages happen between cousins (especially cross-cousins, that is, the children of a brother and sister) and even between uncles and nieces (especially a man and his elder sister’s daughter). That is culturally acceptable and would not be termed as an incestuous relationship.
A report produced by the BBC a decade ago had opined citing research sources that Close-knit family life in India masks an alarming amount of sexual abuse of children and teenage girls by family members. It said that that disbelief, denial and cover-up to preserve the family reputation is often put before the individual child and its abuse. A report from RAHI, a Delhi based NGO working with child sexual abuse titled “ Voices from the Silent Zone,” suggests that nearly three-quarters of upper and middle class Indian women are abused by a family member - more than often an uncle, a cousin or an elder brother.
Indeed, sexual abuse of children in any form of household setting by a family member in India is among the most urgent forms of child abuse which our society must address. As per women’s organizations and activists nearly ninety-five percent of the abused are girls and more than ninety-five percent abusers are males. Surveys carried out in schools and informal chats reveal that around 40% girls experience incest abuse or sexual abuse in one or the other form in India. How deep the ice berg is can perhaps be gauged by the fact that 6% of all calls made to CHILDLINE (a 24-hour Indian helpline for children in distress) in the last ten years have reported Child Sexual Abuse(CSA) — 6% of 10 million calls! There probably could not be greater statistical validation that CSA/incest is the most under-reported child rights violations in India.
In India, there is no single law that specifically deals with child abuse, and there is no clear delineation of sexual abuse in the Indian Penal Code. Indian laws consider only “assault to outrage the modesty of a woman,” rape by penile penetration, and “unnatural sexual intercourse” like sodomy as punishable sexual crimes.
Although, there are lawyers and child rights activists who are ready to spell, explain, and act against incest and abuse they are still not a critical mass and their views strong enough to be able to impact consciousness of the policymakers, police, lawyers, judges, teachers, schools, mental, physical and sexual health professionals, and all those who could take up the issue.
Although the issues of shame, family honour and plain depravity means that very little statistics are available, it also means that every statistic available speaks not just for itself for a lot many others in the shadows, children and girls who invisible and will because of the abuse and betrayal they have faced, retreat further into the darkness and possibly out of reach of help. For organizations like RAHI, the RAASTA is indeed long and a lot more RAAHGIRs are needed to fight this mammoth dark monster.