Heather Morfett shares her experience of working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse in India Illustration by Romy Blümel
I am passionate about women’s issues and have worked with survivors of childhood sexual abuse for many years. When travelling in India for the first time a few years ago, I decided to spend some time with an organisation in New Delhi called RAHI1 – a Hindi word meaning ‘journey’. RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) Foundation is a support and counselling centre that works specifically with survivors of childhood incest and sexual abuse. It also provides education, training and research, and is the first organisation of its kind in India.
I visited the organisation during the autumn of 2011. While there, I learnt about the challenges of working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse within the context of Indian culture and I was able to meet survivors who had engaged with RAHI. I also explored various potential projects and areas of development and devised a training programme for the centre.
In this article I want to share my thoughts about the significance of culture when working with clients, specifically in relation to the experience of childhood sexual abuse. I also want to explore connectedness and the shared experience of women because, as a feminist, I believe that one woman’s struggle is every woman’s struggle. In the year following RAHI’s opening in 1996 there was only one referral: just one woman was brave enough to approach RAHI for help. Since then over 300 survivors have accessed its services and the organisation has also published a collection of survivors’ stories in a book, The House I Grew Up In: the RAHI testimonies.2 Drawing on the experiences of women who have accessed RAHI’s services, the book demonstrates thepossibility of recovery and the potential to be psychologically reborn. It also acknowledges that some work has been achieved in terms of breaking the silence around childhood sexual abuse in India and recognises that some awareness exists of the long-term impact of this experience. One of the common threads apparent from the survivors’ stories is a feeling that women are perceived as expendable in Indian culture.
While at RAHI I was able to discuss with the organisation’s director, Anuja Gupta, similarities and differences in our work with survivors across our two different cultures. I learned a lot about Indian culture from Anuja and we discovered that we shared various common frames of reference in relation to working with survivors. One of these was the work of David Finkelhor, an American researcher and sociologist, who has written extensively about the behaviour of sex offenders and the experience of childhood sexual abuse. Finkelhor identified a fourstage model of offending,3 which I often use in training programmes as a framework to explore childhood sexual abuse. In this article, I will be using it as a background against which to explore childhood sexual abuse in the context of Indian culture. Interwoven are the stories of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, some taken from The House I Grew Up In and also from a survivor I interviewed, who had accessed counselling with RAHI. I am grateful for her permission to share her story.
In Indian culture there is a strong sense of ‘family’, and men are automatically respected in the family setting because they are men. The idea that a family man could be thinking about abuse challenges the core values of Indian society. Indian men enjoy status and privilege within the family and hold great power. It is therefore difficult to challenge the patriarchal family structure. Girls and women are powerless and vulnerable; daughters, who often stay at home into their 20s or even 30s until they are married, would find it difficult to exist without their family, making it difficult to disclose or to challenge an abuser or to avoid seeing him.
One RAHI survivor describes in The House I Grew Up In how ‘the abusers were close family members and enjoyed a certain status and authority in the household’. A second survivor says: ‘I was brought up... to never question the word of an elder, to never complain, to always obey.’ Another survivor relates how she was not valued simply because she was a girl, and how this affected her: ‘My birth was a disappointment to the family, that was robbed once again of its first son and grandson… I do believe it influenced my upbringing in little, damaging ways. I became the scapegoat of my family. I was the problem child, never good enough in anything I did… I had a lot of friends, yet the sense of failure was my constant companion.’
My sense is that this type of experience leaves a girl vulnerable to abuse. When considering children’s vulnerability in the UK, one would normally think of children who lack a supportive family and safe adults around them. In India, where family is everything, in many cases it appears there are still no perceived safe adults to protect or to tell about the abuse.
Stage one : a person wants to abuse Childhood sexual abuse starts when a person has a sexual fantasy about children, which leads to the motivation to abuse. This is a difficult concept to think about in any culture. In India, where childhood sexual abuse is not widely acknowledged or discussed, it is particularly so. It is important for survivors to realise that this is where the abuse process starts: knowing that it is the abuser’s intention to abuse helps the survivor to re-evaluate the commonly experienced feelings of guilt and selfblame. The survivor to whom I spoke at RAHI was abused by a family friend, who was babysitting her while her parents were out. She told me that she had only recently started ‘to think about getting in his head’. Judging by her expression, this was hard for her to contemplate. ‘I think he knew what he was doing,’ she said. I replied that he probably did know what he was doing and must have been able to convince her parents that he was a good choice of person with whom to leave their children. She agreed.
Stage two : the person overcomes their internal inhibitions about abusing This is about the justification of the abuse and a process of self-talk, which can sometimes be heard in survivors’ stories. For example, the abuser may say: ‘I’m doing this because I love you... I’m showing you how to love… I’m doing this because you’re bad… Will you keep my secret?’ In my work with RAHI, I have discovered that the self-talk of the abuser is much the same the world over.
Stage three : the person overcomes external inhibitions, gaining access to the child The vast majority of abusers in the UK are known to the child; they are usually a family member.4 This is also the casein India where, as described, family culture differs significantly from that in the UK. The family in India can be a nurturing place where a girl can be loved and looked after, safe, secure and able to enjoy spending time with favourite uncles during the holidays, or sharing time with brothers, sisters and cousins during family celebrations. There can be lots of opportunities for fun. However, the family environment also provides easy access to children; it can be a place where adults and children alike can easily be groomed and silenced and where childhood sexual abuse can occur and go unchallenged, as a RAHI survivor recalls: ‘It seems… that the laws that governed my household were designed to help abuse flourish in its most ugly and virulent form.’2 In a culture where childhood sexual abuse is not acknowledged, it is not difficult for any adults to gain a child’s trust.
Another RAHI survivor describes her abuser:2 ‘… this was my favourite uncle – fun, good-looking, different from the rest. As kids, we spent the most time with him. He took us out for long drives and ice creams at night. [Going out after dark would normally not be safe for Indian girls.] He sang beautifully and organised musical evenings at our house. He was the first in the family to learn foreign languages, to get into the Forces rather than follow the family tradition of starting his own business, in defiance of the strict rules set by his father and grandfather. I loved him in his uniform, with all the stars he would pin on it. He was my father’s brother, who lived in the same house as I.’
Stage four : the abuser overcomes the child’s resistance and ensures silence Stage four is about grooming, which describes the ways in which the abuser ensures that the child doesn’t tell and the abuser gets away with it. In order to maintain the silence of the child, an abuser may use a range of strategies, from love, affection, gifts, presents and treats to threats, violence and intimidation. This will often leave the child confused and frightened, as these RAHI survivors describe:2 ‘The thrill of receiving a present and the inner recoiling from physical contact often left me battling with a variety of conflicting emotions.’ ‘[He said:] “Go ahead – tell our parents – you’re equally guilty, you want it too, so go ahead.”’
There are plenty of reasons why a child doesn’t disclose childhood sexual abuse.5 Disclosure has a huge impact on the family, in any culture. It is not the sort of issue where you can sit on the fence: either you believe or you don’t believe what you are being told. Hence disclosure has the power to divide families, and indeed communities. In India, if a girl or a woman discloses, she needs to be mindful that she may not be believed and may be totally on her own. The consequences of this are huge.
RAHI is working in a context where there is a lack of safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures. While with RAHI I developed an appreciation of the powerful dynamics of the family in India, which can silence a child and also silence any adults who may know about the abuse. In The House I Grew Up In, 2 Anuja Gupta explains: ‘None of the women told anyone about their abuse when it was happening, for several reasons, including fear of being disbelieved, threats from the abuser, unwillingness to disturb the status quo of the family, self-blame and punishment.’ In India, the reputation of the family is likely to be protected first and foremost in most cases; the needs of girls and women are seen as more expendable, as the experiences of the women described in The House I Grew Up In demonstrate:2 ‘The image of the family had to be preserved, at all costs. And the cost of a young girl’s body and soul was not too expensive a price to pay;’ ‘Even though one woman disclosed and was believed by her father, she had to live with the painful reality that: “Uncle and father still continued with their relationship as if nothing had happened.”’
‘My birth was a disappointment to the family… I was the problem child… the sense of failure was my constant companion’ – RAHI survivor
RAHI works with women to help them heal, supporting them in processing memories of childhood sexual abuse and subsequent feelings of rage and selfblame while they are existing in a painful reality where they may still be living at home with the abuser, or still coming into contact with him at family events. They may suspect that family members know but also feel powerless: ‘I suspect… people in the family know what he’s like, because my mother has told me not to be alone with him. But nobody does anything about it… he’s a very well-liked person in the family…’
The survivor I spoke to at RAHI was able to share with me aspects of her journey towards recovery. When I asked how RAHI had helped, her face lit up. She told me: ‘It’s changed my life,’ and she described how she valued having a non-judgmental space in which to talk about the impact of her experiences with someone who had ‘faith’ in her. She said she often wondered what sort of person she would have been if she had not been sexually abused, and she described feeling as though there was a ‘cactus plant in her system’. As we explored this metaphor, it became more meaningful: she said the prickles had fallen off and, although she sometimes felt them growing back, she now had the tools to soften them. I said that cactus plants grow in harsh conditions – like survivors – and that, although they look plain, they produce the most vibrant flowers.
This survivor participated in the protests in Delhi earlier this year that followed the death of a young woman who was brutally gang-raped on a bus.6 Women are frequently sexually assaulted in Delhi, but this particular attack received global publicity and opened up serious debate about the safety of girls and women. Since then, RAHI has been participating in debates in the media and continues its work to raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with RAHI. Childhood sexual abuse is a global issue and I have been able to build a sense of connection in this field of work. I am also more aware of some of the differences and similarities between the different cultural contexts. In the UK we might think that high divorce rates, reconstituted families and the loss of a sense of community could leave children vulnerable to being groomed and abused. Ironically, in India, with its very low divorce rate and strong commitment to the family and family values, children appear to be no better protected. When a person wants to abuse, he will use the prevailing social environment to his advantage in the process of grooming.
I have some beautiful Indian scarves that I brought back from Delhi. Scarves are an important part of Indian culture and RAHI uses them at the start of groupwork, to form a circle around the group, like a boundary. It calls its survivor groups Circles of Strength. The scarves are used in many different ways: in individual therapy, training and workshops. For example, women may be invited to choose a scarf that reflects how they feel. When I use them in therapy I explain where they came from and how, as well as being an important part of Indian culture, the scarves have a universal value and offer a way of connecting across all cultures. Heather Morfett works as an integrative counsellor in private practice. Her background is in mental health, where she has many years’ experience both as a nurse and as a therapist in the NHS. She was the Sexual Abuse Lead for the Department of Health initiative Victims of Violence and Abuse Prevention Programme, for Plymouth Mental Health Services. She has contributed to the Mental Health Nursing Degree Programme on working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and has provided training in awareness-raising and genderrelated issues. Heather has always focused her work around empowering women.
1. www.rahifoundation.org 2. Ailawadi A (ed) et al. The house I grew up in. The RAHI testimonies: five Indian women’s experiences of childhood incest and its impact on their lives. New Delhi: Survivor Communications (RAHI Foundation); 1999 (reprint 2004). 3. Finkelhor D. Meeting the needs of survivors of sexual abuse – underpinned by routine enquiry in mental health assessments. Trainers’ manual. Leeds: National Mental Health Development Unit; 2008 (p20). www.nmhdu.org.uk/silo/files/ trainers-manual-pdf.pdf 4. Finkelhor D. Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children 1994; 4(2): 31–53. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/7804768 5. Ainscough C, Toon K. Breaking free: help for survivors of child sexual abuse. London: Sheldon Press; 2000. 6. BBC News India. Protests in India after Delhi gang-rape victim dies. BBC News India. 29 December 2012. www.bbc.co.uk/news/ world-asia-india-20863707