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Help is Hard to Find for Child Sex Abuse Victims in India

Aside from a mumbled "yes" to two friends who asked if "it" had happened to her, the now 21-year-old New Delhi resident never spoke about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

In India, where a landmark study released in April showed half of the 15,000 children and young adults it surveyed had endured some form of sexual abuse, a heavy curtain of silence surrounds the crime and help is hard to find.

"It can happen easily," said the young woman, who eventually sought help at a support centre for victims of incest and agreed to talk anonymously to AFP.

She was eight, her abuser -- a male cousin -- was twice her age and the abuse happened when they met at family gatherings.

"The people you like the most and trust the most can abuse you. Your parents are right there and it is taking place two minutes away, out of their sight," she recounted firmly but with a hint of lingering anger.

Unlike many children in India who are abused, she said she was lucky to eventually find a place where she could talk about her experience and break the bad habits she developed to cope with what was happening.

"I've dealt with the past and moved on," she said.

In a country where talk about sex of any sort is taboo and consulting a therapist carries its own stigma, hers is an uncommon experience.

"Help is very difficult to get," said Anuja Gupta, the founder of the group Recovering and Healing from Incest (RAHI), where the young woman went for counselling.

"There are women who've come to us pretty screwed up by the kind of help they've got. There are women writing in from other cities and I don't know where I can refer them."

Gupta, who says about 300 women have sought help from the 10-year-old group, tells one story of a troubled woman who saw a therapist for five years. Not once did they discuss her history of being sexually abused.

" That's not very good therapy," said Gupta.

But counselling is vital, Gupta said, especially for learning how to cope in a society where families are closely-knit and where it is difficult to avoid a former abuser after the abuse has stopped.

"The amount of family gatherings and festivals you have to meet your abuser in -- there is no scope for not maintaining the relationship," said Gupta.

In India, as in many countries, family ties are of paramount importance and get-togethers are large and frequent. Young women and men often live at home with their parents and other family members until they marry.

"All the time," said the young woman who had sought help at RAHI, which means "wayfarer" in Hindi, when asked how often she met her abuser.

When she told her parents about the abuse about a year ago, her guilt-stricken father had lamented that the two branches of the family were too deeply enmeshed for ties with the abuser to be severed.

But with counselling, she said, life has become easier.

"I used to look at him like I'll kill him, and now I look at him with pity or forgiveness," she said.

What's harder to bear, however, is the fact that her little sister plays with the son of her abuser and often visit their house.

She believes the breakdown she suffered that led to her finally seeking help was triggered by her sister turning eight -- the same age her own abuse started -- and a feeling that she would be unable to protect her.

"I can't be with her 24/7," she said. "But if I have a good communication relationship with her then half the job is done."

The group has its limitations as Gupta herself admits -- so far it has only managed to reach out to women from middle-class, English-speaking backgrounds.

For the millions of poor children who suffer sexual abuse, counselling of this nature is rarely an opti on, unless they make their way to child welfare shelters that are few and far between and of varying quality.

New Delhi, a city of 14 million, has shelter space for just 2,500 children, half of them run by welfare group Prayas, which conducted the child abuse study released in April.

The group says counselling does help the children and teenagers who come to them.

"We want to remind them there is a second opportunity," said Prayas director Rajib Haldar. "It helps them unlearn some things and learn some new things."

But, like Gupta, Haldar warned that many billing themselves as counsellors do not have the skills to help those traumatised by abuse.

"It needs to standardised, certified, accredited," said Haldar. "Otherwise you can be creating more harm than help."

The young woman said that even though at times family and friends had questioned why she needed therapy to deal with an experience that "everyone" went through, she said it had helped her enormously.

She realised her overeating was one way she had channelled the abuse.

"It was an eight-year-old's way of dealing with stress," she said ruefully, though the rotund girl she describes is now difficult to spot in her slim form.

"There are people I know who are doing things that are not good for them" because of past abuse, said the young woman.

"I know for a fact that 90 percent of my girlfriends were sexually abused. What makes me different is that I'm out there talking about it."


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