Sexual abuse of Children in Kashmir
Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla

On 5 June, the rape of a three-year-old child in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district angered many on social media in Kashmir. The child was allegedly raped by her 13-year-old cousin, who has since been arrested under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and sent to a juvenile home in Srinagar.

About a week before this, the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl in south Kashmir’s Anantnag distritc was reported after she complained of stomach ache and medical examination found her eight months pregnant. The family accused a 35-year-old relative of raping the girl.

The two incidents of reported rapes triggered an angry conversation about child sexual abuse (CSA) in Kashmir, where the topic is rarely acknowledged in public discourse. The current conversation, however, remained largely limited to social media.

In the absence of public support, cases of child sexual abuse remain under-reported and survivors develop mental health ailments as they attempt to balance between enduring the trauma and not being able to speak out about it, according to survivors and experts.

“I won’t hurt you”

Maryam Khan, whose name has been changed, was nine-years-old when she was sexually abused, she said, by her locality’s “trusted” imam, prayer leader, in a closed room at her home. On the pretext of spiritual guidance, he slipped his hands inside her shirt. “Why are you scared?” he had asked her. “I have done this with many other children. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”

Ms. Khan, now 25-years-old, had tried to tell her parents but they refused to believe. He returned the next day and abused her again but on the third day, he could not since her mother was present in the room. Then, her parents told her to remain silent.

Ifra Ahmad, whose name has been changed, 25, grew up in a normal family where elders teach children to be obedient to elders. For her, the abuse came from multiple members of her own extended family. Among her abusers, she said, was an uncle who raised the volume of the television in their living room as he touched her breasts.

Ms. Ahmad has tried to repress the memory and does not remember when this happened but she said that she “can still feel that touch”.

Like Ms. Khan’s parents, her mother had asked her to quietly suffer the abuse. “After this I am still not able to share anything with her,” she said, adding that she was also abused by another relative. “He did something that hurt me but I still can’t comprehend what he did to me.”

The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was among the last in the country to implement the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in 2018, after the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu’s Kathua district led to country wide outrage that year. The act was enforced in the rest of the country in 2012. Still, not much has changed.

“The damage is done”

Ms. Ahmad now prefers being alone, even a normal touch reminds her of the abuse she faced. “As I grew older, the idea about what was happening to me kept getting deeper and took a toll on my mental health,” says Ms. Ahmad. “Last year, I started dating someone. It triggered something within me and that’s where the flashbacks started.”

Ms. Ahmad said she had nightmares where her boyfriend sexually abused her. After all these years, she said, even sharing the incident with anyone will do little for her mental health. “The damage is done,” she said.

In a society like Kashmir, it is believed that talking about the sexual abuse brings dishonour to the victim and her family and hence the topic has become a taboo. Ms. Khan said her abuser should have been jailed to prevent abuse of other children but he was spared “for the sake of a nine-year-old child’s honor”.

“If he has to abuse you he will. They don’t need a reason, so talk about it no matter what,” Ms. Khan said, adding that “parenting plays a major role, I wasn’t taught about safe and unsafe touch and when this happened I was asked to keep quiet.”

What the law says

The POCSO Act was enforced in the country on 14 November 2012. The law defines different forms of sexual abuse and prescribes punishment for penetrative as well as non-penetrative assault, sexual harassment and child pornography with rigorous punishment upto 14 years and monetary fine, both prescribed on the gravity of the crime.

Furthermore, the sexual assault is treated as “aggravated” in cases where the child is “mentally ill or when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust or authority vis-à-vis the child, like a family member, police officer, teacher, or doctor”.

Before POCSO, cases of child abuse in Kashmir were dealt under relevant sections of laws, defining the punishment for rape, when the victim was a girl. However, for boys, laws for voluntarily carnal intercourse against the order of nature were used. In cases of molestation, section 354, assault or criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty, was used.

Najam Wani, a public prosecutor in Srinagar district court said that “Section 376 comes under Fast Track court but apparently Kashmir is different” as cases here could not be fast tracked owing to the continued political turmoil. Fast Track Courts (FTCs) were established in 2000 with the aim to clear pendency in the courts. “It depends upon the situation of Kashmir as well. Last year, there were hardly any proceedings,” she said.

Ms. Wani believes that most cases in Kashmir go unreported and unnoticed. “There are hardly any cases from  Srinagar and the cases from other districts come to us when the condition gets severe,” she said.

Both Maryam Khan and Ifra Ahmad spoke to The Kashmir Walla on the condition of anonymity over their fears of being stigmatized. “I don’t know how people will react to it,” both said in separate interviews.

A long struggle

“It took me fourteen years to actually speak about it,” said Musab Omer, who was 14 when he was sexually abused by a faith healer, Aijaz Sheikh, in 2002. Mr. Sheikh was arrested in 2016 after Mr. Omer along with seven other victim-survivors filed a complaint but was granted bail in less than two months.

Mr. Omer has since then become an activist to fight child sexual abuse by creating awareness in the society, for which he has created a Facebook page, Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, to build a support network.

Mr. Omer said that there is a social stigma attached to survivors of rape in the society and conversations around sexual abuse is considered a taboo. “In such a scenario it becomes more difficult for boys to speak up about the abuse because they are not allowed to show any vulnerabilities or emotions while they are being brought up,” he said. “Boys don’t usually talk about it because it is considered bad as well as a sign of weakness to open up about such issues in a society like ours.”

According to Mr. Omer, sexual abuse in early childhood continues to haunt the victim-survivors, especially if they don’t speak about it. “When it happened to me, I was not able to properly walk for days and yet none of my family members noticed a change in my behavior,” he said. “I turned quiet and even my studies went downhill.”

Farheen Yaseen, a psychologist at Child Guidance Well-being Center, run by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the Shri Maharaja Hari Hospital (SMHS), said that sexual abuse made “children prone to develop mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bedwetting, borderline personality disorder, self-harm, sleep problems, temper issues, mood swings, tic disorders, and nightmares.”

According to Ms. Yaseen, children are not forthcoming in initial sessions and take up to at least four sessions to open up. “We psycho educate both the children and the parents. We educate them about personal safety and give them therapies,” she said. “Many cases go unreported because of the social stigma and the shame that our society sees with it. In most of the cases, parents are not supportive.”

Children are also threatened by their abuser(s) and are forced to be silent about it; such issues should be confronted as well, said the psychologist. “In our society, if children talk to their parents about their abuse they are asked to remain silent and hence the voices are suppressed,” she said.

She believes that sex education is very important to prevent these cases and also, lack of awareness is a major issue in the society. “If a child shows any of the symptoms, parents should start thinking that there might be some problem,” said Ms. Yaseen.

This story appeared in our 22 -28 June print edition.

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