Several months ago, I came across a post on Facebook that asked women how young they were when they experienced sexual abuse of any kind for the first time. The answers, though saddening, were not exactly surprising to me: some were eight, some five, and many were too young to even remember. I was around four or five when I consciously remember being sexually abused for the first time.
I was traveling on a long-distance train with my mother and my little brother. There was this man, either a railway employee or a co-passenger, who seemed very keen on helping out my mother, a lone woman traveling with two small children. Whenever my mother wasn’t looking, he touched me all over my body, often feeling up between my thighs. This happened many times. It hurt, and I wanted it to stop but didn’t know how to make him stop. Should I tell my mother? But what if she beat me, as she often did if I said something she didn’t like? Did this man also hurt my brother as he hurt me? I would never know.
Even though that train incident marked the first time I remember someone sexually abusing me, it wasn’t the first time I was abused. I grew up in a dysfunctional household with an almost-absent, ill-tempered father and a mother who communicated only with hurtful words, slurs, and slaps. As a child, I assumed that being neglected, shouted at, and beaten up by your parents was “normal.” I still believed my parents would protect me from the “dangerous strangers” out there, the strangers “who did bad things to kids.” The fact that my mother failed to protect me from a stranger who did “bad things” to me right in front of her scarred me in a way deeper than even her slaps, slurs, and beatings did.
My mother physically abused me until I was around 13. The last time she slapped me was when she “caught” me talking to a boy in the neighborhood. “Stay away from boys,” she said, glaring at me, “they just want to rape girls.” For years, I lived fearing boys, any boy, even my classmates who were just trying to be friends. They wanted to rape me, right? That’s what mother said. However, what my young mind couldn’t comprehend was why wasn’t she bothered when grownup men actually touched me in sexual ways or said inappropriate things to me? The train incident wasn’t the only one where someone molested or sexually harassed me in my mother’s presence. It happened numerous times over the years: a co-passenger in an auto groping my breasts even as my mother sat beside me, her male relative grabbing me and trying to make me sit on his lap during a family function, her male cousin telling me I “was the same size as his wife” while eyeing me lecherously from head to toe. Since she didn’t do anything to stop these men from harassing me when she could have–after all, these incidents happened in front of her–I never told her about the multiple instances I was sexually abused when not with her. I knew she wouldn’t believe me, or worse, she would blame me instead as she did on that one rare occasion when I confided in her how my father’s friend put his hands under my frock on the pretext of “tickling” me when I was a child. She accused me of lying; this “uncle” was such a good person, I was a “pervert” for making up horrible things about an innocent man.
Even though it would take me years to realize how my mother had been emotionally abusing and gaslighting me throughout my childhood and teens, this particular thing about her demeanor always disturbed me: why was she so against me talking to boys my age but not bothered about adult men actually sexually harassing and molesting me?
Sadly, my case is not unique. As an adult, I have heard the same story from different women in my social circle and online: an adult man sexually abuses a little girl. She goes and tells her parents, only to be scolded and silenced. The sexual abuser isn’t even questioned while the already traumatized child is forced to carry the burden and guilt of the abuse. I find it extremely distressing that in a society that brainwashes young children to “worship their parents,” mothers and fathers don’t even care to listen to and support their children who are in obvious distress after being violated by an adult. It is heartbreaking how parents very often choose to disbelieve their own child and enable child sexual abusers by failing to take any action when they could. Is this ever going to change? Will we ever witness the emergence of a society where children feel safe in the knowledge that their parents will protect them from abusers instead of silencing them or resorting to victim-blaming?