Wednesday March 6, 2013
Silenced by shame
Stories by S. INDRAMALAR and IVY SOON
When rape or sexual abuse takes place within families, keeping the family unit intact often takes priority over protecting the victim.
THE sexual abuse started when Amelia* was eight, and went on till she was 17.
In all those years, she felt uncomfortable, bewildered and frightened but her uncle kept assuring her that they were not doing anything wrong: she was “special” and deserved all the presents he gave her and extra attention he showed her.
It began with cuddling, then fondling her breasts and kissing. Soon the abuse escalated both in frequency and severity and stopped just short of penile penetration.
“I didn’t understand what was happening. I was confused and didn’t know what to do. I’d just freeze and wait for it to be over. I didn’t tell anyone. At first, I kept quiet because he told me I had to keep it a secret. Later on, I was silent because I felt I was a bad person and was responsible. I mean, I never said ‘No’ or turned him away,” recalls Amelia, now 30.
Throughout the eight years of abuse, Amelia was terribly conflicted.
“Part of me knew it wasn’t my fault and that what he was doing wasn’t right but at the same time, it did feel pleasurable and that made me feel like I was a bad person,” she says.
Amelia didn’t tell anyone about her torment because she didn’t think they’d believe her.
It took another 10 years, and a breakdown, before Amelia finally confronted her demons.
She battled depression, had very low self-esteem and, for a long time, suffered frequent nightmares.
“I felt shame. I always wore baggy clothes and never made myself look good. I saw myself as a bad person and I still have a huge problem with trust. I tried to distance myself from that experience, I blocked out everything, even my emotions, in order to cope. I have problems being intimate and this has affected my relationships. Many times, I felt like life wasn’t worth it.”
When she was 27, Amelia had a breakdown – and a moment of clarity. She finally realised she was a victim of sexual abuse, and sought help.
“After 10 years, it just hit me hard. I was a victim of abuse. I went for counselling and spoke to other survivors of child sexual abuse. I also read a lot and finally learnt the facts and myths about child sexual abuse.”
Her most cathartic experience, however, was when she broke her silence and told her family about the uncle who had molested her.
Amelia’s instincts as a child about her family’s inability to support her proved correct.
Instead of offering support and sympathy, her family chastised her.
“I was asked why I had to bring it up after so many years. They urged me not to talk about it as I would cause his family hurt and embarrassment.
“Some of them even implied that it was my fault because I let it go on. Some dismissed what I had to say, telling me that I wasn’t sexually abused – ‘it was a special relationship. There was no sex’,” she recalls.
Amelia’s family’s reaction is, unfortunately, the norm rather than the exception when victims do speak out.
Rape is the most under-reported of crimes, but it is kept even more under wraps when the perpetrators are family members.
Child development specialist and social worker Amy Bala says that many child sexual abuse cases go unreported because families don’t want the abuse to be exposed. Some victims have to approach people they trust outside their immediate family for help, like relatives or teachers.
Devaki*, 26, was sexually abused by her step brother when she was seven. When she told her mother, she was scolded and told to never speak of it again.
“She asked me if I was trying to cause trouble. I don’t know if she believed me or not but she refused to hear any more about it and didn’t punish my step brother. He continued to abuse me for two years and there was nothing I could do,” says Devaki.
“It’s about face saving, reputation. They – mostly the mothers – don’t want other family members or the community to know about the abuse. And if the victim is a very young child, the common response is that ‘she will forget about it’,” says Amy, the treasurer of the Malaysian Association of Social Workers who was with the Social Welfare Department for 32 years till she retired.
In most cases, preserving the family unit takes precedence over the victim’s welfare, especially when the perpetrator is the breadwinner.
Principal assistant director of the Sexual and Child Investigation department ACP Hamidah Yunus says victims of incest are seldom supported by their mothers, especially when the perpetrator is the father or brother.
Some of these women, she says, could (themselves) also be living in fear of the perpetrator who could also be abusing them. It is also often easier to blame the child than take on the perpetrator.
“They refuse to believe their daughter, and even blame her for bringing shame to the family and turning their father or brother into a criminal. In some cases, the victims are rejected by their families.
“One of our challenges in dealing with incest cases is where to place the victim. We cannot return her to her home if the perpetrator is still living there as she could be in danger,” says Hamidah.
The police would usually place the victim with an extended family member, or refer her to the Social Welfare department to be placed in a home.
Even with under-reporting, incest cases accounted for about 10% of rapes reported in Malaysia last year, with the main perpetrators being fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins. Of the 2,998 rape cases reported last year, 121 victims were 10-12 years old, 55 six to nine years old, and 26 were below six years old.
“The victims report their abuse only when they found it too unbearable, or to protect another family member who they believe is in danger of abuse. Sometimes the abuse is discovered only when the victims become pregnant,” adds Hamidah.
The revelation of sexual abuse puts tremendous strain on family relationships.
Even supportive families struggle with how to manage their divided loyalties towards the abuser and the victim. Tensions arise when family members have differing opinions on how to deal with the situation.
Mei Ling*, 37, remembers when the family first found out her cousin Cheryl had been sexually abused by a relative many years ago.
“At first, everyone was shocked. And then a few others also came forward with similar stories of being abused by the same person.
“Our parents told us to be quiet about it as the perpetrator was someone who was well regarded in society. So, although we (the cousins) all stood behind each other, we didn’t know what else to do. There is a lot of anger amongst us still but nothing has been resolved,” shares Mei Ling.
* Names of victims have been changed.