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He would hug her in front of her parents saying "she is my daughter." He tried to be very friendly with Neerja, would come to her room to chat with her and try and hug her, kiss her unnecessarily, and touch her inappropriately.
Trigger Warning: This deals with child sexual abuse and may be triggering for survivors.
I still remember that morning vividly when my dear friend Neerja called up begging me to come home and spend the afternoon with her.
This was about 35 years ago.
We had a study break to prepare for our 10th Board exams. I asked her if her parents were going out and she replied no. She just said that one of her dad’s seniors, Mr. Soni was in town and was coming over for lunch, and may stay with them for a day. As she will get bored, so she wanted me to come over.
I was a bit confused. Getting parents’ permission to spend a day with a friend during Board examination preparation was unimaginable. So, I asked her to come home but she said her parents wanted her to be home and meet Mr. Soni. I was quite perplexed with Neerja’s sudden request and the desperation in her voice. Told mom that I wanted to go over to Neerja and study with her. Mom agreed.
Neerja opened the door for me and the happiness and relief on her face on seeing me was unexplainable. She introduced me to Mr Soni, who seemed like a kind elderly gentleman, I met her parents and we went into her room. She hugged me and thanked me. She was a very different person that day-my extremely talkative, confident and vivacious friend was extremely nervous. I asked her the reason and what she told me took me some time to comprehend, and filled me with anger.
This Mr. Soni on his visit would often stay at Neerja’s place. He would hug her in front of her parents saying “she is my daughter.” He tried to be very friendly with Neerja, would come to her room to chat with her and try and hug her, kiss her unnecessarily, and touch her inappropriately.
She had tears in her eyes. I asked her why didn’t she tell her parents, and her reply was that they had so much of respect for him, and that Neerja’s father treated him as an older brother, and so they won’t believe her. She also wondered if there was something wrong in her behaviour that attracted this kind of reaction from Mr. Soni.
I had to convince her that nothing was wrong in her behaviour and remind her of all others who didn’t behave like this with her.
We kept thinking on how to address this problem. The first thing that came to my mind was to tell Neerja’s mom but we dismissed it. It seems Neerja had tried telling her mom once but she reacted by saying, “you are overthinking and he loves you like his own daughter.”
In the end we came up with a few ideas with our limited understanding of such situations and the ways to deal with it.
We decided three things-
Neerja felt that the possibility of this last thing happening was the least, as I was around today. But she was wrong.
We were sitting in Neerja’s room. She was at the study table doing maths and I was on the bed reading science. He walked into the room; asked me what I was studying, and without hearing my response went straight up to Neerja’s chair and put his arms around her neck and asked what was she studying.
Neerja froze. He continued chatting and Neerja replied in monosyllables, fidgeting to free herself. But he was persistent.
I too froze, I wanted to get up but my body seemed very heavy -I couldn’t lift myself up.
Then I heard Neerja say – “No uncle please” and I mustered strength and went up to the table. What I saw was appalling, his hands were touching her breast. Before he could go any further, I screamed Nooo-at that moment I felt this was happening to me. Hearing my no, Neerja got the strength to push him away and stand up. She looked at him and said “don’t touch me; I don’t like it!”
He continued smiling and tried to hold her. I said, “I am calling Uncle and Auntie.”
Mr. Soni’s expressions suddenly changed. He pretended as though he was in a trance, turned around, and went out of the room as though we didn’t exist and nothing had happened. Neerja and I hugged each other and cried.
He didn’t come to Neerja’s room for rest of the day. In the evening Neerja came to my house for a sleepover. We couldn’t sleep, and decided to talk to her mom. We didn’t know how and what to tell her so we discussed many ways of doing it. In the end we agreed that after he goes, I will go with Neerja and we will bring up the topic of this Mr. Soni somehow, and talk about how his look and touch seemed uncomfortable, and then Neerja will start narrating her experience.
We did exactly as planned. Auntie heard us out but didn’t react. She just said that next time onwards she will be more vigilant, and not leave Neerja alone when he is around. She asked us not to discuss this with anyone else. There wasn’t any other reaction of comforting Neerja or feeling upset with Mr. Soni. But we were at peace that we had informed Auntie and in future Neerja will not be left alone with him.
Till today, when I think of this whole thing, I get goose pimples and a very uncomfortable feeling.
I wonder now if what we did that day was the right thing or did, we put ourselves at risk. Were we simply lucky and our plan worked in that situation? Maybe we should have removed ourselves from that situation and shared this with a trusted adult that very day.
Also, Neerja’s mom was beyond our understanding – was she in denial or was she worried about what if people come to know? I think she was thinking of what people would say as in most cases of abuse. Discussion on abuse should happen between parents and children. The importance of open communication in a family is so very crucial to deal with abuse.
Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month [CSAAM] is about taking back our power, our lives, even if it is years after it has happened. It’s a violence that preys on the fact that a child is vulnerable to both – the abuse itself, and to the guilt a predator burdens them with, effectively silencing the survivor. Add to that the fact that in majority of cases, the predator is someone the child knows socially, possibly in family, and who takes advantage of that fact.
We need to take this power away from these predators, and reclaim it by speaking up.
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Anjali has worked in the development sector for over two decades. She has worked on issues like prevention of child marriages, adolescent health and rights and life skills education for young people. read more...
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