Mumbai: In the middle of making her first short film ‘The Candy Man’, which deals with child sexual abuse, Insia Dariwala decided to change the protagonist from a young girl to a boy.

“My journey has always been to produce work which uncovers aspects of society that people may not be aware of; these may be social issues, certain diseases or human drama and relationships,” Dariwala, a film-maker and social activist, told IndiaSpend.

Child sexual abuse is a topic rarely discussed among conservative Indian society, and male child sexual abuse is an even more taboo issue.

As many as 53% children have faced one or more forms of sexual abuse, according to a 2007 survey by the ministry of women and child development of 12,447 children. In nine out of the 13 states surveyed, a higher percentage of sexual abuse was reported among boys than girls.

While the rape of women and girl children in India has made headlines around the world, dominated the national conversation and led to the introduction of harsher penalties and the death penalty for child rape, the reality of men as rape victims and other forms of sexual abuse has not shared the same spotlight.

Dariwala won best director awards in India and was nominated at the New York Short Film Festival & Barcelona International Film Festival for ‘The Candy Man’. Later, she started the Hands of Hope Foundation, a non government organisation (NGO) based in Mumbai which focuses on sexual violence, and released a second film on rape, ‘The Cock-Tale’.

Dariwala is also the co-founder of Sahiyo, an organisation that empowers Dawoodi Bohra and other communities to end female genital cutting.

Her recent photo-series has been profiling male victims of child sexual abuse, encouraging survivors to speak out about their ordeals and combat stigma surrounding the issue.

“This project has been instrumental at making changes at the government level,” Dariwala said. “I didn’t expect it to make ripples where it actually mattered. We need to talk about males, and this is putting a face to their voice. We’ve never really seen a man talk about child sex abuse earlier.”

Last year, Dariwala started a petition requesting Maneka Gandhi, union minister for women & child development, to order an in-depth study on male child sexual abuse in India. In April 2018, Maneka Gandhi replied and Dariwala has now been asked to lead the study.

In an e-mail interview, Dariwala spoke about the taboo issue of child sex abuse, the disproportionate pressures faced by boys in a society that highly praises masculine prowess and ending the stigma.

Edited excerpts:

You have campaigned online to #EndTheIsolation for boys who have experienced sexual abuse, saying that societal norms expect boys to be ‘tougher’ and ‘more able to cope’. What will help society at large to face up to this reality and end the minimisation of male victims?

You see, the biggest barrier that needs to be addressed in fighting male child sexual abuse is the deep-rooted and patriarchal society we live in. It’s ironic that patriarchy also affects men. Boys are groomed to become protectors at a very young age. How then can a protector be vulnerable or weak? How can he be raped? That’s the denial that society would like to live in.

The day we shed this belief, we will be forced to also look at the vulnerability of men and that could damage the macho image which society works so hard at building and maintaining.

Sadly, society has not provided a system where a boy is allowed to be vulnerable as a child. The deep-seated patriarchal seed, watered by women over generations, is a very big reason why men can only be seen in roles as protectors, never a victim. They can hurt, but never be hurt.

It is these beliefs that keep parents away from reporting their boy’s abuse. Even if it ever goes that far, it’s an uphill task to convince the authorities that a boy too could get raped, molested, abused.

Why just boys? Even girls, for that matter, find it difficult to come out with their abuse. The difference here is while on one hand, a girl’s sexual abuse is scorned, and looked at as a serious crime, most men are pressured by society to pass off their sexual abuse as a rite of passage.

So, first and foremost, it is imperative to start undoing that conditioning. It is this conditioning that has taken an issue like child sexual abuse and made it a boy/girl issue--when in reality it is a children’s issue.

Once the issue is viewed without any bias, we might start looking at the reality with empathy and compassion.

Hopefully, we can participate collectively to eradicate child sexual abuse at its onset, and not wait for something drastic to happen so that justice can be served.

As a result of your petition, the ministry for women and child development asked you to lead an in-depth study on male child sexual abuse in India, supported by Justice and Care, an NGO. This comes 10 years after the last study on child sexual abuse (and will be the first to look at males specifically). In your experience, do you believe things have been steadily improving since the last study? Do you feel that media coverage of these crimes has brought more attention to the issue?

No. I don't think things have improved. The incidents of rape and sexual assault on women and children have surely increased since 2007. As per National Crime Records Bureau, the incidences of minors getting raped in the country has been on the rise since the past six years. While 5,045 cases were reported in 2007, the figure touched 8,541 in 2012.

Media has played a very important role in highlighting these incidents, and subsequently brought more attention to the issue. For instance, had it not been for Mirror Now's live coverage and other newspapers/media channels carrying my campaign, the issue of male child sexual abuse would never have got so much attention. I am actually grateful to the media for constantly supporting the fight against sexual violence on women and children.

As many as 39 crimes against women were reported every hour in India, up from 21 in 2007, according to the 2016 report by the National Crime Records Bureau. You have said before that unaddressed abuse of male children could be one of the main breeding grounds of violence and sexual crimes in adult men. Could you tell us more about the relationship and how it develops?

I am no expert on social science and neither am I a psychologist to give an expert comment. However, in my experience, while working with survivors, I have met boys who have displayed a lot of rage because of the abuse. It was these encounters that led me to believe there might be a relationship between the two.

To get a little perspective on this, I conducted an online sample study with 160 male respondents who were sexually abused; 7% of 160 respondents admitted to have harboured feelings of extreme rage and anger along with thoughts of hurting others.

Once the larger study, which I am due to lead with Justice and Care, is conducted and the data are analysed by the relevant experts, it will give us a better idea on the issue.

Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code was recently amended to include harsher penalties for those convicted of rape and included the introduction of the death penalty for child rape. What are your views on these amendments succeeding as a deterrent to sexual abuse?

I personally am not in favour of the death penalty for child rapes or any rape for that matter. Death penalty will kill the criminal, not the crime. Besides, such knee-jerk reactions from the government are actually detrimental to rape victims. The perpetrators might now not want to leave any evidence behind. We might see an increase in murders of the victims now.

It is important to use the perpetrators in getting to the crux of why they rape. What is the mindset that leads them to rape? If we can use rapists as case studies to determine the genesis of rapes on minors and women, I think we might just be able to get some leads on how to tackle this Herculean problem in our society today. I would personally like to conduct a study on rapists, and hope the government allows me access to them.

In 94% of rape cases reported in 2016, victims knew their attacker, according to government data. How can we support those abused by family members/caretakers/friends etc. to report their experiences and handle potential stigma and negative responses from the family?

Firstly, it’s important to understand who is the ‘We’? It’s all of us, you, me and the 1.5 billion out there. Our society needs to be re-hauled, and given a complete makeover.

Yes, it is true that most cases of child sexual abuse happen within the circle of trust. Hence, the first thing we need to do is BELIEVE. When abuse happens within families, the victim is often not trusted, ridiculed, and even accused of seeking attention. How then will any child come out and share their story?

Today, what we need is for people to acknowledge that incest is very much prevalent in families, and that it needs to be confronted, irrespective of who the perpetrator is. There are many times when the perpetrator could be the father, an uncle, a brother, a cousin, and the child is then asked to either hide the abuse, or if it gets reported, the family withdraws support.

The challenge is to create a proper social structure so that the abuse can be successfully addressed by all stakeholders. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that. Factors like the socio-economic set-ups in homes where most men are the bread earners, incompetent police and lack of proper training in the medical facilities who handle child sexual abuse, all play a very important role in delaying the necessary intervention to the survivor and providing justice to him/her.

Both you and your husband have spoken publicly about your own experiences with child abuse, and that it was only later in life that you were able to come to terms with what happened. What are the long-term psychological effects of internalising these experiences?

I cannot speak for the world, but where I am concerned, it’s only 10 years ago that I actually started seeing a pattern of re-victimisation happening in my life. This is often a common trait in survivors of sexual abuse. You tend to recreate the same exact scenarios which gave you pain because somewhere deep inside you don’t believe you deserve to be happy.

There is a shame and guilt attached to the abuse, which instead of passing onto the perpetrators, is passed on to you.

I think a very big reason for me to come out with my abuse was to tell myself and the world that it was never my fault.

My campaign ‘End The Isolation’ is also about encouraging survivors to step out of the misplaced guilt and shame.

You also run the NGO Sahiyo which works to reduce the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), particularly among the Dawoodi Bohra community. What are the challenges involved when trying to change a community’s practices and effectively communicate that these actions are a form of child abuse?

You see, the issue of tackling FGC in India is quite difficult because of the fact that its foundation is deeply rooted in religion. Anything carried out in the name of religion poses bigger hurdles because you are questioning age-old, archaic beliefs, which no one has ever before dared to question.

Sahiyo's approach to eliminating FGC is quite unique in the sense that we do not alienate the community, but use education and engagement to discuss the repercussions of FGC on their children.

No matter what method is employed to carry out the cut, I strongly feel that this practice is just another form of child abuse. Hence, any rite of passage, tradition or practice, religious or otherwise, if it causes physical or mental trauma to an innocent child, should definitely be abolished.

Our biggest challenge, to date though, has come from women themselves who want this tradition to continue. That in my opinion is quite unfortunate. Especially, since the argument is that those who oppose khatna (female genital cutting) believe they are actually opposing the diktats of the religious head and the religion--that is absolutely not true.

Instead, for the past five years, we have constantly tried to engage with the religious head to communicate with him and have him understand the reason for us wanting to end this practice. We have also invited people who oppose us, to meet and have dialogues so that we understand each other better. None of that has worked.

Today, there are forums formed to oppose Sahiyo. My colleagues and I have been at the receiving end of constant cyber attacks, trolling; our families and personal preferences are questioned, and I have also experienced on-ground confrontation and veiled threats to stop what we are doing.

In fact, last Ramzan, I was asked to stay away from visiting my relatives for fear of getting beaten up. Thankfully, I don't get deterred easily. I actually find all these tactics quite amusing at times.

Truth needs no defence, and yet there is an army being trained to defend this practice. Why? If FGC is really something which Allah wanted, wouldn't girls be then born without a clitoris?

(Sanghera, a graduate of King’s College London, is an intern with IndiaSpend.)

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