What goes on behind closed doors


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Category: Relationships Date: 26 Jun 97

She feels trapped. She is like a tiny creature which will bolt at the slightest threat. The door has to be left open. She is 12 years old, with two fat plaits on either side of her smooth oval face. She likes to play cricket, Scrabble, Monopoly and read Nancy Drew mysteries.

She is not here to play.


The afternoon light transforms the cramped room to warm gold then fades to gray. The air-conditioner is loud as she lets her secrets out. Ana is not her real name.


Social Worker: Do you know why you are here?

Ana: To talk about what happened to me.

Social Worker: What happened to you?

Ana: I was sexually abused by my father.

Social Worker: How old were you when it started.

Ana: Nine years.

Social Worker: What did he do?

Ana: He raped me. When I screamed he held me down and continued.

Social Worker: And what did you do afterwards?

Ana: I went into the bathroom and cried and then I took a shower.

Social Worker: Does he still do this to you?

Ana: Mostly when my mother goes to the market, like on Wednesdays and Sundays. I tell him to get off me, to leave me alone but he does not listen. Sometimes he does it over and over again.

Social Worker: Why didn’t you tell your Mummy about this earlier?

Ana: I was afraid to tell her because he told me if I did I would get licks very badly.

Social Worker: How do you feel towards your father.

Ana: I hate him.


Then another very slight waif-like girl was ushered in. The social worker had to walk in front of her because she feels threatened if you walk behind her. Her eyes dart around the room, at me, at the tape-recorder, at the social worker. I reach across to shake her hand. She is almost shouting. “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.” Then hunches into herself.


She is 16, but there was no adolescent confidence, or aura of arrogance which would drive parents crazy, no flirtatious affected gestures which rejoiced in her slender beauty. She alternates between looking like a wary, infinitely sad, fully grown woman and a very small child. She is Sita (not her real name).


Social Worker: Why are you here?

Sita: Because of my problems with my father.

Social Worker: What did he do to you?

Sita: He raped me.

Social Worker: How old were you then?

Sita: Maybe when I was a baby, but ever since I can remember he raped me. It’s still going on.

Social Worker: When were you old enough to realise that what he was doing was wrong?

Sita: I always knew it was wrong - I would feel sick and vomit afterwards.

Social Worker: Did you tell your mother?

Sita: No.

Social Worker: Why not?

Sita: Daddy warned me if I said anything to anybody he would kill me, my mother, my brothers - all of us. I was scared and thought she would not believe me. She is scared too. Daddy beats Mummy. Sometimes he beats me and my brothers too. I did not want to put pressure on her.

Social Worker: Why does your mother stay with him?

Sita: I don’t know - because she is scared maybe.

Social Worker: When he is doing these things to you what do you think about?

Sita: Terrible things - like killing him.

Ana looks at Sita and fleetingly on their faces I see relief. Their secrets are out. They can be children again.


After Ana and Sita leave I ask the social worker if she counsels perpetrators of incest. “I talk to them, but sometimes I feel it is hopeless because they always try to justify whatever they do.

“The father of a two-year-old child and a 10-month-old baby said to me he was only ‘experimenting’, that he ‘did not mean to hurt his daughter’. I said, ‘but she is bruised up’ and he said he did not see anything so wrong. Didn’t I know that men experiment, that they are hunters and women nurturers by nature?

“A pastor said, ‘Why are you saying to me it is a sin to use my own flesh? From the time of Joshua fathers used their daughters so why are you now saying to me I have wronged my daughter?’”


A knock on the door. It was Sita. She had come back, was breathless, harassed. Was I sure I wouldn’t let anyone else hear the tape? That I would not reveal her name? Yes, yes I assured her. Child abuse thrives on secrecy and it is this secrecy that transfers shame onto the victim, I thought. After she leaves the social worker talks.

“A five-year-old child lifted her dress to show me what Daddy did and Daddy cried and Mummy wiped his tears saying he will not do it again. But the children are damaged for life. A six-year-old draws Mummy and Daddy and then herself without hands and legs. Just a head and torso.

“They are as old as 22, and all of them are destroyed psychologically for life. Like this university student. Her father had been ‘using’ (after a while the euphemism came out, blocking reality) her for years and when he heard she had a boyfriend he beat her senseless and marked up her legs with a bamboo whip. One former victim of incest was accused of murdering her baby. She suffocated the newborn by holding her very tightly at night because she ‘did not want her husband to do the baby what her father did to her.’ She told the magistrate., ‘This is a hurt I cannot get rid of. The only way to get rid of the hurt is to die’.”


Incest makes children want to kill, says the social worker.

“A 14-year-old told me she was going to kill her father. Stab him while he was sleeping with broken glass. Another little girl (six) said to me, ‘You all are not helping. Nobody is helping’. Something told me to look in her school bag and she had an enormous sharp knife in it and some sleeping tablets.”


Do these parents face economic problems? The social worker maintains, “A lot of people think that the low-income group inflicts hurt, but sexual abuse goes across the board. Many children going to prestige schools can tell you that. Men sit and cry after they are reported to the police saying, ‘We did not think it’s wrong - we just slapped her. My father used to do it to me and it was not wrong.’ But struggling single mothers do beat their children - take their frustrations out on them.”


The 1996 Annual Report of the Rape Crisis Centre states that social workers counselled a total of 188 cases, among them 10 males. Of these 45 were victims of incest and 14 were child sexual abuse cases. The others were victims of domestic violence, attempted rape, family problems, buggery and personal problems. The report concludes that the numbers are doubling and existing services cannot cope. The Rape Crisis Centre is one sanctuary - there are about a dozen such centres throughout the country and they are all heaving with urgent cases of children who need counselling. The social worker says hundreds of children in this country are sexually, verbally and physically abused behind closed doors.


The way out of this quiet hell is long term and the mantra does not change. It’s a cycle that can only be broken if both parents take responsibility for their children, if they find ways other than taking advantage of a helpless child to empower themselves.


Somebody once said a truly civilised society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Here’s what the girls said before the doors closed on them again.


Sita thinks, “Fathers should not molest, nor beat, just be there for their girl children when they have problems and love them as a daughter.”


Little Ana with the two fat pigtails and baby face takes courage, joins in, “If fathers really loved their daughters they would not do things to hurt them.”


Their words dwindle. Even as they speak, their soft scared voices and sad eyes render them powerless and their plea rings ineffectual.


Perhaps history will reveal we are not so civilised after all.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur