Hands Off! Know When It’s Not Okay To Be Touched. - Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka
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Hands Off! Know When It’s Not Okay To Be Touched.

Beware of people who approach you with the wrong intentions.

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We love our family members dearly, and for the most part, we’re pretty attached to them. So, it’s no wonder that we spend a great deal of time in their company. Parties, weddings and birthdays are some of the occasions that frequently bring everyone in the family together. However, being in such close proximity with (mainly) male persons can take a darker turn. Some relatives may not just perceive you as the blood relation you are, but also as a potential target for sexual exploitation.

Intra-familial sexual abuse has been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka for decades. However, due to a strict upbringing, cultural values and conservative mindsets of society, it’s often considered taboo to speak of it in public. Over the years, with more reported cases appearing in the media, it’s impossible to ignore this fast-growing issue. Whether it’s a daughter being molested by her father or a young boy being harassed by an uncle, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the matter at hand.

Ananya*, 36, shares her experiences at the hands of her uncle.

“I was about 24-years-old when I was first molested. My entire family used to come together at my grandmother’s house quite often, back in the day,” explains Ananya. “My uncles and male cousins would lift the girls onto their shoulders bridal-style for fun. On one such occasion, when an uncle tried to lift me, I felt him touch my chest from the side. I was so surprised by the contact that I slipped out of his grip immediately. My first thought was that it was a mistake and that he didn’t intend to touch me inappropriately. So, I let it go without thinking about it seriously. Later that same day, I was seated in the front hall of the house. My uncle came close and grabbed my chest. This time there was no mistaking his actions. Perhaps he assumed I wouldn’t complain since I made no fuss about being carried. I pushed his hand away and quickly got out of there in search of other people.

Some time after that incident, he came visiting with his family. I was in my bedroom, hiding out because I was reminded of what happened before. I was stitching and I recall one of his kids being with me in the room. He came inside and after watching me work for a while, slipped his hand under my skirt. I jumped out of my skin and gasped in horror. He rushed out of the room, probably as a result of my reaction. By this time, I’d decided I was going to tell someone what happened. I was terrified and angry that this was happening, and I honestly didn’t feel safe anymore, especially because our families are very close. But I never shared my story, until now. I vaguely recall that another incident took place, but I don’t remember the details. It’s like I’ve blocked it out of my mind.

I have often wondered why men like my uncle prey on girls like me when they have wives to satisfy their desires. I eventually figured that the people who act virtuous and appear to be the holiest are really the worst perverts of all. From then on, I never faced him dead on, I ignored his presence and never went to his house for years. He might have felt my hatred because he never approached me again. It’s only now that I talk to him briefly, yet, cautiously. I wish I had actually told someone about it because even today, I am terrified that I will fall prey to someone else. I held back from speaking up because I thought about his wife and children, and what they would have to go through if I made my issues public. But, ultimately, they live on in ignorant bliss while I suffer every day.”

Stories such as the aforementioned begets the question: Why do most victims hide cases of abuse, molestation or rape? Well, simply put, they fear the consequences of revealing their ordeals. After all, the likelihood of someone believing them is little to none, and on most occasions, the victim will be blamed and the culprit will get off scot free. This is primarily because most perpetrators are older family members who hold a revered position at home. As a result, the victim, will be ignored and accused of spreading false tales.

Warning Signs Of Abuse

It’s important to remember that age is no barrier when it comes to such incidents, and it’s not difficult to fall prey at any point of your life. While certain instances may be obvious, it’s quite easy to miss subtle hints unless you’re extremely close to the victim. Being subject to sexual abuse will, without a doubt, take both a mental and physical toll on the girl. So, to determine what to keep an eye on, we chatted with Clinical Psychologist, Ms Shalindi Pandithakoralage (MPhil), who shared her insights. If you’re concerned for the well-being of your friend, daughter or sister, look out for these warning signs.

Physical Indicators:

  • Unexplained genital injury.
  • Recurrent vulvovaginitis (inflammation or infection of the vulva and vagina.)
  • Vaginal or penile discharge.
  • Bedwetting and fecal soiling beyond the beyond the usual age.
  • Small complaints (pain, fissures, bleeding.)
  • Pain during urination.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Presence of a STI.
  • Presence of seminal fluid/sperm.
  • Pregnancy (below the age of consent.)

Behavioural Indicators:

These less obvious signs are usually missed or mistaken as just a ‘phase’, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

  • Regression in behaviour, school performance or attaining developmental milestones (functional skills or age-specific tasks that most children can do within a certain age range.) This means the youngster may behave in the manner of a child who is smaller in age (crying like a toddler or speaking in an infantile way, for example.) Their academic performance and capabilities may decline, as well.
  • Acute traumatic response such as clingy behaviour and irritability in young children.
  • Sleep disturbances (nightmares, night terrors and anxiousness when it is time to go to bed or suddenly becoming afraid of the dark.)
  • Eating disorders.
  • Social problems and issues at school.
  • Isolating themselves from others.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Sexualized behaviour such as kissing in a non-childlike sexual manner, fondling one’s own or another person’s breasts or genitals, masturbation, and rhythmic pelvic thrusting.

Tasha*, 25, shares her story:

The harassment started when I was 8-years-old when my family gathered for an occasion. My cousin was much older than me and was someone I really looked up to. He suggested that we all play a game where we were supposed to be hiding. One way or another, I ended up alone with him and he started touching me inappropriately. I hated it but, I was too scared to say anything, so I kept quiet and let it happen. He was confident that I wasn’t going to say anything so he kept at it. I was so scared and angry! I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know whom to turn to. This continued frequently over a long period of time. I’m not sure if anyone spotted any signs, but even if they did, nobody said anything out loud.

Our families were really close so we hung out at their place often. He’d always make up a stupid story about playing a game and ensure that the both of us ended up together. I’ve never revealed his name, and I didn’t take any action. So, ultimately, I just hated myself for being so weak and I cried myself to sleep every day. For the longest time, I was so scared someone would find out because I thought I was at fault.

At some point, I began avoiding going to his house. Every time I had to, I started making excuses. If I had no way of getting out of it, I stopped playing the games and avoided him as much as possible. I don’t know if he got the message since I also just stopped talking to him unless someone else was present. I’ve never told anyone else about this and I never went for any counselling. But afterwards, something just snapped inside me. I made an effort to change and went from being the shy introvert to a loud, boisterous tomboy. I had complete disregard for my appearance. I never wanted to look good because I didn’t want another guy to notice me. It was just a process of self-hate which I’m trying to slowly get out of.”

However minor or major the abuse may be, every person has the right to voice their concerns. After all, we all deserve to live a safe and happy life, without being victims of such terrible acts. Despite the stigma surrounding this subject, it is vital that we speak up and protect those who might be subject to abuse.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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