By: Farzana Nisar
It was a balmy afternoon, the sun shone through the veil of clouds, casting a diffused glow across the fields of Shopian. But for eleven-year-old Farah*(name changed), it was just another day, as she made her way to tuition classes. With her school bag slung over her shoulder, the little girl, brimming with jolliness, looked forward to learning from a teacher whom both she and her family deeply respected. However, unbeknownst to them, hidden beneath his respected facade, lurked the true nature of a beast.
In a harrowing twist of events on that day, Farah found herself alone with the teacher inside the house, who seized the opportunity to molest and sexually assault her. Seven years later, in October 2022, a court in south Kashmir’s Shopian district convicted him for rape of the minor girl.and awarded 20 years jail sentence and imposed a Rs 10 lakh fine on the accused.
This case was one of the few reported instances back in 2015, but now there are hundreds of child sexual assault cases reported each year. In three separate incidents of minor assault recorded across Srinagar and Baramulla districts on 15th of this month, three minor girls and a minor boy were sexually molested in a span of just over 24 hours. All the three accused were men, including a 42-year-old Arabic teacher and a 48-year-old relative.
These rising incidents of minor sexual assaults have opened up a dialogue about the grim realities in Kashmir, drawing attention to issues that had long been ignored or swept under the rug. While discussing the enormity of these cases, Mir Nadiya, the founder of “Not Afraid”, a non-profitable organisation that works on child sexual abuse in Kashmir, said, “more and more victims are coming forward to report the abuse. This can be a result of growing awareness, however, this also indicates the pervasive nature of the problem and the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address it.”
Nadiya along with her team raise awareness against child sexual abuse by doing door-to-door campaigns and awareness camps in educational institutions and Aanganwadi centres where they encourage the children and their mothers to report such incidents. They have formulated a booklet that has all the necessary information to help kids identify and respond to such incidents appropriately.
Nadiya’s close collaboration with the victims of child sexual abuse allows her to gain firsthand knowledge of the on-the-ground reality in Kashmir. She said that the most harrowing case that she has witnessed is that of a girl who was sexually harassed by her own father. “The girl now lives at her maternal home. Things have been extremely challenging for her, as her father was released after two years on compensation because his wife and other two children had no support,” Nadiya said.
“She hardly leaves the home, fearing that people might recognise her. Her brother doesn’t talk to her, as he believes she is the one responsible for breaking their family,” she said, adding that the most concerning part is that her mother insists on her returning home, with no idea of the profound impact the incident has had on her daughter’s life.
Nadiya said that living with their abusers can be incredibly challenging and distressing for victims. “The abuser is always someone known to the victim. It can take them a long time before they actually speak up and get out of the cycle of abuse, but once they do we make sure that the necessary support and assistance is provided to them in the most appropriate manner.”
The surging numbers
Since January 2018, when the central government’s Child Protection Scheme was extended to Jammu and Kashmir, and after the region enacted its own POSCO Act in December 2018 in response to public outrage over the heinous gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua, there has been a noticeable increase in the reporting of child sexual abuse cases. Following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir POSCO Act was repealed and substituted with the POSCO (Amendment) Act, 2019. The amended act defines a child as someone under the age of 18 and aims to protect children from various offenses, including sexual assault, harassment, pornography, and related crimes.
The year-wise National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports reveal that the number of registered cases of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) in Jammu and Kashmir has shown an increase over the years. In 2018, there were 32 registered POSCO cases in the region. This number rose to 109 in 2019. In 2020, 200 cases were registered, and in 2021, the number further increased to 295.
Official records indicate that Jammu and Kashmir witnessed an increase in the number of child sexual abuse cases in 2022, with a total of 278 reported incidents. Unfortunately, only 72 of these cases were resolved, indicating a delay in providing justice to the victims despite the increasing prevalence of these crimes. As of December 31, 2022, there were 859 pending POCSO cases in the designated courts of the region.
The trauma lives
“I grew up hating myself,” said Saima* (name changed), 26, who was abused by a close relative when she was only 13. She has struggled for years and is yet to come to grips with the trauma she had experienced in her childhood.
“I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and I get flashbacks of the fateful day,” Saima said, adding that she has developed major trust issues and is reluctant to marry. “I cannot travel in public transport. Even an unintentional touch by any male gives me anxiety.”
Waseem Kakroo, a mental health counselor based in Kashmir said that trauma from childhood sexual abuse can persist into adulthood, leading to various mental and emotional challenges. “Victims often experience feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. They may struggle with trust, intimacy, and forming healthy relationships. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors are common consequences,” he said.
He added that the trauma can disrupt their daily functioning and quality of life. “Effective therapeutic interventions, such as trauma-focused therapy, EMDR, ACT etc can play a crucial role in helping survivors heal and rebuild their lives.”
Trust your kids
Despite the increase in the reporting of child sexual abuse cases in Jammu and Kashmir, the taboo surrounding the topic and the lack of understanding among families further contribute to the challenges in addressing these cases. According to Nadiya, she has received calls from girls who reach out for assistance after experiencing sexual abuse, all while keeping it a secret from their families. “They fear that the families will never understand them, in fact there have been many cases where the parents refused to believe their children,” she said.
“It becomes even more challenging in the case of boys, as societal beliefs often make it difficult for people to acknowledge that males can be victims of abuse, including abuse perpetrated from other males.”
The activist underscored the role of families in addressing and preventing cases of child sexual abuse. Most of the times the abusers threaten the victim, compelling them to remain silent about the incident, and it is of utmost importance for parents to actively listen to their children, respect their wishes regarding interactions with others, and provide unwavering support when it comes to addressing abuse cases.
In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in schools in Kashmir towards educating students about the concepts of good touch and bad touch, a change that was not as prevalent in the past. Recognizing the importance of preventing child sexual abuse, educational institutions are incorporating age-appropriate programs that aim to empower children with awareness on the subject. “We educate them about the concepts of appropriate and inappropriate touch and we emphasize the importance of speaking up and confiding in trusted adults if they experience any form of discomfort,” Safeena Rather, a primary school teacher in Anantnag said.