By Aamina Hamid
The increasing trend in registered POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) cases in Jammu and Kashmir, as reported by the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau), is both sad and alarming.The numbers have risen significantly over the years, with 32 cases in 2018, 109 in 2019, 200 in 2020, and a concerning 295 cases in 2021. This trend highlights the urgent need for measures to protect children from sexual offences and to address the underlying issues contributing to this rise in cases.
As survivors come forth with their stories, we realise how Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a profound mental health challenge that continues to haunt them throughout their lives, manifesting in various forms. CSA has been linked to numerous mental health issues, including higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems, and relationship problems. Among these, depression stands out as one of the most prevalent long-term symptoms experienced by survivors. There has been a significant surge in psychiatric morbidity, particularly depression, with a prevalence rate of 55.72%. The highest prevalence is observed in the 15 to 25 years age group at 66.67%, followed closely by the 26 to 35 years age group at 65.33%.
Depression in CSA survivors od Kashmir often presents as persistent feelings of sadness, frequent thoughts of suicide, disrupted sleep patterns, and disordered eating habits. Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-reproach which are common among them are really difficult to deal with. They tend to place blame on themselves for the abuse they endured. This self-blame can be particularly challenging to overcome, especially when the perpetrator is a trusted adult figure.
Mental well-being can be affected by displacement due to armed conflict, family stress, and economic hardship, with many people in Kashmir experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.The situation in Kashmir can be summarized as a “low-intensity conflict,” marked by a cycle of events involving torture, disappearances, displacement, killings, and ballistic trauma, alongside a prevailing state of emotional distress characterized by grief, insecurity, oppression, poverty, and uncertainties in career and relationships.The stress experienced by parents in these tumultuous situations can sometimes lead to child abuse in various forms, as noted by Dar and Deb (2020a, 2020b). A pioneering study conducted in Kashmir, the first of its kind in the region, examines the prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at the community level, based on young adults’ childhood experiences across all ten Kashmir districts. On average, young adults reported 4.72 adverse events during childhood (5.28 for males and 3.56 for females) in Kashmir. The study by Dar and Deb found that 19.5 % of the respondents experienced sexual abuse. These results could be because of high social contact in males compared to females. For instance, males tend to socialize more with peers from an early age, making them more susceptible to contact sexual abuse compared to females, who typically stay within their homes. Additionally, females often choose to keep instances of abuse, especially sexual abuse, hidden, as it can tarnish their reputation and hinder their prospects of marriage in the future. The lower disclosure rate of sexual abuse in females may be due to the taboo and honour of females in Kashmiri societies, where the expression of such experiences is considered immoral. There is a hush-hush culture in Kashmir regarding sex and even more so, sexual abuse. Due to this, the figures we get to see on paper are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sexually abused Kashmiri women may face an elevated risk of experiencing loneliness and are less inclined to seek assistance from their social support networks, aligning with reports that suggest survivors of sexual abuse often withdraw from social interactions.Through an inquisitive enquiry and research into the accounts of survivors, we have been able to see that the survivors of CSA often face significant hurdles in forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Due to this, many victims are unable to stay in healthy marriages or even get married in the first place. The psychological, as well as the physio-sexual implications of CSA trauma can be seen as one of the main reasons for the increasing divorce rate in Kashmir. Successful marital relationships hinge on proficient communication and conflict resolution abilities. Regrettably, the absence of these competencies significantly contributes to the deterioration of relationships within the Kashmiri context. The incapacity to articulate one’s needs, persistent unresolved disputes, and an overall breakdown in communication channels progressively erode the fundamental pillars of trust and comprehension, thereby rendering reconciliation a formidable challenge. The symptoms associated with CSA, such as trust issues, fear of intimacy, concerns about being perceived as different or abnormal, and difficulties in establishing personal boundaries, can hinder the development of healthy connections The trauma thus, finds its way into the personal lives of CSA victims, and their happiness, without any of it being their fault. It’s actually disturbing to see the obvious significant connection between CSA in women and subsequent victimization in adulthood.Kashmiri women encounter heightened challenges in coping and dealing with CSA due to the complex sociocultural dynamics of the region, which often stigmatize survivors and inhibit open discourse about such sensitive issues. The limited access to mental health resources and support exacerbates their difficulties in seeking help and recovery. To make it even more difficult, the protracted conflict in Kashmir further compounds these challenges by contributing to an environment of heightened stress and insecurity.
The emotional struggle is compounded by feelings of humiliation, powerlessness, shame, self-blame and guilt, often leading to cruelty, violence, destructive relationships, and addiction. A study done on CSA indicates that it is significantly associated with mood, substance use, and anxiety disorders in both genders. CSAwas linked to a heightened likelihood of becoming a heavy polysubstance user among girls, even after accounting for various factors like age, race/ethnicity, parental substance use, peer influence, psychopathology, and other forms of childhood maltreatment, including physical abuse and neglect. These findings underscore the elevated risk of multiple-substance use in adolescence for female CSA survivors engaged with public service systems.
Was It Me?
These factors collectively erode their self-worth and can even push them toward self-destructive or suicidal tendencies. In my understanding, it’s very crucial to recognize the nuanced differences between shame and guilt. Guilt typically emerges when we violate our values or behaviours, leading us to feel remorseful about something we’ve done or failed to do. On the other hand, shame goes deeper, making us feel inherently bad about who we are. Guilt-prone individuals often fear punishment for their actions, while those grappling with shame tend to fear abandonment. Individuals bound by shame tend to internalize it, resulting in a cycle of constant self-criticism, self-blame, and heightened sensitivity to criticism from others.After experiencing childhood abuse, survivors often grapple with trauma-bound shame. This form of shame can hinder healing and recovery, keeping them frozen and unable to forgive themselves or acknowledge their role in the abuse. Unfortunately, this shame complicates the psychological and spiritual healing process, alters their relationship with a higher power, and may deter them from seeking help due to the fear of exposure. Overcoming the debilitating grip of shame is pivotal in healing from childhood abuse. It can provide the necessary motivation, strength, and energy needed to confront other challenges along the path to recovery.
All is Not Lost
Shame, like a poison, has an antidote—compassion. Compassion is the remedy for shame, as all abuse is seen as a failure of compassion for oneself and others. It enables a survivor to understand their past behaviour and forgive themselves for any negative actions stemming from the abuse, whether it be substance abuse, self-harm, harming others, or breaking the law. When liberated from shame, the world becomes clearer. Instead of feeling isolated and inferior, survivors feel connected and equal as life seems to embrace them. The essence of self-compassion lies in treating ourselves with the same love, kindness, and support that we would expect from the most compassionate person in our lives. This approach to self-compassion has been extensively studied, revealing its positive impact on resilience. It can reduce post-traumatic symptoms such as self-criticism, depression, thought suppression, anxiety, and rumination. Self-compassion provides the vital nurturance, understanding, and validation necessary for victims to feel deserving of care. Without it, individuals tend to subject themselves to harsh self-judgment and acknowledging the pain of past abuse becomes even more challenging, hindering the healing process.
Another powerful tool for healing is mindfulness, which encourages individuals to grieve and cope with their experiences. It’s about consciously being aware and simply observing the current experiences without attempting to change or control them. It fosters a less reactive relationship with our inner experiences. Importantly, acceptance in this context isn’t synonymous with resignation or powerlessness; rather, it’s a deliberate choice to embrace our sensations, feelings, and thoughts as they are. This practice of acceptance opens the door to natural change, without trying to manipulate or evade our experiences and helps survivors steer clear of becoming ensnared in hopes, fears, or regrets about what’s already transpired or what lies ahead. When combined, mindfulness and self-compassion can be transformative, altering the relationship with the painful thoughts and emotions stemming from abuse. Instead of fighting or evading these feelings, survivors can courageously “lean in” to them with open eyes and a compassionate heart. This approach can help us confront these emotions and reshape our connection with them, ultimately fostering healing and growth.
In Kashmir, cultural aspects likely contribute to the positive association between social support and mental health. Additionally, participants with hopefulness showed better mental health, suggesting it helps them cope with stress and pursue personal growth. This positivity in Kashmiri youth may stem from personal resources and a community environment that encourages optimism.
To improve the mental health of Kashmiri youth exposed to childhood and conflict trauma, enhancing social support and nurturing hope are crucial. Community and institution-based programs can bolster protective factors and reduce the impact of risk factors in this challenging environment. ACEs and conflict exposure were identified as mental health risk factors, while social support and hope emerged as protective factors, highlighting the importance of these elements in mental health promotion and disorder prevention. Mental health professionals can use this knowledge to provide resources, knowledge, and skills to promote mental well-being among Kashmiri youth.
Survivors of all kinds of abuse, including CSA can cope better through unapologetic self-expression like that achieved from writing poems, whether figurative(indirect) or literal (direct) about the otherwise hushed experiences. Even reading poems that feel relatable and representaive of the clusters of negative feelings that come with CSA, can be helpful as victims won’t feel different isolated.The use of poetry in the treatment of sexually abused children has gained attention in literature lately. Research by Mazza, Magaz, and Scaturro (1987) suggests that poetry can be a valuable tool in both individual and group therapy for abused children. Their findings indicate that using poetry in therapy shows promise as an ego-supportive technique that enables self-expression and promotes feelings of validation and control. In group therapy settings, poetry can contribute to cohesion among participants, create a sense of universality in their experiences, and facilitate self-expression. Poetry serves as a unique window into the world of the abused child, allowing therapists to track their recovery progress. Moreover, it empowers abused children to find their voice, transforming their world and enabling them to express their experiences in a meaningful way through their poetry. This creative outlet allows children to describe certain aspects of child abuse and neglect, providing a means of catharsis and healing.
A poem titled ‘Memories’ by Brynn Rose gives us an inside view into the existence of a CSA victim, striving to become a survivor. The path is strewn with obstacles but there is so much hope and will to expend, for us all to keep walking with our heads held high.
The memories pull her down,
Like the undertow.
She tries to fight it,
But it’s of no use.
She feels dirty, fat, victimized, defiled,
Extorted, broken, and ugly.
She can feel their hands on her
The unwelcome touches and gestures.
She feels small, defenseless, vulnerable, violated.
Their taunts, threats, lies, and commands fill her ears.
She covers herself with multiple layers of clothing,
But no matter how many she has on
She can still feel them.
She covers her ears,
But no matter how hard she presses her hands
She can still hear them.
She relives it all
Every day and every night.
She’s terrified to sleep.
Terrified to live.
The nightmares are relentless.
The flashbacks, torture.
When will it stop?
When will it end?
Will it ever be over?
The memories escape from her eyes
And stream down her face.
She tries to stuff the memories
Back into their closets
And the demons back into the abyss
That some would call her soul.
But she’s too tired,
She shuts her eyes
And locks them tight,
Like the door to a prison cell.
She crawls to the darkest corner of her mind,
Curls up in a ball,
For it all to be over. Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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