ANUJA GUPTA

India,

Anuja Gupta is providing middle- and upper-middle class women survivors of sexual child abuse with a forum for opening up about their experiences and reaching beyond the pain and trauma they have lived with for years. In doing so, Anuja is breaking the silence surrounding sexual child abuse and preventing future abuse of children.

This profile below was prepared when Anuja Gupta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

Anuja Gupta is providing middle- and upper-middle class women survivors of sexual child abuse with a forum for opening up about their experiences and reaching beyond the pain and trauma they have lived with for years. In doing so, Anuja is breaking the silence surrounding sexual child abuse and preventing future abuse of children.




THE NEW IDEA

Anuja is identifying women who were sexually abused as children and helping them begin the process of healing and recovery. Individually and in groups, the women in her program rebuild their identities, develop trusting relationships with peers, and learn about their rights as women and as human beings. In addition, Anuja is enabling the participants in her program to prevent further abuse in their own families and extended families, thus breaking the generational cycle of abuse and dramatically changing the circumstances in which thousands of girls grow up. Anuja hopes that her outreach and awareness efforts will bring to the urgent attention of the Indian public this critical, preventable problem and set in motion effective solutions to protect children.




THE PROBLEM

Middle- and upper-middle Indian families' prevailing views on gender, sexuality, and family prevent children, and especially girls, from speaking to anyone about the abuse they may be suffering at the hands of an adult, even a family member. A girl's or woman's virginity is considered to be of utmost importance. Sexuality is not discussed. Elders are revered and respected. The family unit is held sacred. For these and other reasons, girls are unlikely to confide in anyone about the abuse they may be experiencing; instead, they internalize shame and self-doubt and suffer in silence, often trapped inside their homes with the very adults who are abusing them.

Reliable statistics conveying the scope of the problem are difficult to obtain. A Delhi-based nonprofit organization that recently surveyed 348 female students (from upper- and middle-class families) found that nearly half reported that they had been molested. Fifteen percent–31 percent of whom were age 10 or younger–reported that they had experienced serious forms of sexual abuse, including rape. These traumatic experiences follow girls into adulthood, often having far-reaching impact on their sense of identity, sexuality, relationships, parenting, and work life. Tragically, women who were abused as children are less likely to protect their own daughters from abuse, as they feel powerless to break its cycle.

With respect to child abuse, Indian law is still in an infant stage, in part because public pressure is not present to drive reform. A majority of sexual offenses committed against children are not even reported, let alone prosecuted. If an individual is brought to trial, conviction is unlikely, as cases are difficult to prove. Moreover, sexual abuse cases are usually tried in criminal courts where defense counselors' tactics include postponements or adjournments and cross-examinations that often confuse and discredit the child involved. As a result, such offenses go unreported, and even if they are reported, lengthy and cumbersome court procedures give offenders enough time to pressure the child into retracting their accusation. As a general rule, the courts insist on corroboration of the victim's evidence. But sexual abuse occurs behind closed doors, and it is almost impossible to find an independent witness to such an act.




THE STRATEGY

Anuja first identifies adult women who have suffered sexual child abuse. She meets young women at colleges, and older women through ladies' clubs and corporate wives' clubs. As abuse is a difficult, uncomfortable issue to introduce, Anuja has learned to approach audiences in a nonthreatening manner, assuring the audience that there is someone they can come to when they are ready to deal with the memories and suppressed feelings. She has found that a useful approach with mothers is to open the conversation with a discussion of child protection–an issue that is of grave concern to all mothers–and then bring the discussion to their own experiences as children.

After initial informal conversations, some women make the important next step of starting their journey of openness and healing and come to terms with their own abuse. Anuja provides a safe and confidential space for women to share their experiences and feelings with knowledgeable, concerned individuals. For new members of her group, she provides educational groups based on information exchange and discussion. For those who are ready to share their experiences with other survivors, support groups are established.

Workshops on incest and sexual abuse are designed to meet the needs of the participants, who can be abuse survivors, students, and other groups of interested adults, both women and men. Anuja has found that drama, if used appropriately, can be a powerful form of therapy; hence, she has recruited a psychodrama specialist to conduct workshops. Female incest-survivors came forth to participate, breaking years of silence and secrecy. In collaboration with Boston University and the Boston Trauma Center, Anuja is organizing the first trauma conference and training workshop in India.

Especially when dealing with an issue as sensitive as sexual child abuse, counselors must be trained in effective, sensitive techniques for working with women who are, for the first time, dealing with their own history of abuse. Anuja encourages counselors to integrate the strategies they find effective in dealing with incest into their existing work. This leads to prevention and healing in the respective communities they work with.

Anuja is reaching out to women beyond her immediate geographic area by encouraging and enabling women to start support and awareness groups in their own communities. The young adult program helps the women present, it is also a step toward preventing sexual child abuse in future generations.Documentation of the scope of the problem is important to raise public awareness of sexual child abuse. Anuja has designed a documentation and media strategy to put the uncomfortable reality of this problem in the public eye and keep it there. Less than a year after developing her program, Anuja realized the dire need to collect the hard facts that establish that sexual child abuse both exists and is even common in Indian society; until then only incomplete studies had been conducted. In 1998 she published Voices from the Silent Zone–Women's Experiences of Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse, a research report based on the results of a survey of 600 women between the ages 17-65 in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, and Chennai. Published in 1999, the book The House I Grew Up In brought together for the first time the powerful personal testimonies of five Indian women survivors who speak about their experiences with incest during childhood. In addition, Anuja's organization has commissioned the well-known English-language playwright Mahesh Dattani to write and produce a play. Based on a mother-daughter relationship, 30 Days in September exposes the way incest occurs in middle-class Indian families and the kind of impact it has on the lives and relationships of female survivors.




THE PERSON

Anuja grew up as a member of a conservative, wealthy family in Calcutta. In 1992 she joined her brother Siddharta in Delhi, where he was a lawyer and pioneering gay activist. Through him, she became deeply involved with the movement to advance gay and lesbian rights in India. In addition to working as a volunteer for her brother, she also volunteered for an organization working in the field of women and violence.

In 1994 Anuja became involved with a support group that included women who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of family members. This group helped Anuja understand the importance of having a safe space for working through traumas alongside others who shared similar experiences.

Anuja launched RAHI in 1996 with support from the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1997, she began a workshop series in Bangalore and Delhi on how to relate to adults who experienced sexual abuse as children. The participants included professionals, members of the mental health community, students, and survivors.