'The mindset is that boys are not raped': India ends silence on male sex abuse

Rituparna Chatterjee
A banner from a campaign to stop child sexual abuse in Hyderabad. Of 160 men surveyed by Insia Dariwala’s Hands of Hope Foundation, 71% said they had been sexually abused. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

A film-maker asked by the Indian government to conduct a study of male survivors of child sexual abuse has said there is a culture of indifference in the country about “what happens to men as boys”.

Insia Dariwala is investigating links between unresolved male trauma and its impact in later life, after an online survey of 160 Indian men showed that 71% of respondents had been sexually abused as children.

Last month, India’s minister of women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, amended legislation to make the protection of children from sexual abuse gender-neutral for the first time. She has invited Dariwala and her Hands of Hope Foundation, along with another non-profit organisation, to begin an in-depth study of male sexual abuse.

The last government research in India to touch on the issue was carried out in 2007, when 53.2% of children reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse. Of those, 52.9% were boys.

Maneka Gandhi, India’s women and child development minister, has taken steps to examine further the issue of male sexual abuse. Photograph: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

“Child sexual abuse is gender-neutral,” Gandhi said. “Boys who are sexually abused as children spend a lifetime in silence because of the stigma and shame attached to male survivors speaking out. It is a serious problem and needs to be addressed.”

Prabhat Kumar, an adviser on child protection with Save the Children, welcomed the move: “There has never been a specific study of adult male survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Campaigners are hoping the study will lift stigma around the issue. One, a 22-year-old business student from Pune in Maharashtra state, said: “I was five when the abuse started and it went on for two years.” He requested that he should be called a survivor, not a victim.

“I didn’t even know his name,” he said. “I didn’t tell anyone out of fear. I was threatened, manipulated and, more than anything, I thought it was my fault.” He wants to end the taboos that prevent boys from reporting such abuse.

“It took years to come to terms with for me. It didn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Patriarchy forces a boy into thinking his abuse is something he can get over without any support

Insia Dariwala, film-maker

“Silence is a perpetrator’s best friend. When I met a lot of other survivors, I realised that I wasn’t the only one who had gone through the trauma.

“The biggest problem in Indian society is the mindset that ‘boys are not raped’. People live in denial. We live in a patriarchal society and suffer,” he said.

According to Dariwala, of the 71% of men surveyed who said they were abused, 84.9% said they had not told anyone about the abuse. The primary reasons for this were shame (55.6%), followed by confusion (50.9%), fear (43.5%) and guilt (28.7%).

Dariwala said her detailed study would look at the long-term emotional, behavioural and mental impacts of child sexual abuse, examining links between male trauma and violence against women and children.

“The focus is prevention, so that we can catch all forms of sexual violence at its onset, and if possible eliminate it in the coming generations,” she said.

“Various factors come into play. But the most important factor is patriarchy, which forces a boy into believing that his abuse was something that he can get over, without any support. This mentality also forces the child to accept his abuse as a rite of passage in him becoming a man,” Dariwala said.

Other factors such as ridicule, a hostile attitude from authorities and lack of trust all contribute. Current legislation does not allow retrospective reporting, but Gandhi has said she would seek a change in the law to allow complaints of child sexual abuse to be filed years after the crime.