NEW DELHI — An Indian scientist who was repeatedly abused as a child by a family member is on the verge of a major victory to help other victims bring their abusers to justice.
Purnima Govindarajulu’s years-long campaign to make reporting child sexual abuse for adult survivors easier in India is finally having an impact, after a minister promised to look into amending the law.
Govindarajulu, a scientist based in British Columbia, Canada, has spent the past two years reliving the excruciating nightmare of the abuse she endured as a child from her cousin’s husband, taking months off from her job to campaign and raise awareness about the issues survivors face.
The 53-year-old, who suffered abuse up until the age of 13 at her family home in the Indian city of Chennai, told Buzzfeed News that her mission was not one of personal vengeance, or to even take her cousin’s husband to court, but to create a system of accountability.
“Predators rely on the shame and silence of children,” she said. “They know that no one will listen to a child over an adult, and many of them carry on abusing children well into their dotage. It needs to stop.”
While Indian law does not technically mention a statute of limitations for rape cases involving adults or children, prosecutions become practically impossible as time passes, due to the lack of physical evidence about the crime.
Govindarajulu wants Indian laws to clarify that adult survivors should be able to report past abuse, no matter how long ago it occurred; police officers and the Indian judiciary to be trained in evidence-gathering for sexual crimes like these, by listening to corroborative testimony rather than trusting physical evidence alone; and the government to offer legal and emotional support to adults suffering from decades-old trauma.
Since 2016 she has raised awareness online over the issue, speaking with the police in Canada to understand how investigations for older cases of child sexual abuse are conducted (Canada does not have a statute of limitations), and spreading awareness in India about the importance of counselling for survivors and the necessity of amended laws. She has repeatedly spoken out about her experiences in the press, and registered a Change.org petition that finally got the attention of India’s minister of women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, who has promised that she will look into amending the laws around child sexual abuse to allow easier reporting for adult survivors.
If the laws were to change as Gandhi has promised, it would represent a significant step toward justice for survivors in India. According to the country’s official source on crime data, the National Crime Records Bureau, reported incidents of children being sexually assaulted rose by 82% between 2015 and 2016, with 19,765 cases registered in that year. In the past two months alone, Indian newspapers have reported on the rape of an 8-month-old child by her 28-year-old cousin, and the death of two young girls as a result of sexual assault.
In the rare cases where there is physical evidence of a child having been sexually abused, lengthy forensic processes combined with the tremendous pressure on a minor witness to present their testimony clearly and coherently mean conviction rates for the sexual abuse of minors are abysmally low.
Govindarajulu’s activism and apparent victory has come at a cost. She has repeated the details of the abuse she was subjected to so many times, that the trips to India are emotionally exhausting. “Reporters want physical details about my own abuse — how often, how far, to what degree,” she said over the phone. “Revisiting these memories is painful, but I know it’s the hook for the press to tell my story.”
She was only able to name what she’d experienced as abuse once she was in her twenties, having moved away from her abuser and even her country of birth.
“I was watching television and saw a program on child survivors of sexual abuse. … It was like a light bulb went off in my head,” Govindarajulu said. “It sounds naïve in this age when you can google just about everything, but this was a time when no one spoke to children about sex or puberty — the first time I got my period I thought I was dying of cancer. There was certainly no conversation about what constitutes a ‘good touch and bad touch’ at our home [the way children are sometimes taught to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching now].”
The first person Govindarajulu told about the abuse as an adult was her brother — because she was concerned that her nieces would encounter the same man who abused her.
“He confronted my abuser, who first denied it altogether and then admitted to touching me, but only ‘out of love,'” she said. The man denied ever having touched any other members of their family inappropriately, a claim Govindarajulu suspects is untrue.
“When my brother and I told the rest of our family about his confession, there were several people who expressed sympathy but continued to invite him to family events and act as though nothing had changed,” she said. “That is the hardest part of speaking about abuse — people make you feel as though your truth doesn’t matter.”
When perpetrators are familiar to the child — as they are in a majority of cases in India and the world — the additional fear of bringing shame to the family or exposing their “dirty secret” to the public is often used to silence children.
When she and her brother first confronted the abuser, Govindarajulu’s cousin admitted that there had always been something strange about the way her husband showered Govindarajulu with gifts and attention when she was a child, even though she appeared to be physically repulsed by him.
Despite this, she asked Govindarajulu to cease her public campaign, as it brought shame to their family. After the first few reports that appeared in the Indian press, Govindarajulu has stopped using her abuser’s name. “It’s enough for now that anyone who knows our family knows who I’m talking about — and more importantly, he knows he’s under scrutiny.”
Over the years, Govindarajulu, who works as animal conservation specialist, and is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria, said her family’s response has improved — several cousins have cut ties with her abuser.
Despite the progress she has made, Govindarajulu said the scars of abuse that she experienced as a child have never completely healed. She takes time out to recover when home in Canada by hiking in nature, and surrounding herself “with love and my dogs.”
“I am financially independent now; I have a system of support that most victims, especially minors, don’t. It’s triggering for me to look back and recount the physical details of what was done to me. I still have trouble with intimacy,” she said.
“But if it means we can move forward, I’ll do it over and over.”