An Indian MP who spoke in parliament about how he was sexually molested as a child has forced into the spotlight a topic that is still widely considered taboo. Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party recounted the incident in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, on Wednesday while participating in a debate to amend the Pocso (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) law. Mr O’Brien, who is 58 years old, said the incident took place when he was 13. He said it happened when he had boarded a “crowded bus” in Kolkata after tennis practice and that he was “wearing short pants and T-shirt”.
He recalled: “I was sexually molested. Someone ejaculated on my shorts. I don’t know who.”
The MP said he didn’t speak to anyone about it for “six, seven years” before finally telling his parents.
Indian laws protect the identity of victims of child sexual abuse, but there have been instances where survivors have waived the right to anonymity and spoken about their trauma in public.
Mr O’Brien, however, is perhaps the first Indian MP to speak publicly about his personal trauma, and he is certainly the first to do so within parliament and while its proceedings were being shown live on national TV.
The MP has been praised for his “courage” on social media and his comments have made national headlines. They have also firmly brought into focus the huge problem that child sexual abuse is in India.
According to the only Indian government study on the topic done in 2007, 53% of children surveyed said they had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse.
The government crime figures year after year show tens of thousands of reported cases – according to the latest figures available, for 2016, a child was abused every 15 minutes.
Campaigners say the actual numbers are even higher, as the stigma that surrounds sexual crimes means many cases don’t even get reported.
In 2012, India introduced Pocso and on Wednesday, the upper house passed the amended bill which offers stricter punishments, including the death penalty for aggravated sexual assault on children.
Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani said the government would also be setting up 1,023 fast-track courts to clear the backlog of 166,000 pending Pocso cases. The bill needs to go through the lower house to become law.
The MPs who participated in Wednesday’s debate in the Rajya Sabha mostly talked about punishment – they said the death penalty would act as a deterrent and go a long way in curbing such crimes, and one even suggested chemical castration for those found guilty.
But, as Mr O’Brien pointed out, focusing on punishment alone is like missing the wood for the trees.
“All my colleagues have spoken about punishment, but it’s not about punishment. The courts will do their job of punishment, but how do we prevent this from happening?” he asked.
The biggest hurdle in the fight against child sex abuse in India, say campaigners, is the secrecy that surrounds the issue.
Children rarely report abuse and there are a number of reasons why – sometimes they don’t understand what’s happening to them, or they keep quiet because they are either ashamed or think they themselves are at fault. When they do report it, there’s mostly disbelief, denial and cover up. It’s worse in cases of incestuous abuse.
Although Mr O’Brien’s abuser was a stranger, statistics show that most are “persons in trust and caregivers”, including parents, relatives and school teachers.
“It’s very clear where the abuse starts, it starts at home – mine, yours and everyone else’s,” the MP said, urging people to “speak up”.
He added: “I urge people, especially those in public life, celebrities like cricketers, actors and actresses and MPs to speak up. The more we talk, the more children would be saved.”
It would be a good start, for the first step to solving any problem begins with acknowledging it.