Talking about incest and child sexual abuse

This photograph shows a collection of RAHI Foundation’s communication material on child sexual abuse. It shows two round badges with messages that say “I am a survivor – no pity, no shame, no silence” (in English) and “Aami chuup thakbo na” (in Bengali, which means ‘I won’t stay silent’). Both badges also have the logo of RAHI Foundation below the messages. A portion of a report brought out by RAHI Foundation with the title ‘Aaina: The Truth about Incest / Child Sexual Abuse in Delhi’ is also visible. But the focus is on the title with the rest of the text blurred out. The photograph has been modified such that the text on the material stands out in bright colours against a black background. Photo credit: Soma Roy Karmakar

Q&A - Child Sexual Abuse, Jun '18
In a new bi-monthly column RAHI Foundation discusses a range of issues around child sexual abuse

Reader queries

What does child sexual abuse mean? Does it mean only physical and sexual contact?
Sameer, Kolkata

Dear Sameer

Child sexual abuse is the abuse of a child which involves sexual activity between a child and an older, bigger or more powerful person. It's called incest when the abuser is a family member or is close enough to be ‘as if’ family and is invested in the child in a functional role involving trust. The abuser doesn't have to be an adult – they can be an older child or adolescent.

Yes, of course, child sexual abuse does mean physical and sexual contact, but the ambit of the term is wider than that. It includes a range of behaviours. It may or may not include physical contact, force or violence but almost always involves some form of coercion and intent to abuse.

Physical sexual abuse includes acts like penetrative sex, fondling of the child’s genitals or making the child touch the offender’s genitals, touching any part of the child’s body with sexual intent, hugging and kissing with sexual intent, and bathing or washing the child in a sexual way.

Child sexual abuse can also occur without direct physical contact between the abuser and the victim. This includes showing pornographic material to the child, using the child in pornographic material, taking photos of the child in sexual poses or in poses that can be used in a sexual way, masturbating in front of the child, verbal abuse, making lewd gestures to the child, playing sexualized games, and chatting with the child with sexual intent over the internet.

Are some children more likely to be sexually abused than others, or is it just the same for all children?
Anonymous, Kolkata

Dear Anonymous

All children are vulnerable to sexual abuse regardless of their age, gender or where and with whom they live. One reason for this is because children are trusting of all adults and, in our society, they're less powerful, less informed and taught to obey elders.

However, in the case of children with disabilities, children with same-sex attractions, gender variant children, or children who're neglected there can be an added layer of vulnerability.

Most abuse happens in the home and is a premeditated act, not an impulsive one and is more often done by someone known to the child. This makes any child a potential victim.

Inset: Some findings from a study conducted in 2016 by student interns of RAHI Foundation with 2,005 individuals in Delhi (primarily young parents in age group 25-40): (a) 89 per cent of the respondents believed incest / child sexual abuse was a common phenomenon in everyday lives; (b) 59 per cent said society thought it was better to keep quiet about incest / child sexual abuse; (c) 82 per cent said abusers were usually known people – of these 53 per cent said abusers were family members. Source: 'Aaina: The Truth about Incest / Child Sexual Abuse in Delhi' (study was part of a summer project of the interns)

I’m wondering what a child sexual abuser looks like? How to identify an abuser?
Anonymous, Kolkata

Hello Anonymous again

Just like there isn’t a fixed profile for victims of child sexual abuse, there isn’t one for abusers either. Though we would like to believe that abusers somehow look different, speak differently or act differently, or belong to specific sections of society, the fact remains that they're more like us than they're not like us.

They live amongst us and are most often known to and trusted by the child and their family. They come from various backgrounds and are members of every class, caste, race, religion, profession, gender identity and sexual orientation. They can be older children, adolescents or adults.

People who sexually abuse children can be parents, siblings, cousins, relatives, grandparents, neighbours and other respected members of the family and community. It’s not possible to tell abusers apart from others around them unless you know they're abusing.

About the main photo: Samples of RAHI Foundation’s communication material on child sexual abuse. Photo credit: Soma Roy Karmakar

Author Photo

RAHI Foundation

RAHI Foundation is a centre for women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse based in Delhi and Kolkata. It has been working since 1996 to end incest / child sexual abuse and address its long-term impact on women survivors. Write in your queries to, and they will be answered with due respect to confidentiality.

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