Breaking The Silence

What do you do when you experience sexual abuse as a child? What happens to those fragile emotions of love and trust as you grow up? How do you make sense of experiences that you do not fully comprehend and which just do not feel right?


Anuja Gupta, Founder and Executive Director of RAHI Foundation, is one of those survivors who went beyond her individual experience of childhood incest, to create a platform, a safe space and a discourse for subsequent survivors to come together and voice their stories of abuse. Drawing both upon her struggles to make meaning of her abuse and deal with it in a country where the issue was invisible, Ms. Gupta, who is one of India’s leading experts on the issue of incest/child sexual abuse, came up with RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) Foundation in 1996. It was India’s first incest/child sexual abuse response organisation that has since laid the foundation for this issue to come to light and continues to shape the way the it is addressed in the country.

Ms. Gupta, who started off her journey as a language teacher (English, Hindi, Sanskrit and French) is today an Educator, Trainer and Therapist in the area of incest/child sexual abuse and works across the country with diverse populations. 


What made you take on this journey? To address the issue of child sexual abuse, in particular incest, across the country and bring it to the forefront?

The main motivation was that I myself am a survivor. In the early 90s, it wasn’t too common to talk about such things. I was teaching French at Alliance Francaise in Delhi, and it was around the same time that I was working on HIV/AIDS activism. The term ‘sexuality’ had just come into India in the context of HIV/AIDS and I was part of starting a women’s sexuality group in Delhi. This was a group of 7 women who came together to share their stories of what it was like to grow up in India as girls. In that group, it turned out that 5 of those women were incest survivors, and this was not even an incest survivor group. My partner of that time, Ashwini Ailawadi, now the Co-Founder and Creative Director of RAHI Foundation, was then an addiction counselor, encouraged me to get therapy for my abuse. I also began to get flashbacks. My aha moment came when I was at the crossroads in my life and was wondering if I wanted to continue teaching French or do something more meaningful to me. I realised that what I wanted to do was set up a space for women survivors to come, talk and share, get support.


You have a long list of achievements - you were part of the national core team that drafted and lobbied for a law against child sexual abuse in India, now known as the ‘The Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2012’. You have been awarded the Ashoka Innovators for the Public Fellowship and are also a past Fellow of the MacArthur Population Innovations Program. Do you feel there has been an evolution and an acknowledgment of the issue on ground?

There has been tremendous change since we started RAHI in 1996. Today there is a dialogue on the issue. In the 90s, even the terms ‘child sexual abuse’ or ‘incest’ were not very well recognised. The central question was does this even happen in India. The silence and taboo around the issue was much greater. Our work then was cut out for us. Our job was to establish the prevalence of child sexual abuse, especially incest, in India, mainstream the issue, create a climate for survivors to step out and pave the way for other organisations to come up in the field. Now we see a huge transition where we have several organisations and individuals working on this issue and there is significant awareness. Also what is heartening is that there are several survivor groups, formal and informal, that are coming up as well in different parts of the country. Survivors are stepping forward and demanding a policy change. RAHI’s national award-winning documentary ‘The Little Girls We Were…And The Women We Are’ is a symbol of where we are today - where people can talk openly about what they have gone through. The film is a powerful account of 5 women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse, the trauma they suffered, and their journey from abuse to recovery. That’s the kind of time it takes to break ground, clear the path and create social consciousness.


What more can be done? Especially to reach rural areas and parts of India where we need as much help?

We are taking baby steps and are currently doing some work in Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal in rural and semi-urban contexts. This is an epidemic and a public health issue and needs to be treated as such. A few organisations cannot do this alone. The government has to see that this work can reach all areas in the country. We already partner with multiple organisations and will continue to do so - at the grassroots, working in villages and slums, training them on how to deal with this issue in their communities. We have expansion plans but will soon need funding in order to do more.


What do you think about the “#Metoo movement”?

I think it is important as it provides a space for women to disclose the sexual abuse, harassment and violence they have undergone. It contributes to breaking the silence. This will help others to come forward.  


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