I don’t remember how young I was when I was first sexually abused. Probably around five or six. I might have been a little older, but no more than eight, might have been a little younger but no less than four. It was a wedding, I remember, and we were all assembled at the venue. I was wearing a new frock, I think, that I fancied myself in. And we kids were doing what kids usually do at weddings, running around and playing.
It was daytime – the wedding was to take place that night, I presume – and many relatives had gathered. Those were times when people had time on their hands, and sauntering around all day at a wedding and lending a hand with preparations was commonplace. I suppose I wandered out of the building to play outside. I wasn't totally alone: there must have been cousins nearby.
A cousin had a car, and a driver. I had taken rides in the car and knew the driver. So I wasn’t surprised when he invited me to sit in the car. Cars were amazing and mysterious things, then, and I must have been tempted.
I was a polite, shy little kid who had been told to obey her elders. So I didn’t know what to do when the driver took my hand and forced it under his pants. I squirmed, I hated the feeling. I tried to remove my hand, but what strength did I have against a man? I wanted to leave, I think I said so. But I was too polite to cry out, to scream. A younger cousin came around – I suppose he wanted to get into the car too – but the driver shooed him away.
And then he insisted on putting his hand into my underwear. I still remember that it burned. I hated it, I refused, I squirmed. I didn’t cry out. After some time, he let me go.
It was many years before I realised what that dimly-remembered incident signified. I wonder now, how many girls and boys that happens with. I had family nearby. What happens to children who don’t, children who are disadvantaged, whose family isn’t around or is unable or unwilling to fight for them?
It wasn’t the only time I was abused. It was only the beginning. Since I was around twelve, I took the public bus to and from school. The first time a man stood uncomfortably close to me in a relatively empty bus, I wondered what was wrong. He seemed to be pressing against my breasts, but why would anyone deliberately do that? I was in Class Six.
For a time, I used to pray, every time I got on the bus, “Oh god, not today, please not today, if you are listening, spare me today…” My prayers often went unanswered.
I never cried out, never protested. I didn’t know I could do that, that I could fight back.
There were often other people on the bus: did no one else notice? I did notice when it was happening to someone else, and not just once. Did no one care, or want to interfere? Did they imagine it was consensual?
I had a short walk from the bus stop to my home. Every day, a man would stand there. He wore a blue uniform and directed the buses, kind of like a traffic policeman. As I passed, he would look at me with leering eyes and say, “Sexy maal.” He said it to another man dressed like him, loud enough for me to hear. It began to happen every day. The routine didn’t vary. I would cross the road to avoid him, and he would cross it again so that I would have to pass him anyway.
It traumatised me. I don’t know why I was so scared. The words itself were scary to a thirteen-year old, unfamiliar words signifying a world of perverse lust beyond her understanding. It angered me, too. I wished I had a brother I could confide in, who would beat him up. It never occurred to me that I could stand up for myself, that if I confronted him in the busy street he was unlikely to physically hurt me.
I started getting off the bus at an earlier stop and taking a long walk to my home. Sometimes. Sometimes, I went the old way and often encountered him again.
I am not sure how it stopped. Whether he simply disappeared one day – which is what I seem to remember – or whether it continued till we moved away in a year or two.
I never told my parents about any of these incidents, I knew they wouldn’t let me come home alone in the public bus any more. I thought about it many a time, but I couldn’t bear to give up that little bit of freedom I had.
For years, the memory of that man in dark blue uniform continued to haunt me, in my dreams and while I was awake.
I had been wanting to write about this for a long time, but I couldn’t gather the courage to take out those memories again and look at them. Now I have. It’s easy now, because there is no guilt, and even the anger has faded. For years, I was racked by guilt and self-doubt as I wondered what was wrong with me. Now I know what was wrong wasn’t with me, and I also know that we have to change the world, make it an easier one for children to live in and deal with.
We have to stop this violence. We have to speak up against perpetrators. We have to stand up for our girls and women. We have to stop sexual abuse, domestic violence, street harassment and all the other forms of violence misogyny takes.