In January, the murder and alleged rape of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu’s Kathua district led to widespread protests in the region and made headlines in the Kashmir Valley. Her battered body was found a week after she disappeared. It is believed she was held captive before her death.

Under growing public pressure, the police arrested four suspects, one of them a juvenile. The juvenile accused reportedly confessed that he had tried to rape the child and killed her when she resisted. Weeks after her body was found, the police still await her medical reports to proceed further. A first information report filed in the case so far mentions kidnapping and murder charges.

The case has started a heated debate in Kashmir, where child sexual abuse has rarely been acknowledged. A slew of other cases have surfaced in the public conversation. Also in January, a Srinagar court handed the death sentence to a man convicted of raping and killing a child. And on Saturday, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court dismissed the bail plea of a couple convicted of raping a minor in Srinagar in 2003. The same day, the police in North Kashmir arrested a teacher at an Islamic seminary for raping a student.

With social media campaigns and online petitions, a painful silence is now gradually being broken.

Home truths

Speaking to, survivors of child sexual abuse said they had remained silent about their ordeal as a conservative Kashmiri society is not ready to accept that such abuse even exists. A 26-year-old post-graduate student in Srinagar, for instance, recalled a traumatic memory. One winter morning, when she was nine, her frolic in the fresh winter snow was cut short by an uncle’s inappropriate advances. He warned her that if she refused to give in to his demands, she would be scolded by her mother. She was unable to fully comprehend the situation but was too scared of her mother to resist, she said.

Afterwards, she complained to her family. But they laughed it off, even her mother. Over the years, her fear of a “friendly uncle” became a family joke.

She did not speak of the incident until more than a decade later, when a casual conversation with a college friend revealed that both had survived abuse but remained quiet. Days later, she was taken aback to find that another friend had also survived abuse. “I wondered if I spoke to another person, would they too share the same story?” she said. “The reality is that most of us have experienced it.” But she still puts up with the family’s jokes and the uncle still lives next door.

“There is still a certain acceptance that outsiders are capable [of abuse],” she said. “But there is a strong faith that a family member is not capable of inflicting this on family.”

According to her, pressure to keep the family intact, notions of family honour, and a communication gap play a role in hushing up abuse. “The perpetrator is always clever and a few steps ahead,” she said. “He knows how to exploit a child, knows you cannot be vocal and taps into fear. My family has maintained such a distance that even after two decades, I am unable to talk about it. I think that is the case for all.”

She went on to say that the problem primarily lies in flawed parenting, but also in the education system. “We are not taught what is a good touch and what is a bad touch,” she explained. “I doubt people can even fathom that children can be sexually abused and parents’ attitude of blaming the child is a big discouragement.”

Her experiences have left lasting scars. “As we grow up, the burden of proving our victimhood and how society will react affects our mental state,” she said. “You do realise you are not alone but at the same you become lonelier because you just can’t talk about it in public.”

‘Blind faith’

Another story that is all too common but rarely acknowledged in Kashmir is abuse at the hands of pirs, or so called faith healers, who are popular in the Valley. And many of their victims are young boys.

In North Kashmir, a 33-year-old man spoke of being abused by a pir when he was a teenager. More than a decade later, he gathered the courage to report the incident to the authorities but the police could not comprehend the idea of a male survivor of rape. “Where were you all this while?” a senior police official asked him. The survivor said, “They told me the case would not stand a day in court as it was more than a decade old.”

He claimed the pir had exploited the blind faith of people to “rape more than 5,000 boys” in the past 20 years. As he came across other survivors, the abuser’s modus operandi emerged. The pir claimed to be in touch with djinns who only spoke to children, as they had sinned less than adults, he recounted. When people came to see the pir, he kept their children in his house for days. Once alone with them, the pir would warn the children against disobeying the djinns, lest they were angered. He would then pretend to be possessed by the djinn and ask a series of questions till his victims faltered. Then came the punishment. “Not only did he rape the children himself, he also forced them to have intercourse with one another and filmed it,” the 33-year-old man said.

In March 2016, the police arrested the pir, Ajaz Sheikh, and produced him before a court. In subsequent hearings, he was given bail on the grounds that he needed to prepare his defence. Survivors have been coming forward with their testimonies but the trial is limping on, with many still reluctant to speak.

The North Kashmir man said the family of one survivor was unwilling to come forward as they believed the pir had helped cure the survivor’s younger sister of an illness. He said, “The grandfather pointed to the boy and said if we have to give a little sacrifice, it is okay. If the pir has done something, god will deal with him on his own.”

In the town of Sopore in North Kashmir, a 34-year-old man spoke of being abused by the same pir when he was 14. He, too, struggled to convince his family and the police that the pir had raped him. It was only after a teenager complained of a more recent act that the police registered his statement.

“It is my duty as a responsible citizen to tell my story, keeping taboos aside,” said the resident of Sopore. “When I overcame the trauma, I faced problems due to the poor law. There is no provision in the law that says if abuse happens to a child, he/she can file a complaint whenever he/she is ready. Most child sexual abuse victims are only able to speak about experiences when they are not children but that does not mean perpetrators should go unpunished.”

A group of people who survived sexual abuse at the hands of pirs have now come together to campaign against Ajaz Sheikh. A Facebook page has been created to generate awareness, both about Sheikh’s trial and about child sexual abuse in general.

A law on abuse

Mujeeb Andrabi, the prosecutor in the Srinagar trial that ended in a death sentence, said the number of child sexual abuse cases being reported has increased over the last few years. He said he had secured punishment for the perpetrators in four cases in one year.

But the law is yet to catch up with the demands of the situation. “Even though Ranbir Penal Code covers all offences, the need of the hour is a special law to attract stringent punishment,” he said.

The Ranbir Penal Code is a body of criminal laws, on the lines of the Indian Penal Code, that is applicable in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Andrabi went on to say that cases involving female survivors of child sexual abuse are sent to fast-track courts whereas male survivors are assigned regular courts. Further, in the absence of a comprehensive law, different charges and Acts are invoked in such cases – trafficking, murder, rape, kidnapping and confinement being the most commonly applied charges.

Musab Omer, an activist, has started an online petition addressed to the chief minister, seeking the enactment of a law like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. The law effectively addressed the problem of sexual abuse through “less ambiguous and more stringent legal provisions” that define sexual abuse in broad terms, which include penetrative and non-penetrative assault as well as sexual harassment and child pornography. The Act is not applicable in Jammu and Kashmir because of its special status, which keeps it out of the purview of Central laws unless they are ratified by the state Assembly.

Hilal Bhat, director for implementation of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme in the state, said the non-application of the Central law on child abuse has proved a major impediment to the welfare of children. He said there was a need for a comprehensive law that defined various aspects of child sexual abuse and broke “the culture of silence”. Bhat pointed out that in a 2007 survey of child sexual abuse in 13 states, 57% of the respondents were boys. “We are very backward in terms of acknowledging the fact that even boys are victims of abuse,” he added.

But a law that codifies these offences is only a start. “We need a progressive legislation like POCSO, that is primary priority,” Bhat said. “Once we have POCSO in place, we need to fix the loopholes reported in other states.”

Omer agreed that the mere implementation of such a law would not solve the problem. “It would simply make things easy for victims once they become victims,” he said. “The problem needs to be addressed at its roots. Unfortunately, society is in complete denial and thinks child sexual abuse is alien to Kashmir.”