We Are Responsible.
by Kajal Dhaneshwari
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL HARASSMENT and ASSAULT, MOLESTATION and SUICIDE.
NOTE: Based on a real story. Some names in the story have been changed to protect the safety and privacy of individuals. The resemblance of identifying details to any other person, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
For decades, society conveniently had overlooked subjects such as sexual harassment, assault and molestation. Movements like #MeToo began to encourage sexual violence victims to share their stories and seek justice. The old laws and mentality of the very people who make up society were questioned.
We may have begun to address the systematic issues regarding this subject. However, it is not enough. A question of concern remains: “Are we taking two steps back for every step forward?” asks Leigh Makarewicz, a community advocate.
When Nia Sharma was five years old, play dates with cousins at her uncle’s house turned abusive. Visiting her uncle’s place or having his family over was a regular part of her lifestyle.
On a visit, Nia found herself in an uncomfortable situation around her cousin, Aryan Sharma, who was eight years old at the time.
Aryan’s actions left Nia confused. However, her childhood’s innocence and lack of knowledge of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ got the better of her.
For the next seven years, Nia continued to struggle with sexual harassment, molestation and emotional distress.
“I knew whatever was happening was not a good thing. I did not know what label to put on it and why it was wrong.”
The last time Aryan sexually harassed and molested Nia was when she was 12 years old. She says, “I remember that incident vividly.”
She recalls napping in a fort made of sponge mattresses in a room at her uncle’s basement.
“I am not sure where the adults were at this time,” said Nia. “Before I knew it, Aryan came to the fort where I was sleeping.”
She was uncomfortable, but she did not think that showing signs of fright and discomfort would help the situation. Aryan pulled Nia’s pants down and started to grope his penis against her as she pushed him away. He came back and continued to stroke.
“It happened for ten to 15 seconds; throughout, I had a hand over my mouth.”
Nia desperately tried to make sure not a single cry for help leaves her mouth. “I was embarrassed,” said Nia.
“The thought of being found in that state, and the fear of creating a family scene made me silence myself, so I just waited for it to be over,” Nia recalls.
In the middle of a summer day, a 12-year-old child had her innocence and dignity robbed once again. Nia’s mind may not remember the explicit details of the abuse she experienced for seven years. Still, her body remembers the trauma and pain that she carried as a burden until 15.
When Nia was 15 years old, she happened to watch an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Show starring Gabourey Sidibe, an American actress. Sidibe played a role in the movie Precious. She spoke of her role in the film as a sexually abused teenager by her father.
Hearing that interview, Nia realized that what she experienced is categorized as sexual assault and molestation.
“When I told my parents about what I had experienced for seven years, my story suddenly became a secret within the family,” said Nia.
“Within the Indian culture, it is a taboo subject where your responsibility is to protect the pride of the family at any cost.”
Nia’s parents were unsure of what actions to take. Though she felt a weight had lifted off her chest by talking about her trauma out loud.
As the years passed, Nia’s mental health was drastically affected. Her parents were still in contact with Aryan and his family. She did not report the abuse and was told not to share it with anyone else in the family. The reason being, the truth may break the family apart.
“I was young, did not know any better than to trust my parents to take care of it all,” said Nia. However, at the age of 19, she was getting tired of pretending everything was normal and felt suffocated. So, she suggested that her parents take a legal step.
Her parents dismissed her, emphasizing that it has been 14 years since the first incident took place. “They told me pressing charges would only raise fingers at you because your story will be difficult to believe,” said Nia.
Addressing the issue and listening to the victim is not enough. When the victims come forward, they are asked, “why did you not speak up earlier” or “why did you not report the case?”
These questions lead to a culture of silence. The victims are silenced, first, for not speaking up for themselves to seek justice and help. Later, for speaking up and seeking justice as well as support.
Questioning the victims’ credibility when they gather the courage to share their stories is a step backwards. As children grow up, they are programmed to trust their parents because they can never lead you wrong.
Nia disagrees and shares, “I was naive and trusted their words once again because I was afraid of being blamed.”
“I convinced myself to give up before I even try to seek justice.”
Nia made a harsh decision for herself to cut complete ties with Aryan and his family. Eventually, the immediate family noticed her absence at family gatherings and special occasions such as weddings.
When her parents broke their silence, Aryan denied the allegations. Nia threatened to go to court, and he proposed a counterthreat to her.
Aryan’s family threatened to take Nia to court for sexually harassing and molesting Aryan’s younger sister.
The retaliation culture is the second step backwards that aims to scare the victims to maintain silence.
The family’s secret turned into a family feud with emotional manipulation at every step. It had a major impact on Nia’s mental health.
“I would be lying if I said I did not think of dying by suicide,” said Nia.
According to MacEwan’s Office of Sexual Violence Prevention, Education and Response (OSVPER), police data reveals that only 2-8% of sexual assault allegations are false.
That means a majority of them are real. In other words, false reports of sexual assault are incredibly rare. But they do exist.
The trauma that results from sexual harassment and molestation has a “profound impact on a person, including emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially,” says OSVPER.
Nia suffered from depression and feelings of loneliness. That lead her to make unhealthy decisions during her university years. For example, drinking, eating unhealthy, sleeping until 5 p.m. every day, and more.
“I knew how unhealthy I was and had to take the initiative to rise above the negativity, says Nia.
To seek therapy was a step in the right direction. The right help allowed Nia to get rid of suicidal thoughts. And, overcome the fear of being accused of a crime she did not commit.
Although healing is a process, her passion for life was missing. Nia graduated as a certified nurse in April 2020. When she began to work as a nurse, she realized the program was missing something.
“I realized nurses are no longer in charge of sexual education,” Nia says. “In nursing school, I did not learn about sexual education, rape, assault or molestation.”
Only one class covered mental health followed by a clinical placement, shares Nia.
“I learned about basic sexual education in one elementary class. It is not enough,” said Nia.
Today, Nia is 24 years old who feels “lucky” to have a passion inspired by her past experiences. She is an active advocate on social media of preventing sexual harassment, assault and molestation.
Nia acts as a pillar of strength for other victims.
She hopes to branch her career out into sexual education for children in school – to teach them necessary things before it is too late.
“For each person, it is a unique journey; there is no cookie-cutter fix for the problem,” says advocate Leigh Makarewicz. “Having a system that assumes ‘if it works for one victim, it will work for the second and the third,’ is what harms our progress.
The solution requires genuine efforts from society and the legal system. Leigh says, the question at focus must be “when the situation is complicated, how can we create a system that meets the victims, where they are?”