She looked at me with a clear gaze, as if staring straight through to my soul. All I had done was ask her how she was feeling. What a simple and innocuous question. It’s a question we ask people every day, right? What was so special about it after all?
After a bit of a pause, the little one gave me the socially desirable answer of “I’m fine.” Was she really fine though? Why do we always answer “fine” when someone inquires about our well-being?
Okay, just some context. In my work as a psychologist, I’ve come across many children who are at various stages of psycho-social distress, and require professional help in order to assist them in functioning effectively in their daily life. I come across all sorts of cases because a lot of the work I do is also in connection with the law including FIRs or other legal reports.
When this little seven year old with big curious eyes came to me, the last thing I was expecting to read in the report was sexual assault. I know, I know. I should have known it right from the start. The vicious, toxic society we live in should have been my first indicator. But can you blame me? When a seven year old comes to you, even in a therapeutic set-up, your mind doesn’t immediately jump to sexual assault, or at least mine doesn’t. These are things you read about on the internet or in the paper. Not something you ever expect to come face-to-face with. So when I read the report, the world around me stopped for a second. Things had become a lot more personal now.
So I trudged along, keeping aside my personal thoughts, and continued with the girl. I could see that she was in some discomfort, and so I asked again, “How are you?”. The child simply looked at me in an expression rarely seen on a seven year old’s face; she looked resigned. I wondered how many others had asked this same question and got the same answer. So, I took a different tack in a bid to make her more comfortable and said, “Your frock is very pretty.” Victory, it would seem! I got a shy little smile in return, but when she lifted her hand to push back her hair, my heart skipped a beat. I could see blue-purple bruise marks on her arms, and when I looked carefully they were on her legs too.
Livid blue-purple on baby skin. Livid blue-purple on baby skin. I have to say it again and again because it’s just so absolutely unbelievable. The image of those bruises are etched in my mind like a stain on a coffee table; once seen, you can’t make it unseen. In that moment, my heart broke a little for this little child who never got to live her childhood in its entirety.
I don’t know what I said afterwards, and thinking back, I’m hoping I did justice to her. The first POCSO* case I ever received, and her eyes are engraved in my mind. That curious gaze…
I ended the session perhaps a little more abruptly than I should have. I left the room perhaps a little slower than I could have.
People always say, “Your job must be so tough, dealing with children from all backgrounds”. I always agree; yes, of course it’s tough, but it’s the least I can do, because its far tougher for that child to have gone through the pain than for me to help her with it.
And if I back away, then who will step forward?
*POCSO: Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act
Article by Pallavi Ramanathan