Decades on, a survivor campaigns to change India law on reporting abuse
NEW DELHI: When she began an online petition from her home in Canada urging India to remove its three-year statue of limitations on reporting child abuse, Purnima Govindarajulu did not imagine it would resonate with so many in her home country. A year on, her change.org petition to end the statute of limitations has garnered more than 160,000 signatures, and she has been assured by India's minister for women and child development that the government will consider the matter.
"I was ready for a lonely fight when I started this, but the outpouring of survivors and the sheer number of them has been truly sobering," she said.
"It is sad that so many people - men and women - are affected and did not have the chance to speak up," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.
Govindarajulu, 53, says she was abused by a male relative from the age of six to 13, in the southern Indian city of Chennai where she grew up.
She moved to Canada when she was 21. It wasn't until years later, while watching a television show on child abuse, that repressed memories surfaced and she realised she had been abused.
She gathered her nerves and told her family 20 years ago. No one doubted her accounts, and another cousin also spoke of being abused by the same man, who is now in his 70s, she said.
But she was told she had no legal options to report him.
On a visit to India about five years ago, seeing young children in the family home, she was determined to do something, because she feared for their safety, she said.
After many discussions with lawyers and the police in Canada and India, Govindarajulu decided to launch the online petition to call for a change in Indian legislation around sexual crimes.
"Nothing changed for this man, and he has not faced any legal consequences for his actions, while I was traumatised for years," she said.
"There is enough research to show victims of child abuse often do not speak up until many years later. They must have some legal route, no matter how much time has passed."
A total of 106,958 crimes against children were reported in India in 2016, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
India enacted The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in 2012.
But sexual violence against children still remains a taboo topic, with most cases going unreported, activists say.
Last year, a 10-year-old rape victim who was denied an abortion by India's top court gave birth, drawing renewed attention to sexual abuse of children in the country. She said she had been raped by an uncle.
"It took us so long to acknowledge children need a special law," said Anuja Gupta, founder of RAHI Foundation for women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse.
"That someone like Purnima, who has crossed the seas to take this action, has come this far shows adult survivors are being heard - more than 20 years after I first started campaigning," said Gupta, who helped draft the POCSO law.
Govindarajulu's petition gained momentum in a year that saw increased conversations about abuse and harassment of women, fuelled by the global #MeToo campaign on social media.
When her petition got to 100,000 signatures, Govindarajulu was invited to meet with Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development last month.
Earlier this month, Gandhi responded to the petition in an open letter that was posted on change.org.
"My ministry is looking into ways and means of how to allow survivors of child sexual abuse to lodge complaints after many years of the crime ... such survivors should get justice too, even if it is late in life" she said.
"We are looking at whether the statute of limitation on reporting incidents such as molestation can be removed. This will prove to be a deterrent for child abusers."
South Asian culture places a great emphasis on the family's honour and teaches children to respect elders unquestioningly. Those norms also keep survivors from coming forward, activists say.
India has tightened some of its laws related to sex crimes recently amidst outrage over horrific rapes and assaults.
Activists say that awareness and reporting of sexual violence against women has risen since the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, which sparked nationwide protests and a tightening of the rape law.
Last October, the Supreme Court ruled that a man is committing rape if he engages in sexual intercourse with his wife who is aged between 15 and 18. The ruling was hailed as a landmark decision that will affect millions of child brides.
With her petition, there are concerns that there will be a flood of complaints, and that it may be hard to gather evidence to bring convictions, Govindarajulu said.
But countries including Canada have established procedures to gather oral testimony and corroborative evidence, she said.
"They worry it will open up a Pandora's Box. But we must plug the hole that allows child abusers to offend repeatedly and get away," she said.
The fight to get her family on her side has been equally tough: Only recently have her brothers and others told her abuser he is not welcome in their homes, she said.
"It is not the responsibility of a child to stop abuse," said Govindarajulu. "We have to make sure there are safeguards to protect the child and punish the abuser."