Physical, sexual abuse: The secret horror of a 16-year old's dating world
A three-month research by five students of Nirmala Niketan College of Home Science throws up disturbing figures of rampant physical and emotional abuse among teenagers and young adults
When 16-year-old Kiara (name changed to protect identity) started staying aloof, her concerned parents took her to a therapist. During sessions there, they realised that Kiara was undergoing stress on account of an eight-month old relationship with a boy in her group. The boyfriend, she told the counsellor, was taking most of the decisions for them - who they should be friends with, which movies they should watch, etc. Kiara was missing having control of her own life, but continued in the relationship because she thought this is what dating was like. Under peer influence, she started dating the first person she found. With little communication between her and friends, there was no reference point available to her about what a healthy relationship could be like.
The emotional abuse that this teenager suffered is symptomatic, a recent study has found, of abuse - emotional and physical - suffered by those in the 16-21 age group. The study, conducted by five third-year home science students from the Department of Human Development at Nirmala Niketan College of Home Science, New Marine Lines, between July and September this year, reported that of the 50 persons they interviewed in the 16-18 age group, 44 per cent reported that "slapping, hitting with fist or something hard besides the first" happened "often" in the relationship. Forty per cent said it happened sometimes. The questionnaire also asked the respondents (both male and female) if they had witnessed or been victims of abuse such as "kick the partner", "try to choke", "push/slam/bang against a wall" to which the "often" and "sometimes" responses were 22% and 44%, 24% and 46%, and 28% and 44% respectively.
Shah, 21, says that the team, comprising Avani Mehta, Jamila Sabuwala, Jayni Patel, Moksha Shah and Shikha Shah, decided to conduct a research on the subject after witnessing similar abuse among their friends and extended circle of acquaintances. "We were seeking a larger perspective on the situation. In India, accepting that we are dating is tough, let alone talking about the abuse one could be facing," she adds. Her classmate and co-researcher, Mehta, says that when reaching out to respondents, they were in denial about the abuse. It's only when they changed the pattern of questioning, allowing them to report in third person that the alarming figures began to tumble out.
Manipulation and control
It's not just physical abuse that is rampant in young relationships. Emotional abuse and manipulation - which, respondents say, begins within six months of starting to date the partner - is also common, as in Kiara's case.
Take the case of 17-year-old Neel (name changed to protect identity). He reported feelings of self-doubt, saying that it was becoming difficult for him to express himself fully due to the constant condescension suffered at the hands of his girlfriend, a year older.
When the researchers asked the respondents how common situations in which "the partner will not let them do things with other people such as talking, going out with them, making friends, etc, were, 25 per cent responded saying 'rarely', 12 per cent said 'sometimes' and 19 per cent said 'often'. A high 28 per cent said 'often' when asked how regularly would a partner blame them for bad things happening in the abuser's life. Controlling and possessive behaviour were reported as often in 17 per cent cases and sometimes in 28 per cent cases.
Social media has also played havoc in the young dating life with nasty posts about partners becoming an increasing form of abuse. Clinical psychologist Hvovi Bhagwagar says she even sees instances in which youngsters shun their partners if the other has so much as more likes for a post than theirs on social media.
Dr Seema Hingoranny, Psychologist
Reaching out for help
According to the report, when the participants were asked about the causes for abuse/violence in a relationship, the following reasons were obtained: a) abusers believe they have the right to behave that way [68% of the early adults believed so]; b) abusers think they are entitled to all of their partners' attention, affection, loyalty and time [48% of early adults]; c) abuser is depressed, anxious or themselves traumatised [late adolescent (58%); early adults (46%)]; d) abuser witnesses or experiences abuse/violence at home [ late adolescent (54%); early adults (46%)].
Dr Zirak Marker, child and adolescent psychiatrist and advisor at Mpower, says, "Incidents of abuse in dating, more or less depend on substance abuse, which has become common among teenagers. This abuse does lead to a change of personality, which then could pave the way to emotions such as possessiveness about the partner, being obsessive about the relationship, suspicion, jealousy and impulsiveness among others. We have observed impulsive suicide attempts, cutting marks on hands, carving names of their partners on the body, etc."
Those suffering in such relationships said they were scared of divulging details, afraid that their family and friends wouldn't understand, and worse, they were afraid of the abuser's reaction. What the group from Nirmala Niketan found shocking was that the victim continued to care about the abuser "hoping that s/he would be able to change the abuser's behaviour". They would also often blame themselves for the situation. The resultant feelings of loneliness (56%) within the relationship and suicidal feeling (72%) were high. While the respondents would still consult friends in such cases, parents and adults were rarely, if ever, reached out to.
Dr Kamini Rege, head, department of human development at Nirmala Niketan, says, "The findings of the research are a compelling call for help from an overwhelming majority of teens who state that physical and verbal abuse is a serious issue for their generation. Early prevention programmes, which would involve talking to teenagers more openly and engaging with them to understand what's happening in their life so that intervention can occur at an early stage, may be beneficial at the middle school level, ensuring these students establish an early knowledge base, allowing them to form better and healthy dating relationships." She adds that prevention programmes could be modified to incorporate parent education. "Parents are highly influential in an adolescent's development and can be an excellent source of teen dating prevention."
Psychologist Dr Seema Hingorany explains that in the early adult stage, emotional maturity is not well-developed. "Most teenagers are dating because their peers are. In most cases, they look for validation from their dating partners and when it is lost, their self-esteem drops. This leads to psychological effects such as staying aloof, losing interest in things and, in some cases, even self-harm."
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