Turning pain into activism: How 1 person’s experience with childhood sexual abuse inspired them to help others heal

As the world continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, Amita Swadhin is concerned about another global health crisis.

“I think we should all be using the phrase global pandemic to talk about child sexual abuse,” Swadhin tells Yahoo Life.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a child is sexually abused every 9 minutes. Swadhin was one of them. In 1991, at the age of 13, Swadhin revealed to their mother that their father had been sexually abusing them for years.

“I was raped over 400 times as a child in my home, between the ages of 4 and 12. And my mom, like a lot of parents who are in shock and maybe trying to do the right thing — delayed but trying — my mom called a therapist and she didn’t know what mandated reporting was,” says Swadhin.

Mandated reporting requires the therapist to alert the authorities, and for Swadhin that experience only heightened their trauma. “Social workers, police officers and prosecutors descended on our home. And I use that word intentionally because that’s how it felt,” Swadhin says. “They threatened to incarcerate my mother, who had been a victim of my father’s violence for over 16 years.

“It was a very difficult added layer of violence from the state when what we really needed was community support,” they explain. “My mom is also an immigrant from India. We needed our community to come together and protect us and we didn’t get that.”

Amita Swadhin, founder of Mirror Memoirs (Photo via Instagram)
Amita Swadhin, founder of Mirror Memoirs. (Photo via Instagram)

Today, Swadhin has turned their personal pain into activism. After receiving a fellowship from the Just Beginnings Collaborative, Swadhin traveled around the country for a year and a half, interviewing LGBTQ and people of color who are survivors of child sexual abuse. They recorded 60 stories across 15 different states and started to uncover emerging trends from the date. From that, Mirror Memoirs was born.

“Mirror Memoirs uses the audio archive as a building block to then spin the stories into organizing tools. So we have an external wing of our work that takes data from the stories and clips and educates people beyond our community,” says Swadhin.

“Coming out for survivors of child sexual abuse, I feel like it’s a very parallel process to coming out or coming out nonbinary — which are two other pieces of my identity,” says Swadhin. “Our intervention in rape culture is about uplifting who we feel are some of the most vulnerable survivors, who often get left out of movements to end sexual violence. We center Black and Indigenous Two Spirit, transgender, intersex and nonbinary survivors of child sexual abuse specifically,” says Swadhin.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four female-assigned-at-birth and one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse during childhood. In the U.S., gender nonconforming children are at a higher risk for abuse.

“We should be looking to the leadership of transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, to be the face of our movements to end child sexual violence," says Swadhin.

To address the insidious nature of childhood sexual abuse, Swadhin routinely calls out the systems that allow it to flourish. While state services are designed to offer help, Swadhin says that many survivors of sexual abuse are further victimized by sexual violence from the state.

“So many of our members, we have over 500 members across the United States, were raped or sexually assaulted in state custody, be that in a police station, in prison, in a juvenile detention center, in an immigrant detention center or even in a state-run psychiatric institution, by staff, by members who were licensed by the state to have power over them,” says Swadhin.

“We have to learn how to take care of each other and how to build trust and networks of care with one another,” they explain.

One way to empower children to build safe and trusting relationships is by giving them the tools to express what is happening to them. According to Swadhin, many children who are being raped or sexually assaulted only disclose it to another child. This is one reason why they remain a staunch advocate for inclusive sex education curricula.

“That includes education on the global pandemic of child sexual abuse, because young people are already experiencing this violence,” they say. “Young people are already speaking to one another about it. They don’t have training on how to support each other when they have mental health breakdowns. They often don’t know that their experience is sadly not unique, that it is part of a public health crisis, and we need to better equip our young people.”

Mirror Memoirs is just one of several coalitions fighting for policy changes that would create safe and supportive resources for children who are sexually abused. Swadhin knows the grief that comes with addressing sexual trauma. They also know how important community is to addressing sexual violence, fostering healthy relationships and finding a path to healing.

“For most of us who were raped or sexually assaulted as children, particularly by our family members or in our homes, it’s very hard to learn these very basic things, but we have to figure out how to strengthen our ability to be in relationships, because that is literally the only thing that we have to rely on for our healing and our wellness,” Swadhin says.

To learn more about Amita Swadhin’s work and the upcoming archives project, visit Mirror Memoirs.

–Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is here for survivors 24/7 with free, anonymous help. 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org.

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