One subject of a documentary soon screening at Paramount Theatre is hoping her story will help fellow victims of sexual abuse heal from their trauma.
Because We Are Girls follows the story of three sisters of a conservative Indo-Canadian family in Williams Lake who were sexually abused in childhood.
The National Film Board production directed by Baljit Sangra picks up the story in 2015, about half-way through a five-year court case dealing with the abuse The film does not linger on the details of the abuse, but instead examines the family culture in which it occurred and the effects the abuser’s victims suffered and lived with before breaking their silence.
Two of the sisters who faced abuse, Jeeti and Kira Pooni, will attend the screening at Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. and take part in a post-film Q&A session.
Jeeti lived with the secret of abuse for years, convinced she was complicit in the abuse.
“I hadn’t made peace with it, but I had tucked it away. It was just something in my past and I honestly thought I had something to do with it, that it was my fault. I didn’t think I would ever bring it up,” she told KTW.
Jeeti said the abuse began when she was 11 years old. She said her abuser, a cousin invited to live with the family and trusted by parents, brought emotional and sexual abuse into the family.
Jeeti said people don’t realize that often when abuse like this happens, there is a grooming process.
“It’s a trust-building process, not only with the child targeted, but also the family,” she said.
Jeeti said she didn’t understand the abuse when it began, noting that by the time she did, it was too late.
Further complicating her ability to reveal the abuse was the culture in which it occurred. Growing up, she said, she was often told that girls who misbehave or go against the norm would be “shipped off to India” as a consequence.
Jeeti said the cultural issues are deeply rooted and passed from one generation to the next, resistant to the broader changes within society toward equality of men and women.
“Growing up, you were told you didn’t really matter because you were girls,” she says in the film.
Much later in life, married and with a six-year-old daughter of her own, Jeeti looked at the consequences she might face for breaking her silence — being shunned by her family, even her immediate family, and being left alone.
But she found solace in the truth.
“I had to tell the truth, no matter how it was seen,” Jeeti said. “At that point, it didn’t matter to me whether my husband left me. I could have been just left out on the street all by myself. If I had thought of all the consequences at that moment, no, I wouldn’t have opened my mouth. That’s what kept me quiet all along.”
Although she did initially face consequences via disconnection from much of her family, her husband chose to stay and Jeeti sought justice, both within her family and in the legal system.
Jeeti said the film is achieving what she hoped it would, prompting people to tell their stories of abuse or even acknowledge their stories to themselves, making it possible to begin to heal.
As a motivational speaker, Jeeti said she brings messages of self-acceptance and self-love, of which she had no concept before. She also talks about communication in families, healing and the “importance of shining in your own truth.”
“Not everyone can get up and announce their truth on a loudspeaker,” she said. “As long as you can acknowledge it within yourself and not shut it out. Own your own story. Don’t run away from it. Once you do that, that’s where healing begins.”
The film is being presented as part of the Kamloops Film Society’s Thursday film series. Tickets are $11, available online at thekfs.ca.