The past days, my Twitter TL and inbox are awash with stories of child sexual abuse thanks to the CSAAM (Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month, April 2012) organised by some very dedicated bloggers and social networkers. It is no coincidence either, late last month, a friend on twitter, @kiranmanral, asked me if I would write an article for CSA awareness, I was skeptical. “The legal aspect,” she said. I reluctantly agreed in a totally non-committal manner. “Let me see if I have anything intelligent to say,” I said, hesitantly.
Then I started reading up about child sexual abuse, not only in India but all over the world. The things I read made my toes curl. The stories wrenched my heart, some made me cry, some filled my heart with shame, anger and fear and each one made me wish I could somehow turn back time and hug those children and give their childhood back to them.
And no, I still have not found anything intelligent or ground-breaking to say. But I do need to get this off my chest. For my children, for every child everywhere. And most of all for the children we all once were!
Records show that India is home to more than 375 million children, comprising nearly 40 percent of the country’s population, the largest number of minors in any country in the world. Despite its holier-than-thou preaching of non-violence, tolerance, spirituality and respect for elders, statistics also show that India hosts the world's largest number of sexually abused children, at a far higher rate than any other country.
Yet, we do not hear about it. Why? “
The main causes are disbelief, denial and cover-up to preserve family “reputation”. Although, in fact, the problem of child abuse in India is highly pervasive, there is pretence that it only inflicts the West. What is even more striking is that in Western countries like those we like to ape, there are laws to bring such pedophiles to book. Child sexual abuse is recognized as a problem and treated with sensitivity and offenders dealt with severely.
But that is not how it is in India. For years, we have hidden this menace, swept it under the carpet and looked the other way. For “honour”, for “what will others say”? Indian adults often exercise a near-feudal hold over their children, demanding complete and unquestioned obedience. In the name of “respectability”, often, the child’s own personality is lost. A culture of silence and shame also swirls around cases of sexual abuse against children fogging the issue. (Unsurprisingly, the notion of shame is the single largest culprit in perpetuating sexual abuse against India’s children.)
No, I was never abused myself, but I know of enough people who have been. That child I know who complained to the mother because her ten-year-older sibling put his hands inside her panties was slapped and called a liar. Another was protected and cloistered by her parents but the uncle in question was never faced and allowed to go Scot free for “what will others say”. The third thought “at least when Papa sleeps with me he smells funny but he is nice, and does not beat me like the other men my Ma insists I sleep with!” Another 8 year complained to her parents and was told, “you are born a female, deal with it!” by the father while the mother just sighed. Yes, these incidents all happened at homes just like ours, well educated, “respectable” families in the 70s and early 80s. The children, if they ever were allowed to be children, are all grown. The first one grew to be a rebel and does not conform to any of our society’s morals. She takes intense pleasure in shocking her parents and their so-called values! The second withdrew into a shell and still has problems meeting anyone outside her immediate circle. She did not marry, could never let any man close. The third, luckily, was “saved’ by an unmarried Aunt who took her away from her family and she has been able to keep the nightmares away. “Most nights, anyway,” she whispered to me. And the fourth one left home early, married an abusive husband and now fights for the custody of her children. She also finds comfort in alcohol. And these are minor examples. I am skimming the surface here.
Do you still think any of these children grew up without angst, agony, mental distress or guilt? Just until the other day, we did not even recognize the problem much less address it.
Ironically, despite the magnitude of the problem, Indian courts offer little relief to victims, even if, in rare cases, it reaches such a stage.
The only legal recourses available to such victims are the extensions of “rape laws” or the laws relating to sexual molestation, which apply to women and are stretched to apply to children as well.
But rape laws only recognize sexual crimes involving “penile penetration” and are totally dependent on medical evidence. Such evidence is difficult to procure as child sexual abuse is usually not one isolated case but a whole series of them. It may even involve episodes in which the offender doesn’t even touch the victim.
The sexual molestation law, on the other hand, covers all sexual offences “that outrage the victim’s modesty,” other than penetration. Though this law can be used in child sexual abuse cases, its reference to “unusual sexual offences” makes it difficult for child victims to use this option as a legal remedy. Since the definition of sexual abuse is nebulous, victims are largely at the mercy of the court’s discretion. On rare cases when abusers are booked after a cumbersome legal procedure, India’s conviction rate is abysmal despite the country’s sophisticated and complex set of laws.
Sexual abuse of children is a very real problem in India, and the situation is aided by the absence of effective legislation and the silence that surrounds the offence. The definition of child abuse varies from country to country. Acts that result in physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect of children fall under the purview of law in almost all developed nations. In India, child abuse exists in many forms, but the laws are still ambiguous and most children suffer in silence. In India, which places a high premium on chastity of women and yet has the largest number of child sex workers in the world, there is no single, specific definition of child abuse.
As late as in May 2009, alarmed at the growing instances of child sexual abuse, (or rather, at the fact that such cases are now finally coming out into the open) the Delhi High Court has called for a more stringent law which will also act as a deterrent, saying the definition of rape under section 376 IPC should be made age and gender neutral.
Justice S Muralidhar was hearing the appeal (Tara Dutt Versus State) of a man sentenced to two years imprisonment for committing "digital rape'' (inserting finger in vagina) of a five-year-old girl. The judge was upset that lack of a suitable law prevented the courts from inflicting the same punishment on him as that reserved for a rapist.
He observed “…..this Court considers that the inadequacy of the law has prevented the trial court from awarding a sentence greater than 2 years of imprisonment. Need for an urgent change in the law.”
"The offence of a child sexual abuse is an extremely grave one. Innocent and tender children are abused sexually through a variety of means, one if which is the present case. Such incidents leave a deep scar on the psyche of the child and has the potential of adversely affecting the child's emotional and mental development. The harsh truth is that these incidents are more frequent than we imagine and very often goes unpunished by the child suffering the trauma silently,'' the court observed, dismissing the appeal.
“Despite the report of Law Commission of India lying with the government for over nine years and the Supreme Court in 2004 hoping that the Parliament would make appropriate changes, it is a matter of grave concern that nothing has been done till date. The absence of a stringent law can only have the pernicious effect of crime continuing undeterred,'' the HC added, saying it was high time that definition of rape was made "age and gender neutral'' so that cases like Dutt's could be dealt with severely.
In case you are interested, the judgment can be found here: http://www.indiankanoon.org/doc/1701610/
So. In an attempt to protect children against sexual abuse, the cabinet, finally, on Thursday, the 4th March 2011 cleared a first-of-its-kind legislation which threatens stringent action against the offenders. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill is aimed at protecting the young ones from sexual abuse, sexual harassment and child pornography. The necessity for such a law was underlined in government data that shows that more than half of India's children have been subjected to such abuse. For the first time, the draft Bill distinguishes a sexual offence committed against children by persons in position of trust and authority over children, including a police officer, a remand home warden, hospital staff and school authorities. It categorises these crimes as being of "aggravated" nature with stringent punishment. The punishment for "aggravated sexual assault" is imprisonment of up to seven years with a fine, while penalty for "penetrative sexual assault" is at least five years in jail and a minimum penalty of Rs 50,000. Crime against children has been classified into that of " penetrative" sexual assault, which could be of aggravated nature also, and that of non-penetrative kind, which could again be of aggravated nature. For further reading on the draft Bill, see http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-protection-of-children-from-sexual-offences-bill-2011-1598/
And what is the status of the Bill? Pending, of course. With more urgent things like the Lok Pal and corruption and the like, we have kept our children waiting.
And in effect, what will happen if and when such a Bill is passed and made into law? Will families come forward? Will a parent bypass “honour” and "family name" for the sake of a child? Or will the silent subservient children just remain silent? The cynic in me says that our hypocritical society will just choose to shut it out. And hide behind a strict curtain of “this happens only in lower classes”. "
The 'Study on Child abuse India 2007' conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development acknowledges that child sex abuse takes place in schools - and how. One out of two children in schools have faced sexual abuse. And overall, more boys than girls face various forms of sexual abuse - ranging from inappropriate touch, exposure to pornography or violent sexual assault.
During a study on child abuse in Kolkata, Elaan, an NGO, found that 4 out of 10 boys faced sexual harassment in school. Generally the age of maximum abuse is between 9 to 12 years. The national study found that the abuse gained momentum at the age of 10 and peaked between ages 12 to 15.
Child abuse is the physical or psychological maltreatment of a child by an adult often synonymous with the term child maltreatment or the term child abuse and neglect. There are many forms of abuse and neglect and many governments have developed their own legal definition of what constitutes child maltreatment for the purposes of removing a child and/or prosecuting a criminal charge. The report by the Department of Women and Child Development on the implementation of the Convention of Child Rights in India, prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, has identified child sexual abuse as a priority issue for immediate action.
Apart from the legal dimension, child sexual abuse also has pronouncedly psychological and emotional elements. Worldwide surveys point out that such abuse negatively impacts a child’s physical, emotional and mental well-being, leading to severe behavioral and psychiatric disorders. Suicidal tendencies and drug abuse are common long-term effects.
A World Health Organization survey also points out that there is an unambiguous behavioral and emotional pattern in the abused. Usually the child hardly talks about the incident. And, even if he or she does, often, no one takes it seriously. That in turn triggers feelings of self-doubt and guilt, exacerbating the child’s feeling that it is his or her fault. As the child matures, compulsive behavior reinforces this guilt. Small wonder that many adult sexual and behavioral problems, according to psychoanalysts, trace their provenance to childhood abuse.
Yes, our society teaches us to respect our elders, it also teaches us unquestioning obedience. But what, when the elder is not worthy of that respect? What, when the very hand supposed to protect the child exposes the child to such abuse? How many of us, sitting in our sterile lives can imagine a monster like that entering our homes, living with us, breaking bread with us? How many of us talk to our children about it before it may be too late?
I recall a few years ago my daughters had a piano teacher, a 40-year-old male, who used to come to our house on Thursday afternoons when, generally, only a maid was at home. A dear friend, whose daughter’s learnt from him, had referred him. My elder daughter was seven. One bright day as I was egging the girls to practice the piano, my younger daughter piped up. “But Didi can only play sitting on the teacher’s lap!” An antenna went up. I stopped, “what?” I probed further. Yes, he insisted my daughter sit on his lap. Despite another stool being present. “And why do you not say anything?” “I did,” my daughter said, “he makes me uncomfortable, but he said he would tell you that I was not trying!” Alas. Had my piano ambitions distressed my daughters? I shudder to think that this “minor aberration” may have gone unnoticed. I called the man up then and there and told him he need not return to my house. The fees were due, he had erroneously left his cell phone cover at our home. But he did not say a word, quietly agreeing to my diktat. In my mind, that was in itself a confirmation of his guilt: so was I wrong? Was I hasty? No. I did not want to wait and find out. When I told my husband later, my hands were still shaking. Even now I shudder to think what may have happened.
I wish I could say that my daughters, who are now aged 11 and 12 are safe now. I have explained “good touch and bad touch" till I go blue in the face but I have no such guarantee. My only consolation is communication, a healthy relationship with the girls that ensures that they can, at any time, discuss anything with me without fear. At least that is what I have tried to instill in them, I keep my fingers crossed that our relationship remains that way.
And here’s what Wikipedia has to say on child sexual abuse in India:
“Nineteen percent of the world's children live in India, which constitutes 42 percent of India’s total population.
In 2007 the Ministry of Women and Child Development published the "Study on Child Abuse: India 2007." It sampled 12447 children, 2324 young adults and 2449 stakeholders across 13 states. It looked at different forms of child abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse and girl child neglect in five evidence groups, namely, children in a family environment, children in school, children at work, children on the street and children in institutions.
The study's main findings included the following: 53.22% of children reported having faced sexual abuse. Among them 52.94% were boys and 47.06% girls. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest percentage of sexual abuse among both boys and girls, as well as the highest incidence of sexual assaults. 21.90% of child respondents faced severe forms of sexual abuse, 5.69% had been sexually assaulted and 50.76% reported other forms of sexual abuse. Children on the street, at work and in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault. The study also reported that 50% of abusers are known to the child or are in a position of trust and responsibility and most children had not reported the matter to anyone.”
I want my children to read all this. I want my children to know the stark realities and yet I do not want them to grow up in an air of hate mistrust and suspicion. Not all adults are ogres, there is no need to paint a darker picture than it already is. They have enough to deal with without having to battle doses of gloom and fear. So I talk to them. I talk to each of my children, even my daughters’ friends, my nieces, nephews and friends’ children. I may shock them at times, but I tell them exactly like I think it is. I share my anger, my angst, my beliefs, and I also share the joys the kindnesses and the hopes. I try to teach them to be careful, alert and watchful and yet not give in to blind prejudice; I try to tell them that we are all there for each other. No matter what.
Imagine a room full of children, singing: loudly, lustily. There’s the one just mouthing the words, another sings flat and yet another is off-key. Some look the other way, while others only hum. Forget all that. Listen with your heart. And you will feel the joy surge around you….. I wish every child that joy. I wish every child could live it’s childhood in a world where the big bad wolf is confined to fairy tales and wicked stepmothers and ogres only a figment of the imagination!
Lets try to make that a reality, shall we?