Safeguarding childhood in India: A brief commentary on child sexual abuse in India today
There was this scene in the movie, Highway where lead actor Alia Bhatt’s character opens up to her captors regarding the trauma of abuse at the hands of a family friend. She narrates her ordeal to her captors, possibly due to the confidence which she could not otherwise repose in her own family.
The movie narrated an issue that has haunted children across generations. The issue of child sexual abuse has also been highlighted on the TV show Satyameva Jayate. These instances mark a break-out moment for Indian cinema and television. And definitely a turning point of sorts for an issue that has now begun to be highlighted by the mainstream media, and is no more a topic to be brushed under the proverbial carpet.
What exactly are the various facets of this malady that inflicts our society?
To cite from the reports of Child Rights and You (CRY), “Children constitute over one-third of India’s population of 1.21 billion people, which means India is home to 400 million children.”
Honorable justice Mohit S Shah, former chief justice of Bombay High Court had some time ago, noted that more than 53% children in India are victims of sexual abuse in some form. These numbers are a horrific reminder of the deep roots this issue has taken in our society.
As per a telling report published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, close to 70% of children abused never report the matter to anyone. A significant aspect is that those abusing are often in the realm of confidence of their victims and are known to the victim. Teachers, relatives, cousins, and even fathers have been reported as perpetrators.
In many cases, the victim may not even realize that a touch is improper, or that someone who she/he respects on account of the fiduciary dynamics of their relationship, could actually be inflicting a sexually abusive behaviour upon the unsuspecting child. It has been reported that children do not speak out of fear, anxiety and guilt, often not being able to communicate it properly to their parents or family. Those of them who do bring these ‘abnormal’ behavioural patterns to the notice of their family, are not taken seriously, or simply brushed aside.
The report published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development further noted that children in institutional care and at work are at the receiving end equally. It was recently reported that some minor girls residing at government school hostels in the remote tribal pockets of Koraput, Kandhamal and Malkangiri in Odisha, were pregnant. This information, in a way, puts things in perspective for all.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 is a dedicated piece of legislation that seeks to usher in child-friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and trial of offences relating to sexual abuse. The burden of proof is shifted on the accused for a certain class of serious offences.
Prior to the passing of the stated legislation, abuse of children was dealt with under the standard provisions of the IPC. Additionally, provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1956 also applied.
The POCSO is certainly a more concerted effort at addressing the issue of child abuse, and a sincere recognition at long last that the general criminal law architecture may not be adequately nuanced to address instances of child sexual abuse.
The Law Commission of India, in its 172nd report released in 2000 for reviewing rape laws in India, has emphasized the need to deal with child sexual abuse with stringent legal provisions, in order to align with the UN conventions, and constitutional provisions in India to ensure safety of citizens in general, and children in particular.
The Justice J.S. Verma Committee which was constituted to recommend amendments to the criminal law framework in India, delved into child sexual abuse and recommended that the terms ‘harm’ and ‘health’ under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 be defined to also include mental and physical harm and health of the juvenile.
In addition to enacting enabling statutes and the legal architecture, there is also a need to ensure that parents, guardians and wherever possible, the children are aware that child abuse is illegal and punishable under the law.
The Legal Aid Societies of law colleges can do much in this regard by undertaking community outreach activities. Pro-bono effort by law firms and legal practitioners could be a boon to the economically less privileged sections in seeking a legal recourse. Possibly, the Bar Council of India could take a lead in this regard by forming a collective of lawyers, law firms, and legal education institutions to create a platform for effective legal service for the deserving.
These institutional interventions could be supplemented by a well-thought out media strategy, targeting children directly, educating them about what could be possibly cases of physical and/or sexual abuse, and build a comfort level so that they feel free to talk about it to their family members. The veil of shame and guilt associated with child sexual abuse must be lifted and discarded by deft and well meaning policy manoeuvres.
The role of NGOs and civil society is significant, as they form a crucial connecting link between authorities, law enforcement agencies and the families.
It has been observed that, when parents or family of the victim report the matter to the police authorities, at times due to the connivance of the abusing party and the police, the complaint is not entertained. This can be harrowing for the family.
However, on timely intervention by the NGOs, and constant mounting of pressure, this nexus is broken. Engaging the services of NGOs, especially in slums, and amidst marginalized communities, child labourers, migrant population in cities, could be beneficial as a robust strategy for addressing the issue of child sexual abuse.
The thinking that children cannot face a sexual abuse is what leads to the continuance of this vicious cycle, and this eventually takes a heavy physical and/or psychological toll on the children. Addressing this state of denial, and redressing trust deficit in parent-child relationships, by confidence building on the part of the families is very crucial to create a healthy atmosphere at home. This can ensure that the unending circle of physical, sexual and emotional abuse stops decisively.
On the government’s part, while it is necessary to introduce a sense of urgency to matters like nutrition, public health, education and sanitation of children, it may be just as relevant, if not more, to also address the psychological and emotional aspects of children. To be fair, the government has been trying to redress this menace in its own way. Enacting a legislation is in itself a way forward.
A holistic approach that holds an inclusive narrative for the welfare of children in our society could truly pave the way for healthy individuals of tomorrow, who bear no fear in their minds.
Demographic dividend of India can be harnessed in the real earnest by addressing the complex dynamics of child sexual abuse. It would not be out of context here to summarise our aspirations with relation to a society free of child abuse, in the immortal and ever relevant words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:
“Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.
*Abhishek Tripathy is an IRS officer.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of the government of India, the Indian Revenue Service or www.odishasuntimes.com