If we imagine ourselves as children, we’d perhaps find that we have more in common than just scandalous Freudian theories — a mental list of our favourite things maybe, daily doses of forced nutrition, inadequate experience to understand the gravity of events, and most importantly, an inherent fear of things unknown.
After reading a recent report released by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘Breaking the Silence: Child sex abuse in India’, we might be forced to alter that sentimental landscape a little.
We would have to add to the conception of our still idyllic childhood an individual, in most cases a man, who feels entitled enough to regularly bolt the room’s door while unbuckling his belt. Disturbingly, HRW’s findings find that such nightmarish intrusions are only too common in our country.
Simple mathematics raises cause for alarm. Shortly after the December 16 gang rape in Delhi, Unicef reported that more than 7,200 children, including infants, are raped in India every year.
Since Unicef does not include an approximation of unreported cases, we would need to refer to a 2007 government survey that sought to address the silence surrounding child sex abuse.
After interviewing 12,500 children in 13 states, the survey found that 53% of their sample had been subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse.
Only 3% of the abused respondents had been able to articulate their trauma to the police. Given that India is home to 430 million children, that already worrying figure of 7,200 seems like an insufficient representation of a problem that appears to be more dangerously widespread.
Though the HRW report spends considerable time deconstructing the relevance of such numbers, a large majority of it does not make for comfortable breakfast reading.
It speaks of girls being stripped of their clothes and hung from ceilings in Apna Ghar, a residential care facility for orphans and other vulnerable children in Haryana. It speaks of a mother of a two-year-old girl, who had to walk in on her child being molested by a 17-year-old cousin.
The mother of a three-year-old girl talks of having to witness the brutal medical examination of her child, who she suspected had been sodomised by her husband. As the report’s many case studies make clear, all models of a safe sanctuary are being denied our children.
Any form of sexual violence against children has for long been considered an abomination that happens only in orphanages or residential care facilities, always outside the protected confines of one’s home.
The middle and upper-middle classes of our country often brush its occurrence under their mock Persian rugs, but yet when the NGO Recovery and Healing from Incest (RAHI) surveyed 600 women from that English-speaking strata in 1998, 76% of them confessed to being sexually abused as children. In the case of 40%, it was at the hands of an uncle or a cousin.
Rather than continue our subscription to the private-public divide that gives acts such as sexual violence an umbrella of conspiratorial approval, we must allow for a scrutiny of family structures that fail to provide adequate security.
We need to equip schools with teachers qualified enough to notice behavioural anomalies and send students to counsellors who do not always dismiss dipping grades as adolescent acting up.
More than any of this, the Indian government, as the HRW advocates in its report, must do more to implement legislations like the 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
If promises of a more sensitised police and specialist courts are not met, they will just remain ingredients for a satisfying meal that was never cooked.
Lastly, it is important to remember that when at the receiving end of patriarchal violence, not everyone feels the need to rebel.
There are many who internalise the skewed and manufactured superiority, and as the December 16 gang rape made evident, there are many who emulate it. The children of our country do not deserve that rock or the hard place.