Child abuse has no place in the world we weave for our children here and now. Yet, child abuse, including child sexual abuse, is gut-wrenchingly real, leaving thousands of children scarred and bewildered, and their parents distraught and furious.
Homes, schools and institutions that were meant to nurture and teach are turning out to be theatres of brutalising crimes against children. The stories pile up: teachers raping six-year-olds, tutors kicking three-year-olds, principals caning visually-challenged wards. It’s unspeakable brutality against the most tender and defenseless amongst us.
How did we, as a society, sink so low, and when? Those working to prevent it said that child abuse has been a painful reality behind closed doors for decades; the doors are now opening, the silence is breaking. Yet, the screams we hear are only of a few.
The National Crime Records Bureau data bears this out. A total of 58,224 crimes against children were registered in 2013, a rise of 52.5% over the previous year, according to the June 2014 report. The rate of crimes against children, calculated as the number of crimes per lakh of child population, increased by 13.2%.
Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Sikkim, Goa and Delhi logged higher rates of these crimes. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra together constituted 41% of all child rapes registered in the country.
“The rising figures could mean a higher incidence of crimes against children or simply better reporting as people become aware and empowered. Higher media exposure to the issue also means there’s a ripple effect,” said Dr Vijay Raghavan, professor and chairperson, Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Yet, crimes against children constituted only 2.2% of crimes registered under the Indian Penal Code, which is why the NCRB is, at best, only an indicator of the corrosion in our society. The rot goes deeper, as the National Study on Child Abuse report of 2007, the only extensive study done in the country so far across 13 states, showed.
Two out of every three children were physically abused, two out of every three school-going children reported corporal punishment and more than 60% of such punishments were in government and municipal schools, the study revealed.
Embedded in the data are disturbing trends: child abuse cases are better addressed when the victim is from a higher social strata; child abuse is commonly seen as only sexual abuse though other forms are as damaging to the child; the emphasis has been on individual cases rather than the system in which abuse becomes possible; laws and institutions are better geared to handling a case rather than prevention.
There’s a need for “a clear-eyed look at the issue by all the stakeholders” such as parents, schools, welfare/reform institutions, police, government and the justice system, as child rights lawyers put it.
Read: The abuse of our children – an Elegy for innocence lost
This discourse of child abuse does not even begin to touch the children displaced by conflict. Children are entitled to safe schools and safe childhoods but those from the poorest sections and from marginalised communities end up as combatants because their schools are bombed by armed groups, noted Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch.
“Indian society is becoming more individualistic. There has also been a loosening of the traditional social control mechanisms but the formal justice systems are not fully in place. Crimes against the most vulnerable are on the rise, this includes children,” said Dr Raghavan of TISS.
There are laws and protocols to deal with child abuse. The Delhi government unveiled a comprehensive Child Protection Policy (CPC) in September last year. The challenge, as always, lies in the implementation of policies and application of the laws.
When a particularly brutal case of abuse hits the headlines, there’s frenzied demand for instant vigilante justice but it does not address the systemic changes sorely needed to prevent child abuse. Clearly, the door has to be pushed open even more.