Nine-year-old Ansh Sehgal refused to go to the boys’ toilet in school alone. His teacher could not understand why. The child kept hovering outside the toilet but would not enter — unless someone agreed to accompany him. When the school counsellor tried to get Ansh to talk about his fears, he clammed up. It was only after he was sent to a psychologist that he revealed that some senior boys had sexually abused him in the toilet. Like most other abused boys, Ansh suffered in silence.
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 every 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.
What’s revelatory is that the perpetrators are not necessarily adults. “The abuser could be from the peer group or an older student,” says Dr Loveleen Kacker, joint secretary (Child Welfare) in the Women and Child Development Ministry, who prepared the government report. “Senior students often bring pornographic material to school and may force a younger boy to look at it to titillate themselves. There are incidents of forced exposure of private parts too,” she adds.
Children on the prowl
During a study on child abuse in Kolkata, Elaan, an NGO, found that four out of 10 boys faced sexual harassment in school. “The abuse ranged from an ‘accidental’ brush of the private parts to something that was done on purpose,” says Elaan’s founder-director Pranadhika Sinha.
When the Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse set out to conduct such a study on Class XI students of schools in Chennai, it found that one out of two boys had been abused as compared to two out of five girls (though not necessarily in school).
It has been proved that boys are equally, if not more vulnerable to sexual abuse as girls, says Ravi Karkara, the South Asia moderator for Save the Children organisation, which was part of the government study on child abuse. Karkara shares his own experience: “I was five when a family friend sexually abused me. My mother made sure that the abusive lady never came home again.” The scars of abuse remain with the child for a long time, he adds.
Age of abuse
When and where are boys most vulnerable to abuse in school?
“The age of maximum abuse is between nine and 12 years, just before the onset of puberty,” says Dr Rajat Mitra, director of Delhi-based NGO Swanchetan. The national study found that the abuse gained momentum at the age of 10 and peaked between the age of 12 and15 years.
Any delay in the development of secondary sexual characteristics, like the breaking of the voice or growth of moustache, can play havoc with the child. The boy is subject to taunting and bullying by both fellow and senior students for looking and sounding effeminate, Dr Mitra adds. “He might even become a tool of sexual experimentation,” says Kolkata-based psychiatrist Debasis Roy.
The abuse might begin with curiosity leading to mild experimentation, then turn into harassment and finally take the form of an expression of power, adds Delhi-based psychotherapist Suneel Vatsyayan.
The most common breeding ground for this is the boys’ toilet. “The kind of graffiti you see in boys’ toilets is indicative of what goes on there,” says Dr Amit Sen, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Sitaram Bhartia Hospital, New Delhi. The boy could also be abused in the school bus. Here, the perpetrator could be the driver or conductor.
The degree of abuse varies according to age. In the higher primary section (class III to V), boys may face abuse in the form of touching and caressing of their private parts, forceful exhibition or they might be coerced into playing sexual games. This takes the form of sexual discussion leading to forceful experimentations in the mid-school level (class V to VIII). In the upper school (class IX to XII), it could turn into homosexuality or forced sex.
Sound of silence
When eight-year-old Dhruv Mallik stopped watching his favourite cartoon show, Shin-Chan, his parents thought it was a sign that he was growing up, and were quite happy. But then, Dhruv started losing interest in everything he once enjoyed. When he refused to go to two successive birthday parties, his parents got worried. After a lot of coaxing and cajoling, Dhruv told them that some senior boys had abused him in school.
“Boys and girls react very differently to sexual abuse,” says Dr Mitra. “Boys get very scared. They think it is something that happens only to girls and start believing that there is something wrong with their bodies. They become very secretive.”
West Bengal zonal director of Save the Children, Asha N Iyer, agrees that a boy finds it difficult to share the trauma with anyone for the fear of being termed less of a man. But this silence can lead to revictimisation, counsellors caution.
In a paper on ‘Working with Boys and Men to end Gender Discrimination and Sexual Abuse of Girls and Boys’, Karkara and Lenen Karisson write that girls who are abused may develop self-destructive behaviour, while boys could become extrovert and also turn violent.
Some boys cope with wearing loose clothes to hide their bodies or overeat to add another protective layer on themselves, psychologists say. The opposite could also happen, with the boy trying to prove that he is more of a man by taking to cigarettes and alcohol.
Growing up with abuse
Dealing with abuse is a life-long struggle. Take the case of Kuldeep: abused at the age of four by his teacher, he is still living with that trauma 18 years later. The teacher was suspended and subsequently convicted for 10 years.
Five years later, Kuldeep was sodomised again, this time by a farmhand in the fields owned by his family. “Frequent sexual encounters with adults followed, until Kuldeep turned into a sex worker himself,” says Ashwani Kumar, a project director with the Family Planning Association of India, Chandigarh. Kuldeep now works as a volunteer with the association.
“We come across several such cases. But most of them invite no action because parents fear a backlash from the school authorities and blame the child for being vulnerable,” adds Kumar.
Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor at the AIIMS psychiatry department, says a boy who has been abused often grows up to be anxious, lacks confidence and self-esteem, is irritable, impulsive, anti-social, prone to depression and has problems forming trusting, long-term relationships. Worse, he might himself become an abuser.
Recently in Mumbai, a teacher paraded three six-year-old boys in their underwear to punish them for not doing well in school, but no action was taken, says Swarup Sarkar of the Save India Family Foundation, a self-financed forum for men. In April last year, a student of a prestigious school in Lucknow complained of sexual abuse by his class teacher. The matter is with the police, the child has sought refuge in his grandparents’ house, and the issue is hanging.
In India, there are no laws that cover child abuse in all its dimensions. Lawyer IB Singh, however, feels the problem is not with the laws but with the law enforcing agencies. “The process is long drawn and the conviction rate negligible,” he says. While law takes its course, the child suffers four times over — when the act is committed, while narrating the incident, during medical examination and then, in court.
With boys, only proven sodomy is a punishable offence — but other than that, there is no clear definition of sexual abuse. The picture gets hazier when the act is committed by a child against a child. “In that case, the Juvenile Justice Act comes into force,” says Deepa Jain Singh, secretary, women and child development ministry.
“There is also no clarity on whom to approach — the school, the counsellor, doctors or the police — if a child has been abused in school,” says Dr Sen. Community awareness needs to be created, he adds.
However, hope may be in the offing with the ministry planning to push the Offences Against Children Bill in the monsoon session. “The Bill also covers acts such as those committed by a child against a child in schools,” adds joint secretary Kacker.
Until this Bill becomes an Act, parents, teachers and other concerned caretakers will have to start listening to children’s silence.
With Hillary Victor and Manu Moudgil in Chandigarh and Gurpreet Singh Nibber in Patiala