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'Children are also sexual beings'

Ingrid Srinath, CEO of Child Rights and You (CRY), in an interview with Supriya Mishra discusses the entire gamut of issues pertaining to child abuse and rights violation.

india Updated: May 09, 2007 17:46 IST

It's no boon being children in India, or for that matter, anywhere in the world. This is chillingly borne out by statistics that put the number of children in one form of distress or another at a staggering 300 million.

Not only are children vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse on a daily basis, which manifests in worst forms of child labour in communities, schools and institutions, they are also targeted during armed conflicts, besides being subjected to abominable practices such as female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage.

In India alone, more than 53% of children are subjected to sexual abuse, but most don’t report the assaults to anyone. The laws dealing with sexual offences too do not specifically address child sexual abuse.

Most shockingly, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860 does not recognise child abuse, and only rape and sodomy can lead to criminal conviction. For law, anything less than rape just amounts to 'outraging the modesty'!

Ingrid Srinath, CEO of Child Rights and You (CRY), a child rights organisation, in an interview over email with Supriya Mishra discusses the entire gamut of issues pertaining to child abuse and rights violation and suggests possible ways of fighting the scourge.

Excerpts from the interview:

How would you define child abuse?

Any one definition of child abuse is limiting because these definitions emerge from the adult understanding of a child's world. The existing definition that is closest to being complete is 'all kinds of physical, emotional, sexual abuse, neglect, all forms of exploitation and any unwelcome behaviour resulting in actual or potential harm to child's health, dignity and over all well being'.

The important element in the definition is the word 'unwelcome' to the child and harms his/her dignity. The subjectivity in this definition gives the individual child the space to define his/her own boundaries without universalizing them into one single unit. The idea would be to empower the child to identify and define abuse

What are the various aspects of child abuse and which is the most important aspect we need to look at?

Aspects of child abuse have been given in the definition above. Forms of child abuse cannot be prioritised. Certain areas need a greater emphasis because of the silence or acceptability surrounding them such as child sexual abuse.

Besides the fact that most times this abuse happens within family, the nature of violence makes it more of a moral shame than a child rights issue. Even when it is discovered, the family chooses to keep quiet as the child is still considered the property of the family.

Child sexual abuse are the best kept family secrets and as children, these secrets become dirty and disabling.

Added to that is the lack of a positive sexual language available with the child.

How can people be sensitised about the menace of child sexual abuse and how important is parents' role?

I would like to start at the other end and say that first and foremost it is important to recognise that children are sexual beings. Only once we do that, will we be able to recognise their right to say NO to behaviour that is violative to that sense of their selves, even when the adult interpretation of it may be love or affection.

The second is communicating. Parents are still not comfortable with talking to children about things sexual. The child will speak to the parents only when he /she fears no judgment or backlash.

Also it is our middle class elite myth that children are too young to be told. Children as old as 4-5 can be taught about their bodies and a good touch or bad touch. Communication may or may not include words. Parents should be alert and sensitive to how the child realities to individuals and environments.

Trust is very important. When instances of sexual abuse are shared by the child, it is important to believe the child, and confront the relevant individual - within family or outside. Remember the child comes to an adult only after they have tried everything to manage it at their level.

Education on responsible sexual behaviour is very important. What the child learns will greatly depend on how it is taught. Sexuality education cannot fall into the clinical process of right & wrong followed in most schools today.

It is important to sensitise and equip enforcement institutions to accept that this happens, recognise it as a crime and take relevant action against the offender.



Do you think the communication gap between parents and children is responsible for this growing problem?

The communication gap has always been there and so has this problem. This is not a 'growing problem'. International and national movements, growing awareness and the rights language has given us courage and the vocabulary to make it heard and seen.

We realise that nothing is sacred and that the child is vulnerable to abuse at every space by anyone. Earlier we had extended families with lots of children and adults. There were always spaces for sexual experimenting as well as abuse. That the past was a happy place is a way to blame it somewhere outside of us.

Is our society set up also responsible for this? How to minimise this fear of social stigma among the kin of the victim?

That this question is asked is itself a concern. Such concern is not usually raised in cases of robbery or a murder. This social stigma in child sexual abuse issue comes from the morality frame where it becomes the 'family izzat'.

We fear because we choose to follow it. The fear exists because you know that you yourself might have asked the other a similar question.

Society is every individual and every institution. It is important to recognise that child sexual abuse is a child rights issue and needs to be dealt with as much severity as any other similar violation. That we are talking about it is a good sign, but we have been doing it for a long time and its time to get beyond this.

We continue to hear cases of child sexual abuse, long after they happened, mostly when the child has become an adult. The focus now should be on how to prevent it. We need to start asking different set of questions, build communities to prevent these crimes & empower children.

How should the parents/kin encourage the child to report the incident of sexual abuse to them?

Like said before, teach them the good touch, bad touch, right to say No. Build trust, believe them. Make them feel that they can come to the parents or even one of them, even if it's the other partner.

The important thing is to empower them to prevent abuse. Also, while we may accept that this happens within families, we assume that this doesn't happen in our family, or to our children. Don't assume. Ask

NGOs are often criticised for not working effectively for the cause they advocate. Some say NGOs have become mere profit earning ventures in the veil of charity work? What is your comment on this?

Accountability and transparency are among the most critical issues facing the sector. Evolution of standards that permit donors to evaluate both, the integrity and the effectiveness of the organisations they support is vital to building trust.

Proactive reporting and robust impact measurement are some of areas CRY has focussed on. As a totally integrated operation from donor interface to end-beneficiary, CRY has been able to guarantee donors accountable governance through the entire process.

Do you see any major difference in the working of international and domestic NGOs?

There are many differences with regard to governance norms, preferred causes and fundraising channels across the world. For CRY, direct contact with communities and customising solutions in partnership with them relevant to each local context are a key differentiator in our approach.

This is only possible because of our presence at the grassroots and our belief that communities themselves can and must find solutions to the root causes of their exclusion.

What is the greatest achievement of CRY in curbing this social nuisance?

CSA is a crime against humanity, not a social nuisance and CRY sees itself making a contribution to raising awareness, and bringing down the number of incidences of such crimes. As long as any Indian child is vulnerable to CSA, CRY will continue its efforts to protect all children.

CRY is working at multiple levels in addressing this issue from influencing policy & law such as the Offences Against Children Bill to building community awareness on the issue and taking immediate steps to protect children in situations of abuse.

A specific example was our experience in dealing with the issue of sexual abuse of girls in institutional homes in Aurangabad and Pune where legal and media advocacy has led to the issue being raised, moving the girls to a safe place and action taken against home officials.


Child labour is also one form of child abuse. Do you think the recent ban on children employed in eateries has made any difference in children's life? Do these children work out of compulsion or choice?

Few children choose to work. The compulsion of working children is the inability of the society to provide a range of choices to children for her development and protection, even if the family is in the midst of acute poverty.

The absence of social safety nets that can ensure basic rights of the child makes the children vulnerable to commercial exploitation. The recent ban on its own may not do anything to children's life merely because child labour cannot be legislated away. The issue needs to be addressed through protection dimension as well as the preventive dimension.

One question on the gruesome Nithari killings… Did CRY know anything about the Nithari incident even before it came to light? Did anyone come to CRY to complain about the incident? Reports say parents of the victims had filed a lot of complaints with the police starting 2005…how come no children's NGO had even a hint about this? Don't you work in cooperation with the police, especially when it is NCR based?

It is not that the issue was not known, or efforts were not made. NCW had written to CM, many media groups and citizens groups had tried to get the disappearance of children highlighted and get the state machinery to respond. The reason for this to become what it did is the state apathy towards children, especially from poor communities where rights are experienced as privileges.

And it is important to not confuse the role of the state and the NGOs...NGOs cannot and should not do the job of the police.

What is your message for society?

Despite India's recent success on the economic front, the situation of India's children remains dire. Half our children are malnourished, 3 out of 4 are anaemic and we have yet to fulfill our promise to provide all our children access to free and compulsory education.

India cannot achieve her true potential until we make child rights our foremost national priority. This will require every citizen - politician, bureaucrat, businessperson, professional, student and home-maker - to send a clear message to our elected representatives that nothing is more important to us.