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Literature has many characters whose behaviour would be condemned in the real world. That’s certainly the case with The Godfather’s Jack Woltz with his predilection for very young girls. But one doesn’t have to turn to Hollywood films or American fiction to find instances of paedophilia or child sexual abuse (CSA).
It’s there in the “orangedrink lemondrink man’s” abuse of the young boy Estha in Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things and the reel angst that Alia Bhatt’s character felt on being abused by her uncle as a child in the film Highway.
Four-year-old Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman felt a similar pain and betrayal on being abused, sexually, by a senior family member. It was only years later, however, that she could finally manage to talk about it. “He molested me some four-five times when I was left in his care.
Later, I realised my mind had blocked out that experience to cope with the trauma,” says the Kolkata-based rights activist.
Sleazy uncles, over-friendly aunts and adult family members or friends given to excessive physical displays of affection are part of most children’s growing up years. When advances end in abuse, the child is hushed for fear of social repercussions.
“Statistics show every second child in India has faced some sort of sexual abuse,” says Pooja Taparia, whose Mumbai-based organisation Arpan, works to prevent child sexual abuse and help victims. Recent National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows a 44.7% increase in the number of children who had been raped in 2013 as compared to 2012.
“Since the Satyamev Jayate episode on child sexual abuse and a spate of media campaigns, reporting of abuse has gone up. Still, it’s a far cry from what it should be,” says Nishit Kumar of Childline India Foundation, the country’s first toll-free tele-helpline for children in distress.
About 9% of distress calls received by Childline are related to child sexual abuse. But an outrage on the scale of the recent Bangalore protest against the rape of a six-year-old at school, allegedly by a teacher, is rare.
“Action within the family is increasing. But, in our experience, not a single parent has come back to us and said that they would like to take legal action against the abuser,” says Taparia. The reasons go beyond the fear of stigma.
Sometimes, parents fear that extended court proceedings may add to the child’s trauma. Often, confusion and a misplaced sense of guilt stops children from confiding in their parents. Or, where the abuser is a person in power, a teacher or a family elder, the fear of punishment keeps them silent.
As in the case of Neha (name changed on request), who was abused by her maths tutor when she was 11 and only found the courage to seek help when she became pregnant.
“In most cases, parents come to seek help for behavioural problems in their children. It is only during therapy that we find that the child has been sexually abused,” explains child psychiatrist Deepak Gupta.
The Internet presents a new source of vulnerability with strangers attempting to befriend children on social media. The moral police are quick to put the blame on the easy availability of porn on the Internet and on mobile phones, but Nishit of Childline argues that such easy connections cannot be made.
“In some countries like Holland where even commercial sex and some forms of porn are over the top, they have the lowest number of child sex abuse cases,” he says adding that CSA cases tend to be higher in societies with repressed social systems. “In most cases, abuse is by a normal adult who succumbs to the temptation of easy sex,” he says. Taparia agrees “In only 20 per cent of cases of child sexual abuse is the offender a paedophile.”
The abuse is more difficult to detect and curb in the case of children living on the streets and in government shelters. There are provisions to periodically monitor such institutions but these exist only on paper.
According to a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch, many facilities are not registered making supervision difficult. There is no provision under the Juvenile Justice Act to penalise non-registration either. “India signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992.
However, Child Protection came into our Plans only in the XIth Plan. India grossly underspends on children and hence every aspect of children’s lives is an issue,” says the Childline official.
The Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children) 2000 has been the main legal framework related to children in the country. In 2013, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was passed. POCSO widens the definition of sexual abuse of children and makes reporting mandatory.
It mentions the Juvenile Police and the formation of special courts for speedy trial of cases registered under POCSO. However, according to NCRB figures, 28,171 of 33,328 cases of rape of children awaiting trial at courts (including pending cases from the last year) were still pending trial at the end of 2013.
“There is a lack of judicial infrastructure,” says Anant Asthana, a child rights lawyer. “The legal system in our country is responsive rather than preventive,” he adds. Rule 31 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) rules 2007, does require state and central government to issue guidelines for the prevention of the sexual abuse of children, he says. “Delhi did release some guidelines in 2013, but is yet to officially notify it and so it is not legally binding”.
Meanwhile, prevention is needed at the individual and the social level. “People have to ensure that an individual child is not exposed to an adult in any room or closed space,” cautions Kushal Singh, chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
And while the onus of protecting children lies with the adults, Taparia believes children should also be empowered to protect themselves. “We should teach them to identify between safe and unsafe situations and touches,” she says. In case of abuse, “family support is a must along with psychological assessment and intervention,” cautions Dr Gupta.
Time does not heal. Not if the wound is ignored and allowed to fester in silence.