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Child sex abuse in Mumbai: Maybe your child is not just ‘acting funny’

Children who survived sex attacks are dealing with a range of issues that they may often not be able to talk about

mumbai Updated: May 18, 2017 11:07 IST
Farhan Shaikh
Child sex abuse

From retreating into a shell to becoming anxious, developing severe depression and even becoming sex offenders themselves — children who survived sex attacks are dealing with a range of issues that they may often not be able to talk about.

Worse still, these signs are not always obvious, which makes it difficult to prevent the sex abuse. But it can be stopped by noticing subtle signs that children who need help show, experts said (see box, above).

“The effects on a child are directly related to how severe the attack was, how close the relative who attacked is and for how long the child has been abused. But you can pick up the immediate red flags — they stop being able to speak, they get dazed and confused easily,” said Dr Vani Kulhahi, a psychiatrist.

READ: Mumbai parents, don’t let your child suffer sexual abuse in silence. Report before it’s too late

Dr Sagar Mundada, another psychiatrist, said survivors of abuse are prone to depression and anxiety.

“Such incidents obviously leave a scar and the trauma affects their behaviour. They panic over the smallest of things,” he said.

In some extreme cases, the survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “They grow fearful of specific people, activities and places because these things remind them of the abuse,” Dr Kulhahi said.

What could help? Supportive parents and a system that does not blame the children. This would encourage them to talk about what is happening to them, said experts.

“If parents support instead of blaming and neglecting the child, it helps keep away the basic fear that stops them from confiding in someone,” Dr Mundada said. In the absence of this, children can go on to develop dangerous syndromes. Social workers and psychologists said children who did not find the support they needed, grew up to become sexual offenders themselves.

“Known as the act of mirroring, the child may abuse someone the way she was abused, because the offender made the assault seem normal to the child,” said one social worker.

In some cases, children even grow close to the offender.

This is called the Stockholm Syndrome.

In one case, activists told HT of a 14-year-old girl who was rescued from her brother who sexually abused her.

The brother was arrested and sent to jail. But while the girl herself had come forward with the complaint, she soon started feeling guilty.

She requested to visit him in jail and told volunteers not to make him a villain.

A senior Mumbai police officer said it was important to notice changes in children, not only for their own safety but also to stop the attacker.

“Prolonged abuse emboldens the attackers, as they start believing that they can get away with these crimes. So many more children could fall prey,” the officer said.

Numbers are not telling the whole story: YP Singh, IPS officer-turned-lawyer

There are three types of child abuse taking place. The first is child prostitution. This goes on openly but rarely gets reported because there is often a nexus between brothel owners and the police.

Those involved in trafficking minor girls have a very tight grip over them and their families, so both the girls and their parents are not able to report the crime.

The second is the kind of abuse that happens every day to children, right under our noses. They get tormented by a perpetrator, but most of this goes unnoticed either because the child doesn’t know what it happening or because they are threatened. Parents sometimes want to cover up the incident because of the widespread taboo over the issue or to avoid further trauma that may be caused by the probe and trial of a case.

The third type is when minors are involved in relationships. In such cases, while there is consent between the two minors, it is considered illegal and is an offence.

In all these categories, the one underlying issue is that the cases reported and the figures that show up in statistical reports by the police are only the tip of the iceberg. This means we may never be able to measure the exact magnitude of the problem.

Another issue is that investigations and prosecutions of criminal cases are based on ‘information’, not on ‘complaints’. In the realm of offences related to child abuse, it is the other way around. Only when the police receive a complaint do they act. While there is a problem with this, the solution is not straightforward. If the police start registering child abuse cases based on information, it could be termed as an intrusion of privacy. So, what we need is a strategy to develop cases based on information, even when there is no complaint. Beat staff could be trained to get information and develop a case with the help of the victims or their parents. There could be community awareness programmes. Social welfare departments and NGOs could help the police bring into the open cases of abuse.

Yes, this is a sensitive and tricky situation with no easy solution. But some action is better than none.