‘Child sexual abuse is a national epidemic’

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‘Child sexual abuse is a national epidemic’

Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi is launching his Bharat Yatra today to galvanise the biggest ever social movement for tougher laws for protecting a generation against violence. Awareness, laws and a united sense of purpose are priority at a time where a child is not even safe in a school toilet

While your nationwide padyatra on child sexual abuse is aimed at creating awareness, how big a malady is it in terms of statistics?

The key mission of the Bharat Yatra is to create a movement in India against child sexual abuse primarily, but also against all sorts of violence which children are facing or where they are being used for violence. Child sexual abuse in India is growing like a moral epidemic. The statistics are simply shocking. About 70 per cent of child sexual abuse cases have been the result of advances made by family members, acquaintances, teachers, relatives, neighbours, friends of the father and so on. The children can hardly understand the transgressions against themselves because most of the offenders are known to them and they do not sense a threat. Neither do they understand that what they are subjected to, therefore, is abnormal. Only 30 per cent violations are done by outsiders. What is worrisome is that such incidents are now rapidly increasing in our homes.

 Earlier, the average age of a rape survivor was 14-15 years, which is now continuously sliding. Even two-month infants are being raped and killed. The rape of a five-year-old has become very common. Most worrisome is the fact that there is no urban-rural divide when it comes to child abuse.

Ten years ago, the Government had released a study along with UNICEF. It said 53 per cent of India’s children were sexually abused before reaching the age of 18. I shudder to think what that figure is now. The report was buried. Nobody further discussed about the recommendations because this would be a national shame. Even today, before a child reaches the age of 18, there seems to be some or the other kind of exploitation at his/her school, bus, home or office. At some point in their lives, our children are touched inappropriately. A child is stolen every eight minutes in India. These are the Government figures so the reality could be even worse than that. With pre-teen or teen girls, such cases of kidnapping and abduction are usually dismissed as elopement with neighbourhood boys.

How many of these cases are being reported, considering this is a taboo subject in our society?

I will demonstrate the dilemma by way of an example that happened in Delhi no less. Two weeks ago, I was with a four-year-old rape survivor. She was raped by her school van driver on the ride back from school. The girl did not know what had happened to her. She was in utter shock. She could not imagine what had happened to her and frankly it was beyond her comprehension. She told her mother a little of what had happened. The mother was extremely worried by her injuries and rushed her to hospital. My wife and I rushed to the hospital to meet them and assess what legal aid we could provide to them. Initially, the police did not register the case and asked them to settle the matter. They even tried to convince the mother that the driver was a known person, that he was a father himself and he would lose his bread-winning job.  But the mother was firm and said that she wanted to register an FIR and file a case.

While in the hospital, the child would shiver at the very mention of the word school. After about a fortnight of intensive treatment, she began to open up a little. She was really beautiful, naughty and talkative. When I asked her what she wanted to become when she grew up, she remained silent. I would throw a few options. She would quiver and react whenever I mentioned teacher because she related that profile to a school. I asked her if she wanted to become a police woman. She said no. I asked her if she wanted to become a pilot. She remained silent. I asked her if she wanted to become a doctor and her face lit up. She pointed towards her doctor and said yes. To her, the doctor was her saviour in the present moment and, therefore, admirable. Then almost instantaneously her demeanour changed and she asked if she had to go to school to become one. Her attending doctor told her she had been to different schools and each one was different. The girl was terrorised by the idea of attending any school. She has been scarred for life.

 In another case, two girls, one six-year-old and the other an eight-year-old, were brutalised. Their parents were daily wage-earners and migrants from Bihar. A neighbour enticed them with Rs 100 to buy chocolates and the girls were not found the whole night. The next day they were found in a ditch near a drain. The injuries were so serious that they had to undergo major reconstructive surgeries at six-month intervals. They were left with no option but to recuperate in unhygienic and dinghy conditions in their hovel. Both the girls were so traumatised that they could not understand what had happened to them. We have no special mechanism to rehabilitate minor rape survivors, neither in terms of sustained medical treatment or psychological counselling and more importantly setting up cells in underprivileged pockets where such cases are rampant.

 Most of the reported cases deal with the girl child but the boy child too is under threat…

I would say 50 per cent of sexual abuses against children today concern boys. Sodomy is rampant. Last month, a son of a bureaucrat couple in Mumbai committed suicide after being subjected to repeated sodomy. And while a girl can share her angst with her mother easily, it is not so with the average boy child in India, especially those under 10. Some are afraid of talking to their fathers about it.

While sexual crimes against children are under-reported, what is the status of the cases that are filed?

We want to create an awareness and culture so that all crimes against children are reported. Last year, 15,000 cases under POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) were registered. Out of them there has been four per cent conviction, six per cent acquittal and 90 per cent pendency. This is according to NCRB (National Crime Record Bureau). Hypothetically, if no case of sexual abuse takes place from now onwards, that is if the malady stops miraculously across the country because of overnight enlightenment, it will take 40 years to dispose of pending cases! Can you think of justice? Who is going to waste 40 years of his or her life for justice? The survivors would have probably married and even have had children. Do you expect them to go and tell the court that 30 years ago this happened to me? I discussed the pendency issue with the Union Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, recently. Unless we have speedy trials through fast track courts, dedicated and exclusive courts or at least dedicated judges in the courts only for such cases, there is no hope.

We cannot have the same judge dealing with petty thefts and child rape. We need to train the police to ensure proper investigation, beat corruption in the justice delivery system and create an infrastructure for fearless rehabilitation.

 But most important such crimes must be reported. Parents are held back by taboos and the children are too scared to tell their parents, thinking it is an anomaly born of their own wrongdoing in some form. They bear the burden of guilt. This suppression of guilt manifests in deviant or odd social patterns in their later years. That’s another problem. The child-parent dialogue should open up.

 What about child trafficking?

Child trafficking is a big problem in the North-East. They are trafficked as sex workers, domestic workers or for child marriages in Haryana, Punjab and some other places. The major trafficking takes place for domestic help and that is basically slavery. The middlemen have already taken the money and the girls are as good as sold.

 We need an anti-trafficking law now. My office has helped in drafting the bill on human trafficking and it is awaiting its placement in Parliament. It is under discussion but is not the priority of any political party. Some of the other bills are prioritised because they can attract votes. Nobody is interested in the trafficking law as they feel not many are affected. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in principle agreed that we have to bring this law as soon as possible.

 How will you hold workshops through the yatra and make sure it becomes a national movement?

The yatra is radial, originating from different parts of the country. We have made sure that it passes through the tribal belts and Kashmir where children are victims of violence and are even coerced into it. Sometimes they are used as human shields. We will be having mass meetings every day to educate people and administrators against all sorts of violence against children. We are also forming small groups in schools, colleges and universities now onwards, during the yatra and after it for sustainability of the mission.

 This time we are involving faith leaders because violation of child rights is a social evil and the police and the Government alone cannot stop it. NGOs have their own small projects, their limited area of work. Faith leaders have the arc to be heard and I have involved 27 faith leaders and their representatives, be it Hindus, Muslims, Christians or any other. We are involving different sects too, like the Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission and Gayatri Parivar. They were never engaged in something like this before. When they are all seen together in some school, college, locality or village, it will send a strong signal that everybody is united on child rights. Then when they say this is against religion and god, people will listen very carefully than they would to any social worker or politician. The inter-faith dialogue at Ajmer Sharif was fruitful too with Jains joining in.

 Besides, I am urging MPs to take up the issue of child sexual abuse in their constituencies that fall along the route of the yatra. They represent hundreds of thousands of people in their constituency. If they say that it is wrong, then the message at least goes to the local police, who are usually not sensitive to crimes against children. We are involving the judiciary by ensuring that the Chief Justice of the State High Court comes for our round tables. Supreme Court judges have expressed interest as have Chief Ministers of States and Central Ministers. Mehbooba Mufti is flagging off the Srinagar leg of the yatra. The President of India has kindly consented to host the culmination ceremony. Prime Minister Modi has supported the yatra and may join us.

 We are hoping that at least one crore people will take a pledge against child sexual abuse and trafficking. Last time I had done a march, the Right To Education had become a reality.

 India today is a country with the highest demographic dividend as we have the youngest population and productive workforce. Yet how much are we budgeting for this crucial component of human resource development?

Forty per cent of our population is below the age of 18. But the irony is that India spends only 3.5 or 3.6 per cent of its gross domestic product on health, education and protection of this chunk of population. That is how pathetic it is.

 We have to ensure that girls and boys complete their secondary education, not only primary education. If secondary education is ascertained and made mandatory, at least the children can be looked after till they are 16-17. Quality, inclusion and equity in education can be possible only through higher budgetary allocations. So it is with health. Protection of children needs a series of preventive and administrative measures. Police training and vigilance are a must. As I said, we do not have psychological and psychiatric treatment facilities for minor rape cases, except in a few private institutions. So only those who can afford can approach these centres. Ordinary, poor survivors are out of this ambit. Hence investment on protection of children is as important as education.

This yatra is history’s biggest effort towards social mobilisation against hidden crimes that remain under the carpet because of social taboo, shame and fear. Sure survivors live. But they do so in fear of society, fear of shame, fear of honour. Every parent in India is living in fear, worried every moment about their child’s safety. And the offenders roam around freely. This is so lopsided. This yatra will create an environment and demand, because demand is also important for ownership. If ordinary people understand that they could be protected by a certain law, they would seek redress. Sometimes the policeman and lawyers have no idea that there is a very strong law against child sexual abuse.

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