Focus on Child not on Perpetrators!

I was introduced to Shobha who works for ‘Nirnay’ an NGO. Her commitment to this cause of prevention of Child Sex Abuse is so high [and inspiring] that she conducted an awareness program at our office even when her husband was very critically ill.
“Why are they focusing on perpetrators and why nobody is talking about the girls, their problems, their future, and about their feelings?” She forcefully enquired in a conversation with me. She consented to be interviewed for my blog…..

Child Sex Abuse (CSA) is largely a silent problem prevalent all over the country. Being a sensitive topic, it is rarely discussed openly. The legal machinery with respect to this issue is still primitive and definitely not sensitive to the victim. The social taboos about discussing sex with parents or informed adults only further complicate the matter. Therefore, there is a definite need to engage parents in a dialogue about preventing CSA and through them educate children about personal safety.

Most parents are aware of Pedophilia (sexual crimes against children) than they are of CSA. It must be noted that pedophiles are those who are sexually attracted to children and commit sexual crimes against children in a systematic, often violent manner.

Child sex abuse on the other hand is subtler and more difficult to detect because the perpetrators could be family members, relatives, friends and other caregivers.

1. Tell us how serious is the problem of child abuse in our society?

The first ever National Study on Child Abuse in April 2007, covering 13 states in India and a sample size of 12,446 children was released by Minister for Women and Child Development showing these stark reality figures:

More than 53% children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse
50% of sexual offenders were known to the victim or were in positions of trust (family member, close relative, friend or neighbour).

It would therefore be incorrect to believe that CSA is not a major problem in India. The reason why it has not been addressed as a serious problem is because very few cases have been reported and victims or their parents are not willing to talk about it openly.

We must also remember that this is an issue of international significance because it is covered in the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child. It is good to know that almost 190 countries have ratified this and India was one of them.

For those interested, Article 34 states that every child has the right to be protected from any form of sex abuse. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere without discrimination have,
• The right to survival
• The right to development
• The right to protection
• The right to participation

The Government of India is working on an” Offenses against Children” Bill in the parliament in order to address the issue at a national level.

2. What are the various forms of child sexual abuse?
We need to start from the start and first of all define Sexual Abuse amongst children.

Any behaviour by an adult or older person (usually not strangers) who uses a child (below 18 years) for their own sexual pleasure is called Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). It includes touching as well as non-touching behaviours. CSA is a systematic, planned abuse of a child. It is not an isolated incident, but involves manipulation and abuse of a child’s trust and innocence. Abuse always happens in situations when power between two people is unequal. Abuse is never the child’s fault even if she/he acts inappropriately.

There are various forms of abuse that children are subject to. Some of them are
o Physical
o Psychological
o Behavioural

3. How does it affect the children? Does it leave a permanent trauma or is there a hope for the children?

Child Sexual Abuse in particular has grave effect on the child’s physical, psychological as well as emotional being. Some of the common effects of child sexual abuse are depression; post traumatic stress disorder and physical injury to the child if he/she is severely sexually assaulted. The result can be more serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest. If there is appropriate counseling and a safe and genial environment created for the child with the support of the family and loved ones, he/she can overcome the negative effects of sexual abuse.

4. How should we guard children from relatives or from outsiders? In the Mumbai case parents were actively involved in abuse!

It is an evil that surrounds children everywhere, within and without the family. So the best way to protect children is to educate them on ‘Personal Safety’, for parents to be alert and to look out for tell tale signs. Personal Safety Education is a curriculum that must be introduced in all schools especially in the Primary Section. This will educate children to safeguard. As an organization we offer this to many schools and even offer to train the teachers in this. A child that is aware and educated on the evils of sexual abuse is hard to be trapped.

5. If we spot an abused child [because it may not speak about the issue] whom shall we report it? What shall we do?

First of all, protect the child; then confront the perpetrator. This would mean to expose him/her, which is the most difficult part. This is when we need to get in touch with the local police, however, we have many loopholes even here which is to the advantage of the perpetrator.. There cases where the conductor of a school bus who used physically abuse girl children, when caught, he pleaded guilty in court and got away with a fine of Rs 1,000 [Approx US$ 20]. He continues to hold the job! In another case, again it was a school bus conductor, who just got fired from his job.

While demanding a new set of laws that deal with sexual crimes, we have to make sure they we protect our children not just from these heartless perpetrators but also from inquisitive and hungry media persons and the police. In the guise of solving the problem, they are found asking probing questions which traumatize the abused children more that the abuse itself. Justice should not be approached purely in the legal sense. The issue needs to be addressed into the core of our society; the nucleus of a community and that is the family. A sense of justice and right living must be sown into family, which will reflect into communities and finally become a trait in the society. The change has to happen in all these three spheres.

6. How adequate is the law to deal with the issue of child abuse?

The basic problem here is that the law in India is hardly sensitive to the needs of CSA victims. When a girl child is abused, she is classed under section 354, which deals with outraging the modesty of a woman. Rape laws define rape as penetration and intercourse; they do not recognise penetration with inanimate objects, the use of fingers and sodomy. In the case of abuse of male children, boys can be booked only under section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. It is sad to say that the Indian Constitution lacks provisions to protect the rights of children, especially those who are sexually abused. The only way we can book the perpetrator is under the laws of rape which is generally for adults. But, there are many other forms of sexual abuse that are not even recognized by the law.

7. What actions would you expect from citizens, police and Government to discourage child abuse?

One of things that citizens can do is come out in the open and talk about the issue. The Police and the Media must become more sensitive to the interests of the victims. The Government has to step up and make new laws to safe guard our children.

8. Tell us about the work your NGO does to create awareness of this social problem.

ACT is a registered NGO, operating in Mumbai. Nirnay is one their projects that aims to reach out to teenagers in the age group of 14 to 16 years with value-based sexual health education.

We stumbled upon the issue of Child Sexual Abuse in the course of our work in the schools. During the counselling sessions with the students, some of them opened up and shared about how they had been victims of child sexual abuse. Many of them had been subjected to abuse in their own homes by their close relatives. That is when we decided to initiate Awareness Building Seminars for parents, in the schools. This was mainly to inform them about the severity of the issue. We got a tremendous response from them about the seminars. A few of these parents, who happened to be from the corporate sector, requested us to extend this service in the corporate sector, as well. In India, though the problem of Child Sexual Abuse is rampant, it is the least talked about. It is only in the recent past that glaring statistics have brought out the ugly but the real face of Child Sexual Abuse.

Following are our observations about the issue that demands our attention:
• Most parents are unaware of the problem. It has not even crossed their minds that such a thing could happen to their child
• They don’t know what to look for, or the symptoms of sexual abuse.
• Children are not educated how to protect themselves from the abusers. Parents don’t talk to their children about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ as a result the children are not equipped to understand when a particular behaviour from an older person is ‘not good’.
• There is no legal system in place to punish the abusers unless it is rape or penetration. Like we saw in the case of the conductor who was fired from his job for sexually abusing a 3-year old student in the school bus. He was not taken to court. Nothing stops him from taking another job and abusing another child. As more people raise their voices against it, we hope that the government will do something about the offences against children rather than wait for the worst to happen.

We invite your readers will join hands with us in creating a greater awareness and thereby helping our little ones.

You can contact Ms Shobha Sreekumaran at +91 9923872899,