“We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.” - Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Poet & Nobel Laureate
The scourge of child abuse has been in existence, unseen and unspoken since ages in our country. While the general reluctance to converse about such a grim subject may perhaps be understandable, the level of ignorance exhibited by the vast majority about this issue is beyond belief. It is only now, thanks to the efforts of a few well-meaning voluntary agencies and individuals, that the eyes are being opened and forced to see the stark reality.
Actually, in a country as vast as ours, and with the scale of existential problems so huge, coupled with apparently insurmountable issues such as socioeconomic depravity, inequality and discrimination, it is not surprising that this problem was allowed to fester for so long. This probably explains why we come across those horrifying cases reported in the media occasionally of children so battered that they are battling for life, or of raids conducted in some shady orphanages, which were utilising children as sex slaves on the sly.
For the record, abuse could be categorised as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Physical abuse involves hitting or bashing up a child and includes the battered baby syndrome. In sexual abuse, the perpetrator uses the child for his or her own sexual gratification. Emotional abuse pertains to unnecessary victimisation of the child, odious comparisons with other children based on looks or performance and blaming the child for every little crisis that may befall the family. Neglect involves not taking care of the child when in need, such as during illness or when the child is hungry.
Whatever the type of abuse, it is ill reported, under-detected and not enough is being done to prevent it in the first place. It is all too common for a child to be smacked once or twice, sometimes severely, in the name of punishment or discipline, both at home and in school. There have been umpteen numbers of cases of corporal punishment gone horribly wrong that have been reported in the media. Emotional abuse is a lot more subtle and difficult to detect. Of all the types, it is sexual abuse that is perhaps the most disturbing and the one that has a devastating consequence on the mind of the victim in the later years.
Often, it is said, the alleged perpetrator in sexual abuse is already well known to the family. In fact, it is one of those paradoxes wherein the safety of the child is jeopardised by that very individual who is supposed to be a well-wisher of the family. There have been several instances where the abuse went on, unnoticed, under the very nose of the parents. Abusers go to great lengths to avoid discovery, such as enticing the child with goodies, making secret pacts with children and threatening the child of dire consequence should he or she report it to anybody. You can imagine the effect that this might have on a young mind, which has already been vilified by the heinous sexual acts carried out on the child’s body, at an age when the child has no knowledge whatsoever about these matters.
Unfortunately, even when the child plucks up enough courage to report it to a trusted elder, it may go no further than the confines of the immediate family, owing to the ‘good nature’ of the perpetrator, who is externally cunningly well-mannered. On the other hand, even more horribly, even if believed, the child’s complaint is not reported to appropriate authorities to prevent the loss of ‘family honour’. In either case, the child loses out badly, suffering what is surely a double indemnity- ravaged by the abuser and betrayed by those whose responsibility it is to protect her. The perpetrator, on the other hand, gets away scot-free and continues in his merry way, moving on to newer, greener pastures. This explains why there have been horrifying cases of serial abusers of children who end up in various child-centred professions such as teaching, child-care and orphanages, often moving from one part of the country to another, undetected.
The effects of child abuse, especially sexual, can be far-reaching. The scar left on the young mind may be indelible and result in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low confidence, or personality disorders. Fortunately, contrary to popular belief, many victims of child abuse have taken to volunteering for the cause, instead of turning into abusers themselves.
The children on the streets are perhaps the most vulnerable of them all, who are exposed to discrimination and exploitation from multiple sources. Migrant children, or those dwelling in urban slums take to begging, peddling inanities at traffic junctions, working in garment factories, hotels or as labourers. Living on the fringes of society as they are, these children are targeted by a host of adversaries such as pimps, traffickers, paedophiles, employers, public, and even law-enforcement agents. Is it not a common sight to see a woman carrying a child (allegedly borrowed), while begging near traffic junctions? It is easy to ignore that this too is a form of child abuse. Look around the next time you go to a hotel; the boy who comes to clean your table, in all likelihood, may not be a day older than 13. This is child labour and is tantamount to abuse.
Assuming a hypothetical situation, wherein the child has disclosed abuse to very trusting parents, who have promptly reported the crime to the authorities, who have taken further measures, it has been extremely difficult to effectively prosecute the perpetrator, who has escaped punishment blatantly. Up until May 2012, there was no legal provision to bring the perpetrator to justice effectively. Finally, with the Lok Sabha having passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, it is hoped that an ancient lacuna would now be filled.
You may have the most stringent and well-intentioned laws, but without community participation all these amount to nothing. Tackling child abuse is the business of the whole community, a collective responsibility that we all have to share. Here is some of an otherwise comprehensive list of measures that we could undertake:
- Improve awareness: be aware, spread the message, remove ignorance
- Be vigilant: know your children’s whereabouts, who they are with when they are not with you, make a list of risky situations or areas and avoid them
- Tell-tale signs: seek professional help if your child is behaving differently, depressed, anxious, angry or exhibiting sexually age-inappropriate speech or behaviour, all of which may indicate underlying abuse
- Educate children: teach children about what constitutes ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ and who are allowed see them without clothes (such as yourself while bathing, physical examination by doctors)
- Take action: report agencies employing children as labourers, get others to stop patronising such agencies
- Take up advocacy: get involved, approach NGOs, organise awareness camps, support victims of abuse
Child abuse is a scourge, which needs to be constantly monitored, dealt with, and suppressed, if not totally eradicated. If we are serious about our chances of spearheading our country as a socially responsible developed nation, then the most vulnerable members of its society: the deprived, destitute and the children need to be protected at all costs.
This is a general disclaimer to all readers. I wish to clarify that the main intention of the above write-up was to raise awareness of this often-ignored issue. I wish to point out that this has been written keeping in view the Indian context and deals with all forms of child abuse; physical, sexual, emotional and neglect. Nowhere in the article have I condemned sex per se, nor was it my intention to arbitrate on age of consent to sex.
If sex were pleasurable, can it allowed to be practised on a 4 year old, as in the recent case of the French diplomat in Bangalore? Doesn’t the onus of responsibility lie on the person intending to have sexual intercourse to ensure that his subject is of legal age, in accordance with the law of the land? I wish to point out that the International Classification of Diseases Version 10 (ICD-10), devised by the World Health Organisation for the classification and diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders describes paedophilia thus:
A sexual preference for children, boys and girls or both, usually of prepubertal or early pubertal age.
A. The general criteria for disorders of sexual preference (F65) must be met.
B. There is a persistent or predominant preference for sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.
C. The individual is at least 16 years old and at least 5 years older than the child or children in criterion B.
Furthermore, the ICD-10 considers the problem of child abuse under the heading, ‘Z61 Problems related to negative life events in childhood.’
Whilst in the west the issue of child sexual abuse and paedophilia has been discussed and studied extensively, it is only now becoming a matter of public interest in India. The services dealing with this menace have reached advanced level in the west, while they are still in the nascent stage in our country. The cultural context in India is also in variance with the west. In the UK, where I have worked, the age of first sexual experience decreases with each passing year. After all, the world’s youngest grandfather, all of 29, hails from the UK. While we, as a society, are on the path towards westernisation, we have not yet reached the level of ‘sophistication’ in terms of prepubertal sex that the west has. For these reasons, the above article includes the bare minima of child abuse, highlighting only important aspects, in the Indian context.
I wish to reiterate that the above article attempts to shed some light on the general issue of child abuse, which continues to be neglected, under-reported and mis-managed in India. I do not want this point to be hijacked by needlessly esoteric viewpoints.
I have had occasion before to point out that isolating child abusers, and I deal here with sexual abuse, such as makes them appear so radically evil, is not seeing the whole picture. Just this evening, I read of the 'wildfire' escalation of child sexual abuse in the UK, even by children on children, as a consequence of pornography sites on the internet. The logic is simple. The act of sexual abuse is relieved of its taboo, and the next stage of imposition on a child known to one is less abuse than opportunism. However, from the point of view of a detached observer, the context of sexual licence in society is not taken into account as he condemns the child abuser in isolation - it even appears as if the sexual act itself were a terrible thing.
If there is child sexual abuse it must be judged in the context of 'enlightened' sexual attitudes prevalent in society, chiefly, that sex is healthy and fun. The age distinction that society would like to draw between adults and children in the matter of indulgence in sexual activity, the so-called age of consent, becomes an arbitrary one, where it is not the act itself but being below the age limit that defines its wrongness.
The steps you advocate as a battle-plan against child molesters is the easier of two alternatives: though it has that tone of down-right condemnation which could never be applied to sex other than as a means of procreation.