By P. V. Swati:
A Delhi court caused a stir on Friday, 17th of February as it requested legislators to consider castration as an alternative punishment for child abusers. Judge Kamini Lau stated in the session “castration is the most befitting sentence which can be imposed on any paedophile or serial offender but the hands of this court are tied as the statute does not provide for it. Indian legislators are yet to explore this as an alternative to conventional sentencing.”
Justice Lau sentenced a man to life imprisonment for raping his six-year-old niece and directed the prison authorities not to give him any remission. As he puts it “the message to be sent by the court has to be loud and clear, and that is ‘do not mess with a child’ and any person who meddles with the child, male or female, in any manner shall not be spared”.
Nandan had kidnapped his niece when she was playing with her brother and took her to his house on pretext of giving her ice-cream and raped her in April last year. Nandan had earlier tried to sexually assault women in his family but the matter was hushed up to protect family honour, the prosecution had stated. The court noted that the minor was rescued from the clutches of the convict by her mother and aunt who went to his house in search of the girl. They had found the injured child crying while Nandan was sleeping after committing the crime.
Leaving aside the judicial measures in this case, how much do we really know about child sexual abuse in India? How aware and alert are we? Child abuse which in many cases involves sexual elements is a form of child abuse in which an adult or older adolescent abuses a child for sexual stimulation. Forms of child sexual abuse include asking or pressuring a child to engage in sexual activities, inappropriate exposure of the genitals to a child, displaying pornography to a child, direct sexual contact against a child, physical contact with the child’s genitals, viewing of the child’s genitalia without physical contact, using a child to produce child pornography or selling the sexual services.
Effects of child sexual abuse include guilt and self-blame, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, fear of things associated with the abuse, self-esteem issues, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, addiction, self-injury, suicidal ideation, somatic complaints, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, other mental illnesses including borderline personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder, propensity to re-victimization in adulthood and bulimia nervosa among other problems.
However, the subject of child sexual abuse is still a taboo in India. There is a conspiracy of silence around the subject and a very large percentage of people feel that this is a largely western problem and that child sexual abuse does not happen in India. Part of the reason of course lies in a traditional conservative family and community structure that does not talk about sex and sexuality at all. Parents do not speak to children about sexuality as well as physical and emotional changes that take place during their growing years. As a result of this, all forms of sexual abuse that a child faces do not get reported to anyone. The girl, whose mother has not spoken to her even about a basic issue like menstruation, is unable to tell her mother about the uncle or neighbour who has made sexual advances towards her. This silence encourages the abuser so that he is emboldened to continue the abuse and to press his advantage to subject the child to more severe forms of sexual abuse. Very often children do not even realize that they are being abused. In a study on Women’s Experiences of Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, some of the respondents have stated that till the questionnaire was administered to them they did not realize that they had been abused as children. They had buried the incident as a painful and shameful one not to be ever told to anyone.
Some deep seated fear has always moved Indian families to keep their girls and their ‘virginity’ safe and many kinds of social and cultural practices have been built around ensuring this. This shows that there is knowledge of the fact that a girl child is unsafe though nobody talks about it. However this fear is only around girls and the safety net is generally not extended to boys. There is evidence from this as well as other studies that boys are equally at risk.
The WHO estimates that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence involving physical contact, though this is certainly an underestimate. Much of this sexual violence is inflicted by family members or other people residing in or visiting a child’s family home- people normally trusted by children and often responsible for their care. A review of epidemiological surveys from 21 countries, mainly high- and middle- income countries, found that at least 7% of females (ranging up to 36%) and 3% of males (ranging up to 29%) reported sexual victimization during their childhood. According to these studies, between 14% and 56% of the sexual abuse of girls, and up to 25% of the sexual abuse of boys, was perpetrated by relatives or step parents. In many places, adults were outspoken about the risk of sexual violence their children faced at school or at play in the community, but rarely did adults speak of children’s risk of sexual abuse within the home and family context. The shame, secrecy and denial associated with familial sexual violence against children foster a pervasive culture of silence, where children cannot speak about sexual violence in the home, and where adults do not know what to do or say if they suspect someone they know is sexually abusing a child.
In Nandan’s case, the court has convicted 30-year-old for rape, kidnapping and unnatural sex. Calling the convict a “live sex bomb”, the court refused to take a lenient view of his act. It has also directed the Delhi government to grant a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the victim as part of restorative justice, as the victim had not recovered physically from the abuse. The judge noted that the victim was still receiving treatment and her resistance level had decreased as she was suffering from recurrent infections.
But as far as castration as a punishment for child abuse is concerned, it is undoubtedly incompatible with our constitutional principles. Its highly draconian and would taint the judiciary we have formulated as a modern nation-state. But, the larger questions are whether a stringent judicial penal code would prevent child abuse in future or would a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the victim would heal her for the life time. What we need is a wider awareness about child abuse as form of violation which can be inflicted not just by the external forces, but can victimise a child within the ‘protective’ confines of home. We need to educate our children to understand and guard their sexuality from any kind of abuse. We need to enable the victims to communicate their sufferings to the responsible entities. It is only after we have attained a social maturity to understand the gravity of child abuse as an evil act and make all possible efforts to prevent it that the judicial measures of penalising the culprit and compensating the victim would prove to be of any help.