In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development released a study that laid out India’s struggles with child abuse in stark terms.
“Child abuse is shrouded in secrecy and there is a conspiracy of silence around the entire subject,” the report, called ‘Study on Child Abuse’, reads. “Further, certain kinds of traditional practices that are accepted across the country, knowingly or un-knowingly amount to child abuse.”
While there are many stories that revolve around this secrecy, the future for abused children is bleak; however, it is not impossible with the existence of initiatives like Childline India Foundation, which functions as a national organization for awareness, advocacy and training on issues of child abuse.
One of these children, Rohit (name changed), 17, sits in his living room, near an industrial area on the periphery of Delhi. His family’s home sits on a narrow street, congested by cars and motorbikes. The occasional stray dog takes a nap on the hood of one of the parked cars.
“It’s a diverse area,” Rohit says. “You would find all kinds of people here – of different ethnicities and religions, families, drunkards and businessmen.” However, Rohit does not plan on staying there for a long time.
Rohit’s parents’ marriage, like many arranged marriages, was unstable.
“My mother often tells me how my father lied to her family to lure them into marriage,” Rohit says. “It would often lead to rows between my parents, and it is still hard to believe which version of the story is true. It would be, at times like these, when I would find my father drunk and on the verge of losing all control.”
His father is a small-scale businessman, and like any other business, his work gets unstable at times. “When everything wouldn’t go right, he would look at other happy people, and feel miserable about himself. And, of course, get drunk again.”
Rohit says that on occasions like these, his father, who is otherwise understanding, would get extremely drunk and beat up his mother in front of him. His mother would always fight back, and sometimes, Rohit would be the subject of their fights.
“My father would beat me, but my mother would do worse,” he says. “She would ask my father to take me away from her because I was his child. I felt like there was no place I could go to.”
According to him, it is situations like these which have left him resolute about the decision of moving away from his parents as soon as he attains adulthood, feeling that he would be the safest if he lives alone. But the real problem never lied in the fact that he was abused and neglected by his parents; rather, it was his inability to share these incidents with anyone.
Child abuse, in India, remains locked up inside four walls of the household or whichever institution it takes place in.
“I have always been taught to believe that the image of my family that goes out in the society is the most important,” he says. “I still cannot deviate from that. I couldn’t share such private matters even with a friend with the fear of them babbling out, let alone the police.”
Rohit’s case is only one of many in India where children continue to be abused and neglected physically, mentally and emotionally. Not many have the choice that Rohit has – to break away from his family. What worsens the situation is the taboo surrounding child abuse in India, where the treatment given to children is considered something that cannot have any public involvement and needs to be confined inside the household, as is exemplified by Rohit’s story.
According to National Crime Records Bureau‘s annual report from 2014, every two out of three children in India go through physical abuse, while every second child is a victim of emotional abuse or neglect.
With time, however, the hidden problem of child abuse has surfaced and has forced the government to take action.
One of these is the initiative of Childline, an emergency and long-term support phone number, 1098, that can be dialed anywhere in India in order to reach the organization to help children in distress. It is a platform that has brought together the Government of India, non-profit organizations and concerned individuals.
This phone number has emerged as a revolutionary solution for helping children like Rohit, by not only providing the aspect of supporting children with education and homes but also helping them with family counseling.
While providing a 24-hour free helpline number, Childline India Foundation works extensively in spreading awareness and pointing out child abuse in the most under-resourced and inaccessible regions of the country.
During the year of its inception, 1996, the phone number received just one call the entire year. Now, the foundation reaches out to ten million children annually.
“I am glad that child abuse is finally being dealt with directly, or is at least being talked about,” Rohit says when asked about the organization. “There is nothing more comforting than to know that you can call someone when you go through abuse, especially people who are sensitized and trained to understand your issues.”
After all, the most basic necessity of a child is to be heard when he or she is in distress.