“She is a vile little girl always looking for excuses to gain attention. Don’t trust her words madam, she is a liar.”
This is what the father of a seven-year-old girl said when his daughter tried to tell him that she was being abused. She went quiet after hearing her father’s voice. However, my friends and I, who had been helping out in the neighbourhood slums for some time, decided to investigate the matter.
They were a family of four – parents and two daughters. Once the father left for work, a friend of his visited them frequently and played with the girls. Away from the prying of neighbours, he touched them in inappropriate places. But since the girls were unaware of what constituted sexual abuse, they did not talk to anyone about it.
It so happened that when I visited the house where her mother was employed as a domestic worker, on a Sunday morning, the little girl also tagged along. I was having a chat with her when she mentioned these ghastly incidents. Later, as we cajoled her, she mentioned that she felt ‘uncomfortable’, and in sheer innocence, narrated various incidents to us in the passing.
Luckily, the entire neighbourhood got involved, questioned the family and the accused, and discovered that the actions of this family friend who was so ‘nice and friendly’ were indeed suspicious. They convinced the parents to refrain from interacting with him, and eventually the family was shifted to a new locality and the accused was barred from meeting them.
Although the case has been brought to the police, investigations are still going on due to lack of evidence. It seems that the pleas of a seven-year old don’t suffice, and so many such incidents never come to light.
A report by the non-profit organisation, ‘Save The Children’, has found that 94.8% of such cases saw children, both on the vulnerable streets and those inside comfortable homes, being abused by someone they knew, and not strangers. It so happens that often the abusers are acquaintances or relatives whose public image is sometimes hard to question on the grounds of children’s complaints.
A teenage girl, who had been repeatedly raped when she was 12 years old, opened up to me and shared her fear of being disregarded in the society because of her ‘shameful’ past. She confessed that the people around her make her feel like a criminal who has been branded for immoral deeds. Her plight came to the knowledge of her family only after she turned 16, when she was old enough to understand the gravity of the abuse meted out to her by her father’s co-workers.
But as she narrated her story, her shaking hands and silent sobs told me that she has not yet healed. Her mother shared that it took two years of rigorous counselling to inspire her daughter to join college for further studies. The fears have not left her completely and she still has to resort to antidepressant injections to cope up with dreadful memories.
These heart-wrenching accounts of sexual harassment that leave a child mentally and physically disturbed are not gender specific. A boy of 10 reported that the owner of the dhaba where he works, constantly abuses the child workers who shake with fear under his tight reign. Verbal insults and lashings are routine acts of the despotic rule here. Sometimes, these children also serve as satiating meals for sexual predators.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2015 data, of the 8,800 child rape cases registered using The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 25% of rapes of children were found to be committed by their employers and co-workers. But since these children have no home and virtually no family (as most of them are orphans or runaways), their cries often go unheard. The image of these children as ‘troublemakers’ also puts them at odds with the police and hence worsens their situation. At times, even the law enforcers turn abusers.
The sexual abuse of children living on our streets, is a grave social evil that remains untold due to the pressing effects of poverty, ignorance and prejudice. The handful of survivors who grow up to tell their tale reveal the darker side of childhood that is often overlooked.
These survivors remain marred for life and their experiences affect their mental health and hinder their growth. As more incidents of sexual abuse come to light, the Delhi police has launched a rigorous campaign to check child labour and sexual abuse in workplaces as well as orphanages.
With various organisations and departments realising the need to ensure a safe childhood for all, the fight against child abuse has taken its first steps. The power of individual efforts and self-realisation becomes evident from the story of Amod Kanth, a police officer turned activist and founder of the child protection NGO Prayas, who helps survivors of sexual abuse fight their perpetrators.
But, as members of the society, it is the responsibility of each one of us to shun the social stigma about sexual abuse, so that the survivors can come out to share their grief without the fear of being branded as outcasts.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.