The monster of child sexual abuse is raising its ugly head once again with impunity. So much so, that the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has decided to take suo motu action (on its own motion) to arrest the spiralling trend of child sexual abuse in India. As per data revealed by government, from January 1 to June 30 this year, 24, 212 FIRs (First Information Report) have been registered by police across India. Uttar Pradesh tops the list with the filing of 3, 457 cases of child sexual abuse.
These ghastly episodes reflect poorly upon the image of India on the world scene. What kind of uncivilized and beastly behaviour are we witnessing in our country? If our legal system, civil society and policing agencies are unable to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, then the idea of safe and secure neighbourhoods in a democratic set-up takes a severe beating. The Constitution of India, 1950 empowers the state under Article 15 (3) to make special provision for the welfare of children. Children are often referred to as the future of India. Unfortunately, the spectre of sexual abuse and violence unleashed on children in recent past paints a tragic picture of lost childhoods.
The children of India are suffering in silence and in some cases are paying with their precious lives. For criminal deviants, children are considered safe choices as they offer little or no resistance. In a case reported, the father of a survivor of child sexual abuse recounted with horror, “How many times must a three-and-a-half-year-old recount the trauma she went through? Our system is such that a child who barely knows what she ate yesterday is asked what she went through six months ago… after all those months, defense lawyers ask her ‘where did the uncle touch’, ‘where did it hurt’,” an emotional father, a daily wager in Delhi, said, while recounting his ordeal in getting justice for his minor daughter, a victim of child sexual abuse.”
Alarmingly, even young boys are at an increased risk of sexual abuse. It is even more difficult for them to come out in the open as notions of patriarchy and masculinity prevents them from reporting abuse. Boys are groomed in a particular way where ideas of toxic masculinity are ingrained in their minds. It is not uncommon to find elders speaking these views to young boys who are under their parental or guardian care and custody: “Do not be a sissy!” “Now come on! Be a man, stop crying like a girl;” “What is it with you, why don’t you eat? You are becoming stubborn day by day!”
It becomes more challenging to heal such survivors of abuse as it is likely that they may carry the heavy burden of guilt and shame for years at length. There is a need to address the issue of child sexual abuse in a gender-neutral way at every level of psycho-social response.
The step by the apex court to take up cases of child sexual abuse is laudable but criminal law doesn’t provide a foolproof solution, the criminal process springs into action only when a crime is committed, or to be more precise when it is reported. The journey of a crime from the stage of occurrence to reporting is also a tumultuous one. In a classic case of criminal law, identified as Gurmit Singh v. the State of Punjab (1996 AIR 1393), a 16-year-old was kidnapped while going to school and gang-raped. The survivor narrated the incident to her mother after giving her examinations at school and returning home.
During the trial, the defense tried to puncture holes in the prosecution version by pointing out the fact that the survivor narrated the details of the incident after a lapse in time and also raised questions on the manner of her response and character in general. The court connected the dots in the prosecution version and observed that, “Her informing to her mother only on return to the parental house and no one else at the examination centre prior thereto is an accord with the natural human conduct of a female. The courts must, while evaluating evidence, remain alive to the fact that in a case of rape, no self-respecting woman would come forward in a court just to make a humiliating statement against her honour such as is involved in the commission of rape on her. The inherent bashfulness of the females and the tendency to conceal outrage of sexual aggression are factors which the courts should not over-look.”
Survivors of child sexual abuse of any type are scarred for life. It may not take much effort to move a mountain but to wipe the memories of sexual abuse from the fragile mind of a child is akin to fighting a war. If child sexual abuse persists at such an alarming rate, then basically the foundation of a sickened, diseased and a fractured society is being laid in broad daylight.
The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20 1989. It called upon member states to implement through necessary legal instruments the protective regime for children so that, they can lead their lives with the freedom which they deserve. Article 19 of the Convention instructs the state parties to protect the children from sexual abuse. India ratified the Convention but took many years to bring comprehensive legislation on the subject namely the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO).
The POCSO is s a comprehensive statute drafted with an aim to exorcise the ghost of child sexual abuse in India. In the year 2007, the spotlight was put on child sexual abuse when the findings of a government report shed light on the simmering crime scenario. Shockingly, the report informed us that contrary to popular perception, the percentage of young boys as victims was more than that of girl victims. A familiar theme which emerges from events of sexual abuse is that children remain vulnerable within close family circles. Now the big question is: how to prevent child sexual abuse?
The disease cannot be treated only by administering legal balm. Preventive measures at multiple fronts also need a leg up. The Parliament of India is still struggling to tame this ghost by mooting amendments to check child pornography and enhancing the punishment in cases of aggressive sexual assault. Punishment now stands enhanced to the death penalty in cases of aggravated sexual assault.
The statute aims to provide a check mechanism at every possible place in society wherever a child may possibly be abused. It distinguishes ‘sexual assault’ from ‘sexual harassment’ and separately enumerates law to check the rising use of a child for propagating pornography. It provides an elaborate procedure for reporting of offences under the legislation and also provides for setting up of special courts. The statute is designed to combat the menace of child sexual abuse in its myriad forms but legislation alone will not check the rising trend of child sexual abuse.
Studies point out that the rehabilitation of survivors of child sexual abuse requires a sustained process of healing which may require medication for mental and physical damage. Sexual abuse wreaks havoc on a child’s emotional state. Abuse has many faces and it has been pointed out in a Human Rights Watch report of February 2013 that in many cases a survivor may actually take abuse as a case of heightened attention by an adult (in most cases who is a close relation, say immediate or immediate extended family) as the maturity of the child is still infantile.
The report severely indicts the law enforcement agencies by pointing out entrenched biases within the legal system which hamper the course of justice through case study analysis. There is also a need to overhaul the childcare centres for children as these are turning into dens of vice as happened in the case of Muzaffarpur in Bihar where girl children were sexually abused in a shelter home run by an NGO. The government urgently needs to do an audit exercise to take stock as to the nature and intent of these shady mushrooming NGOs.
Survivors of child sexual abuse have to walk down a long winding road towards rehabilitation. There are long term effects of child sexual abuse on the psyche of a survivor. Needless to emphasize, effects can last for a lifetime. Through education and counselling, survivors may be revived back to a lead a normal life and healthy life. The judicial intervention has a role to play. Despite a strong law to punish child sexual offenders, it has been observed that many cases are resulting in acquittals due to the long drawn process of trial which makes the survivor weary and they turn hostile in court or goes into withdrawal. Now to fast track cases of child sexual abuse, over 1000 fast tracks are proposed to be set up. Let us hope that with the establishment of more number of special courts we may witness the wheel of justice moving for the better.
As a parent or guardian one should look out for these warning signs to detect a case of sexual abuse in a child:
These signs are not exhaustive and a parent or guardian needs to watch out for discernible changes in behaviour. The correct course of action upon detecting sexual abuse is to take give the child immediate medical and psychological counsel and reporting the matter to police.
POCSO Act, 2012 also makes a provision for referring a child for counselling by either a doctor or police official. Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare further instructs a counsellor or medical advisor to be fully responsive to the special needs of a survivor of child sexual abuse. Every child is an asset to the nation. Sincere steps must be taken by all stakeholders to restore the stolen childhoods of survivors of child sexual abuse. A child puts a lot of faith in this mortal world. We need to make an effort to ensure that this faith remains innocent and pure before adulthood drowns it with reason. In the words of Emily Dickinson, an American poet,
The child’s faith is new-
Whole-like his principle
Wide-like the sunrise
On fresh eyes-
Never has a doubt
Laughs at a scruple-
Believes all sham!
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.