I frequently mention, the fight against sexual abuse of children cannot be fought by the State alone or a few NGOs. It requires every individual to take up the mantle and keep his eyes and ears open. One of the biggest challenges to my work in the field of combating child sexual abuse is to first convince people that crimes of such nature are a reality in our society. Having delivered many lectures on the subject so far, mostly to the elite middle and upper middle class folks, what stands out is our people’s continuous effort to live in denial and pretend that their children are not under any risk or threat. I pray to God that their children are safe of course. But when the Ministry of Women and Child Development Opines that 53% of all boys and 47% of all girls are sexually abused in the country, what we need is the courage to deal with the reality and not the comforts of ignorance. Yet, the most typical response I hear is, “The Ministry is just wrong. The numbers are preposterous.”
While denial about abuse itself is one half of the problem, the other half of the problem lies in who society identifies as a possible abuser. For the average joe in this country, an abuser is a weird looking chap, a stranger so to say, who hangs around schools and parks with a packet full of candy or a vocabulary full of child seductive terms, waiting to lure innocent children into the dark and grizzly world of sexual violence. When I mention that incestuous sexual abuse is the most common form of sexual violence against children, I can almost see some parents wanting to slit my tongue for saying such blasphemous things. Why blame them? The Americans way back in the 1960’s had subscribed to this notion as well with the campaign titled “Stranger Danger”. However by the 1980’s, they had realized that sexual offences against children was synonymous with intra-familial sexual abuse. They realized the futility of the “Stranger Danger” stereotype and how useless it was in actually combating these brand of offences. What followed was a much more evolved system of combating sexual offences against children!
If not these challenges, then there is the tendency to blame “Western Culture” for this menace. I usually use the age of my grandmother when she got married as an example to overcome this problem, besides of course, the statistics which indicate that we fare far worse than USA and UK on this topic. The United Kingdom had to report that 5% of boys and 18% of girls there were sexually abused from a study conducted in 2010. On the other hand, India, back in 2007, had to report 53% of all boys and 47% of all girls were sexually abused. The large numbers could also be due to the wide definition of child sexual abuse employed for the purpose of the study, which included showing pornographic movies to kids. But thats a universally recognized form of sexual abuse. The west fares reasonably better than India, ladies and gentlemen!
Whenever I do have to go and deliver a talk on the subject of child sexual abuse, I am usually prepared to combat the stereotypes and drive home the message. 99% of the times, my audience, typically activists, lawyers, students, lecturers, bank officials, etc. (collectively referred to as “Average Joes”) will tell me that nothing like CSA exists here and that it is a media created hype and that the statistics are exaggerated and a whole bunch of nonsense like that. It takes a lot of knowledge and forceful exchange of arguments to ultimately impress upon them, the realities around this issue. More often than not, I am successful in this endeavor. But some people just want to refuse to learn. It is almost impossible to get through to them too.
I had a pleasant surprise, however, when I was called to address the helpline officials with the Child Rights Trust. Under the brand of Childline, these are men and women who act as an emergency response system to address complaints and information about child rights violations, one brand of which is child sexual abuse. I was specifically required to throw insights on the new Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act, 2012. However, the catch was that I would have to deliver my talk in Kannada given a lot of the helpline officials were not proficient in English. I began my lecture trying to bring out the stereotypes and then address them. However to my pleasant surprise, they did not blame western culture and relied on child marriage to drive home their point, a line of argument I frequently employ. They were well aware that child sexual abuse is almost always synonymous with intra-familial and acquaintance abuse. Although, they were not aware of the statistics, their own experience in the field had made them introspect and understand the unique context in which CSA dynamics in the country operate. Not only was I impressed, but I was humbled by the far greater expertise and experience they had in this field.
I immediately confessed my surprise as to their background on this topic and quickly proceeded to dwell only on the provisions of the new law. However, these chaps were not done for the day. The queries that they had around the legislation, forged by their own experience in the field, was an eye opening challenge to the enactment. If the parliamentarians are smart, they will form a consultative process around such field workers, because their feedback will define how effectively the law can be made meaningful for the intended audience on the ground. The intellectual depth behind their approach to working with such legislations was astounding to say the least.
Beyond the pleasures of interacting with a bright crowd, I also must reprimand myself for assuming that if well educated middle and upper middle class audiences fell prey to stereotypes, then the more local blood will be vulnerable to the same brand of ignorance. I am almost disgusted with myself for this assumption. The officials of Chidline taught me more than the best legal minds and the most well established activists did. In fact, as part of child rights courses, I must recommend even that these officials from Childline should be invited to deliver talks to students. Because their values around child rights, their approach to child rights violations and their general attitude in this field is far more enlightened and uplifting than the collective might of the intellectual elite in this field.
I begin today, the day following the lecture, as a more humble person in this field. The dedication of the childline officials is inspiring in its simplicity. Their love for children emanates from the old school value system that made the community feel collectively responsible for kids, out of which philosophy, an informal reporting system had already emerged. The Childline officials reminded me of the time when I ventured out of the house as a 3 year old, without telling my mother, only for the local grocery shop guy to take me back home safe and sound. Thats what we need to fight abuse, a sense of responsibility, the kind that does not refer to children as “your children” or “my children’, but rather as “our children”. I anticipate that if we can reflect the simple approach to childrights, that childline officials exhibited, then the misguided stereotypes would never play the mischief that it presently plays.
I conclude on one general note, a note cautioning people and asking them to refrain from living in denial. The youngest victim I have come across was only 3 years of age. She was vaginally and anally raped by an adult man, leaving ghastly injuries, that was captured in all its gory details by the report of the medical examiner. The opinion of a lot of people around this case is that, it is a false case, one which the parent(s) of the child has fabricated. One of the unfortunate benefits of this line of work is that we access these reports, these documents and walk with the family in their fight for justice. We are privy to their frustrations at the doubts and the anxiety that such ignorant opinions create. But, we also know that the evidence suggests guilt of the offender. If I didn’t have access to these records, I would refrain from passing loose opinions or judgement. But that is not the only thing that annoys me. What makes my blood boil, is that when people call these cases false, they essentially doubt the child, the 3 year old girl, who has endured such pain and suffering and brand that kid a liar. It is precisely the probability of such a reaction that fuels the offender’s propensity to commit such a crime against children. If members of childline can be sensitive enough to not fall victim to the collective ignorance of society, which facilitates these crimes, then why can’t we?
A lot to think about, isn’t it?
Note: This article is also for publication by Eve’s Times, Chennai