Nishi Malhotra

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Sex, lies and children

Sex, Lies and Children

Sex, lies and children India’s best kept dirty secret is out. More children are sexually abused in our country than anywhere else in the world. Nishi Malhotra, Chandigarh It was back in the early 1980s that actress Parveen Babi made a statement about most Indian girls not being virgins. What she meant was that they are sexually abused within the intimacy of their own joint family systems well before they begin dating or get married. I was studying in Delhi University at that time and remember the debates it sparked off in college hostels. One late evening, 12 girls gathered in a dorm room to argue over what Babi, who was no authority on the subject, had so casually said, and wondered if it could possibly be true.

Finally, a secret vote on paper chits was taken – everyone present had to write yes or no in answer to the simple question, “Were you sexually molested as a child, or did anyone ever attempt to molest you?” Not a scientific survey and not a significant sample considering the mostly upper and middle class background of the girls present – but nine out of 12 chits came back with a ‘yes’ scrawled across them.India’s best kept dirty secret now has an official stamp on it. A new government report, Study on Child Abuse: India 2007, published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, says, “India has the world’s largest number of sexually abused children, with a child below 16 years raped every 155th minute, a child below ten every 13th hour, and one in every ten children sexually abused at any point in time.” Conducted across 13 states (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Delhi and Bihar are the worst offenders), the Study on Child Abuse reveals that a shocking 53.22 per cent of all Indian children are sexually abused and 70 per cent keep silent about what happens to them, neither reporting the abuse to parents or the police.

The actual number has to be higher than the 53 per cent reported by this study because its sample group only comprised children aged 5 to 18 - daily newspapers, as everyone knows, routinely report incidents of children as young as two to five also being raped and/or abused in the country. For those who think only Indian girls are unsafe, here’s another shocker: Boys, says the study, are more at risk for sexual abuse than girls. Out of the 12,447 child respondents who reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse that included severe and other forms, 52.94 per cent were boys and 47.06 per cent were girls.

Along with the revelations of this study in recent days have come the contrarian voices of adult policy-makers in several Indian states who want to ban the introduction of sex education in the middle school syllabus by the CBSE Board in the current school year. Their argument is that sex education is not in keeping with the Indian ethos and will corrupt the minds of impressionable children. However, the only key to controlling the prevalence of and eventually getting rid of child sexual abuse is empowering children with knowledge about their own bodies and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and contact with the adults and caregivers they interact with.Harleen Kohli of CEVA (Centre for Education and Voluntary Action) in Chandigarh has conducted sex education workshops for facilitators as well as children. “As a nation we are so reluctant to talk about life’s essentials like relationships and reproductive health with our children,” she says, adding, “ I see the faces of teachers of biology freeze over when they have to talk about reproduction…they skirt the subject and gloss over the details. Imagine, if ‘flour’ and ‘sugar’ were dirty words, would we be able to teach people how to cook?” The most alarming aspect about child sexual abuse, indicates the study, is that the perpetrators of abuse are most often adults entrusted with the care of children - uncles, neighbours, teachers, older children, employers and sometimes parents as well. Strangers are involved only in a small percentage of cases. But “a 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 to her” says the study report. 

This silence encourages abusers, emboldens them to continue the abuse and to press their advantage to subject the child to more severe forms of sexual abuse. Very often, children do not even realize they are being abused. They just bury the incident as a painful and shameful one, not to be ever told to anyone.Vinod Kumar is a paan-beedi seller who lives in Chandigarh. In March this year, his 11-year old daughter disappeared, apparently abducted by Vinod’s 26-year old nephew who was also staying with the family.

The father is distraught and defensive. “All five of my children used to spend time with my nephew who played with them. We never suspected him of doing any gandi harkat with my daughters. It is obvious now though that he had another agenda.” Vinod has a clear case of abduction and has reported the matter to the police. But very often, even well-meaning families and adults who want to protect children do not know how to deal with other, more insidious forms of sexual abuse. Some of the board members of a trust that runs an orphanage in Haryana have been concerned by the activities of one of their colleagues, who is known as a respected member of the community, towards the orphanage girls whose rooms he has been seen visiting at late hours of the evening. He has also been observed, say these members, in inappropriate physical contact with specific female children for whom he buys gifts.

How do they protect the children, they ask? They have no concrete evidence against the man to either confront him or go to the police, they cannot elicit complaints against the man from the orphanage girls who according to one of the lady members “enjoy his touching them” (possibly construed as affection by children), and they cannot vote him out because there is disagreement within the board about whether the 55-60 year old man’s behaviour of touching, fondling, kissing and visiting the rooms of young teenage girls is inappropriate or not. 

The government study defines child sexual abuse as ranging from ‘severe’ (sexual assault and fondling or having a child fondle an adult’s private parts) to ‘lesser’ forms (exposing a child to pornography). How can children be legally protected from sexual abuse? According to Madhu P Singh, a Chandigarh high court lawyer and member of the Child Welfare Committee, there are no specific laws for child sexual abuse. Rape and sodomy can lead to criminal conviction under IPC Section 376. Anything less than rape amounts to ‘outraging the modesty’ and is covered under IPC Section 354.

These laws are difficult enough to apply to adult women, and harder still for children – it is difficult to prove, for instance, that a child whose private parts were fondled by an adult is suffering from emotional trauma induced by that particular abuse perpetrated by the particular adult. While Andhra Pradesh, by a state amendment, has made some offences cognisable, non-bailable and to be tried by a court of session (minimum punishment is imprisonment for seven years, and a fine), other states have not followed. What is also lacking is a central law on the subject. The Juvenile Justice Act was amended and rewritten in 2000, but it does not cover sexual abuse on children.One initiative that has had limited success is the Childline helpline available in some cities. Madhu Singh says about four or five cases of sexual abuse are reported by children aged five to 16, or their well-wishers, every month. The Child Welfare Committee visits slums and creates awareness about the helpline.

The reported cases are provided counselling and if necessary, institutionalised in shelters run by the Chandigarh administration. Recently, says Madhu, “We were able to help a 14 year-old middle class girl who called us because she was being sexually abused by her father.” She receives counselling, lives at the shelter, attends school, and “refuses to see her family any more.” Other children, once empowered by the counselling they receive, choose to return home. Singh confirmed that as many boys as girls come for counselling. 

Typically, what are the repercussions of child sexual abuse? The humiliation of the experiences can have outcomes as severe as violence where victims themselves become perpetrators of sexual crimes when they grow up, to mistrust of physical intimacy later on in life with a loving partner. There is a glaring absence of support systems for victims of sexual abuse in India, such as counsellors, legal activists, sex education or public campaigns for awareness. The medical training of Indian doctors usually overlooks the treatment of child sexual abuse victims and they often fail to recognize it in patients. Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 should serve as a wake-up call to a nation that is living a lie - willingly blind to what it knows at its core to be true.

(This article was first published in Hardnews magazine on May 4, 2007.)

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