Today, 19th November, is the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse – A day which gives us all the opportunity to reflect on the quality of life we have as a community provided for India’s 400 million children.
Child Sexual Abuse has taken epidemic proportions in India. It is a problem which has been veiled by a culture of secrecy and denial and fostered by government apathy, inept institutions and a citizenry which is still quite uncomfortable talking about the subject.
Over the last 22 months, my engagement with the issue through my interventions in Parliament, and engagement with citizens, has allowed me to draw the following inference - Most people think that Child Sexual Abuse is not as pervasive as I have suggested. Data reported by an array of studies on the issue, however, beg to differ.
According to a sample study conducted by the WCD ministry, of the children surveyed in India, 53% have been subject to some form of sexual abuse. Every 5th child has faced severe sexual abuse, including sexual assault, having the child fondle private parts, having the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude.
The Central Govt’s Role
When I launched a Change.org petition requesting PM Narendra Modi to commit to a roadmap to address the problem, the avalanche of goodwill and support from citizens and civil society was accompanied by a peppering of disconcerting comments that gave me an insight into some dangerous prevalent stereotypes. Some believed all perpetrators were male, while some believed that boys could not be subject to abuse. Some even blamed these incidents on poor parenting while others described it as propaganda to defame India. These mixed reactions are testimony to the fact that child sexual abuse paints a very muddled picture in the minds of a citizen and the only way to fight this, is to initiate a frank and an honest dialogue on the subject.
It doesn't speak so much to a 'muddled picture' as it speaks to an unwillingness to accept the sheer magnitude of evil that is perpetrated on our children.
In my experience, the response of successive Governments to the issue has been lethargic and apathetic. This was made clear by the responses that I received to the parliamentary questions I had raised over the year. For instance, in response to a question on the number of orphans and orphanages in India, I was told by the Government that “no such data is maintained centrally”. Orphans, as the Apna Ghar case has shown, are especially vulnerable to abuse. Given that some estimates peg the number of orphans in India at a staggering 20 million, the indifference demonstrated by the WCD in this regard is abominable.
There are several things the Government can do to make things better.
A good first step for the Government would be to conduct an exhaustive fact finding study on Child Sexual Abuse in India. In the absence of reliable, comprehensive data on the full extent of the problem, it would be impossible to design a comprehensive architecture to address this malaise.
It is for this reason that in a letter that I addressed to the Prime Minister, I made this very specific request of the Government.
This data must then be examined by a multi-stakeholder group of experts working closely with children, to devise an actionable, time-bound roadmap that will allow for better prevention of such incidents, increased accountability of those charged with the protection of children (such as schools, orphanages, day care centres, and private tuitions) and swifter prosecution of perpetrators. The focus of the government should be to ensure that the institutional response to these incidents is robust and sustained and not merely reactive.
Join the Fight Against Child Abuse
According to a sample study conducted by the WCD ministry, of the children surveyed in India, 53% have been subject to some form of sexual abuse.
The response of successive Governments to the issue has been lethargic and apathetic.
Glaring implementation gaps in the implementation of the POCSO Act is another worrying area which needs to be examined.
What we now require is a sustained and cohesive effort from civil society, the Government, media and the judiciary.
The State Govt’s Role
State Governments also play a pivotal role - an important action they can take is the laying down of strict safety guidelines for the institutions that deal with children. Simple measures such as mandatory verification of existing and new staff, periodic audits, better policing and instituting a Central Sex Offender’s Registry can go a long way in preventing such incidents.
I had written to the Karnataka Chief Minister repeatedly with these very suggestions, but except for an announcement of the Child Sex Offenders registry, very little determined action has been taken by the Karnataka government. The consequence? Our children continue to be abused. Earlier this week, a 4-year-old was assaulted in her school in Bangalore – an indictment of the Karnataka CM’s continuing apathy and negligence.
Glaring implementation gaps in the implementation of the POCSO Act is another worrying area which needs to be examined. Pendency rates for child rape cases have increased from 20,594 in 2010 to 37,519 in 2014 - a massive increase of about 84%.
This is despite section 35 (2) of the POCSO Act stipulating a period of one year for courts to dispose off with a case. Convictions, too, remain a concern - Over the last two years, I have learned that of the 6,816 alleged perpetrators booked under the POCSO Act, only 166 convictions have been made, while 389 accused have been acquitted. The conviction rate under the act, therefore, is a paltry 2.4%.
Role of Other Institutions
Further, our institutions – the courts and the police are far from child-friendly. The Special courts set up to try crimes against children under POCSO are burdened with cases of human rights violations and cases under SEBI, MCOCA and TADA.
The Police too, lacks the specialised psychological competencies required to handling these cases. Survivors and their caregivers often have to relive their trauma when it comes to interrogation by the police and the medical personnel charged with post abuse examinations have been reported to commit gross procedural violations. This in totality creates an institutional ecosystem that is hostile and intimidating for the child – which compromises the very intention with which POCSO was enacted.
What we now require is a sustained and cohesive effort from civil society, the Government, media and the judiciary. Let us, on the occasion of World Day for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, take the vow to end this horrific malaise and protect our children. Sign, share and support the petition to put an end to Child Sexual Abuse in India.