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Predatory paedophiles online pose a major threat to children who form 7% of internet users in India.
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It was a usual practice, for 13-year-old Meena* from Tirupur to log into her father's Facebook account when she came home from school. While she was scrolling through his timeline one day, she received and accepted a friend request from a profile named Siva Idiot on Facebook. When this 'new friend' sent her a “hi” on chat, the young girl found no reason to ignore this message. Over the next 10 days, they chatted incessantly and she revealed all her personal details - where she lived, studied, who her parents were and even her phone number. Siva Idiot then proceeded to begin calling her on a mobile phone and their conversations lasted hours. 

Meanwhile, miffed by her lack of focus on her studies, Meena's parents often chastised her and threatened to take away her laptop and mobile phone. An upset Meena proceeded to complain to Siva Idiot about the 'problems' she faced, who provided emotional support to the teenager. He even offered to come meet her outside her home.

Meena's parents were out in their offices till 8pm every day and Siva Idiot knew this. He met Meena outside her home, when she was still upset about her parents' advice. Her 'friend' then convinced the teenager to leave her house and marry him. Fifteen days after she first spoke to him on Facebook, 13-year-old Meena ran away from home to 'get married' to 22-year-old Ibrahim.

Online sexual grooming

"This is a classic case of sexual grooming," says Vidya Reddy, of Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. "Abusers study a situation carefully to understand what a child's Achilles heel is and then exploit the situation. Now, with almost every child having accesses to technology and internet in the form of a laptop or phone, these criminals have found new platforms to target children," she adds.

What Vidya explains is called online sexual grooming, a worldwide phenomenon, that has spread along with the speed and easy access to the internet. According to UNICEF, it can be defined as preparing a child or adult for sexual abuse, exploitation or ideological manipulation. A report released by the organisation in 2014 states that the surge in mobile and internet usage in India had brought 400 million people online. Of this, seven percent of internet users in the country are reportedly children.

"Phones are now an extension of our hands and it has completely changed the way crime is committed and presented, " Vidya notes.

Even a report of the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology in 2014 recognized the threat posed to children by predatory paedophiles online. It emphasises how these predators "conceal their true identity whilst using the internet to ‘groom’ potential victims for sexual purposes."

From home to horror

Meena too was unaware about the identity of the person she was chatting with. In fact, an officer told The News Minute, that it was only when Ibrahim called her on the phone that she even realised she had compromised all her data to an unknown man. But Ibrahim, as the police put it, was too smart for the girl.

"He spoke to her very nicely and formed an emotional connect before she even realised the dangers of the situation," a police officer told The News Minute. "He was just somebody who did odd jobs for a living but his real life was on Facebook. He has close to 5000 friends and they are all young girls," she admits.

On April 27, Ibrahim and Meena made their way to Puducherry, where they took shelter at his friend Prabhakar’s motel. That very night, Meena was allegedly raped. The next morning, Ibrahim's phone somehow came into her possession and when the child surfed through the picture gallery, fresh horror awaited her. It was filled with obscene pictures and videos of young women and children. Shocked, Meena confronted Ibrahim about this and the two got into a loud fight. An angry Ibrahim then abused the teenager who refused to leave with him and abandoned her in the lodge.

When the hotel manager and Ibrahim's friend Prabhakaran came to investigate the source of commotion, he found a devastated Meena alone in the room. In an effort to ‘cheer her up’ he took her out to eat and bought her clothes. As Meena changed in the room, Prabhakaran allegedly waited outside to make his move. He went into the room with a yellow thread in hand, and when she was ready, tied it around her neck and declared that they were married. He then proceeded, according to officials, to sexually assault the girl.

Prabhakaran had even mortgaged all her jewellery, given her some money and pocketed the rest. On April 29, the frightened and devastated teenager managed to escape from the lodge and make a call to her house from a nearby bus stop. By then, her parents had already filed a missing girl complaint with the Tirupur North police and were frantically searching for her.

The need to intervene

According to the UNICEF report, India falls largely short in terms of awareness about online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Parents, it claims, are not aware of the risks the internet poses and therefore do not respond effectively to this form of harassment.

"This case shows that parents and schools have to spend more time educating their wards on online safety. In many schools, non- digital safety lessons are imparted such as good touch and bad touch. But when it comes to the internet, they don't even impart basic lessons," says Pranesh Prakash, Director of the Centre for Internet and Society.

Pranesh argues that while parents cannot monitor children's activity on the internet the whole day, they can ensure they have a trusting relationship with their children. This he claims will create dialogue on the child's activity on the internet or social media and create awareness.

"In this crime, details shared online, led to an offline meeting. So, children must be taught to not share addresses, personal details or meet such 'friends' without their parents' knowledge." he adds.

In India, two major challenges are the lack of a uniform terminology and lacunae in law as far as sexual grooming of children is concerned. Some key legal instruments meant to protect children, predate technological advances. For example, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography does not criminalize online sexual grooming.

Establishing the criminality of sexual grooming or even sexting is difficult in view of the potential for misuse of the law, states the UNICEF report.

Back home and healing

Following her desperate phone call, Tirupur police rescued Meena, and went on to arrest Ibrahim in Pondicherry on April 30. Prabhakaran was arrested on May 2. They have been booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) and other sections of the Indian Penal Code. Police are now investigating if Ibrahim and Prabahakaran have been involved in crimes of this nature in the past as well.

"There is only so much parents can do. They work till eight in the night and children who come back from school at 4pm, have four unsupervised hours to themselves. The only thing they can do is keep a password and stop children from using social media accounts," says the investigating officer, who observes that a number of children chat with strangers, making it difficult to keep track.

Vidya Reddy too expresses shock at sheer number of teenagers who chat with strangers online. The Tulir Director recounts horrific cases, including one where a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and then blackmailed with videos of the abuse. The perpetrator allegedly threatened to leak the images if girl did not bring another child for him to rape.

While sexual grooming and other forms of online sexual abuse are common across the world, in India it takes a unique shape in South Asia. "Our society creates a repressive atmosphere, as far as engagement with the other gender is concerned. So, when the conversation is online, teenagers will risk their safety to push boundaries and the anonymity the internet provides has made this whole set up even more dangerous," concludes Vidya Reddy.

*Name changed