Sexual abuse is traumatising for anyone who goes through it, but for a child, the scars can run much deeper as they are inflicted at a younger age, in the formative years. And although every victim of child sexual abuse (CSA) needs attention and care, it’s important to remember that some of them are more vulnerable than others.
Take for instance a child who is a CSA victim, and also comes from a home where domestic violence occurs. Flavia Agnes, founder of Majlis, a Mumbai-based women’s rights organisation, says that in many cases, victimising the child is used as a method of coercing the woman even further.
“Unless domestic violence is taken seriously, CSA cannot be addressed,” Flavia argues.
Flavia was speaking at the National Consultation on the POCSO Act, a conference organized at NLS, Bengaluru on Saturday. She also pointed out that while the number of cases reported under Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act has increased since the law came into effect in 2012, the conviction rate remains abysmally low.
From left: Rajeev Chandrasekhar (MP), Flavia Agnes, VS Elizabeth
One reason, she argued, is that the mothers, who may help the child file a complaint, later turn hostile when they see that the breadwinner of the family is going to be affected.
The panel discussion on ‘Intersectionality and Vulnerability to CSA’ revealed other intersectionalities of caste and class, socio-economic conditions, physical and/or mental disability which make some CSA victims more vulnerable.
What also puts children at a higher risk is the misuse of technology, and the lack of proper mechanisms to control traveling child sex offenders.
Vulnerability to exploitation
Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of Bachpan Bachao Aandolan, a child rights NGO, pointed out how children who are sexually abused are also vulnerable to exploitation. A case in point is Operation Smile, which rescued hundreds of missing children in 2014. Dhananjay said that it is not just enough to find these children, but to also ascertain if they were sexually abused, exploited, or both.
In 2013, Bachpann Bachao Aandolan had filed a petition at the Supreme Court about the issue of missing children. In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court mandated that the cases of missing children should be compulsorily registered with the assumption that the child was a victim of kidnapping or trafficking.
The ruling bench had also remarked that the involvement of an organised gang trafficking children or pushing them into child labour should be investigated.
Children with disability
Children who are mentally or physically disabled, or both, are at even more risk of being abused, as well as exploited, Dhananjay said. Not only are these children easier prey for perpetrators, but it is also difficult for them to communicate the abuse, he told TNM.
Dhananjay Tingal, Executive Director, Bachpan Bachao Aandolan
He recommended that the state should institute specialists and interpreters who can help communicate with these children and do the required handholding.
“Caregivers should also observe discrepancies in behavior. Even a child with special needs has a certain behavior pattern and when he/she begins deviating from that, it’s a warning sign that they should be looked out for,” Dhananjay explains.
But what about the cases where custodians and caregivers themselves are the abusers? In those cases, Dhananjay recommends that in state homes at least, a third party should conduct routine checks to ensure that the children are not at risk. However, he admits that it’s easier said than done.
Incest and CSA
According to NCRB data for 2015, in 94.8% cases of rape registered under POCSO, the perpetrator was known to the victim. Even so, cases where people related to the children are involved, a completely different kind of handholding and support is required, said Audrey D’Mello, Programme Director at Majlis.
Emphasizing that we need to look at rape from the perpetrator’s point of view rather than the victim’s, Audrey said: “How the victimisation happens depends on the relationship the accused has with the victim.”
Her statement implies that the victimisation of a child who has been raped by his/her own father for instance, is different from a victim who has been violated by a stranger.
“Here, the victim needs a support system that’s almost like another guardian, an alternate family,” she argues.
Travelling sex offenders
Emidio Pinho, an advocate and director of Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN), Goa, an NGO, highlighted the problem of travelling child sex offenders (TCSO). TCSOs have a long history in India owing to the lack of legislation regulating foreign nationals convicted of CSA cases from entering the country.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had recently written to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asking her to amend visa rules to make declaration of CSA offences and criminal record compulsory as well.
Speaking about the need for greater coordination between organisations and stakeholders involved in upholding child rights, Emidio said: "Presently all stakeholders (police, doctors, public prosecutors and NGOs) are working in isolation. Every child who come in contact with criminal justice system should not be isolated and she/he should be accompanied at all stages."
Technology and CSA
The way sexual violence is committed and presented has changed drastically with the advent and penetration of technology, VIdya Reddy, founder of Tulir, told TNM. Tulir is a Chennai-based NGO fighting against CSA.
One thing technology has done, she points out, is increase the network of offenders simply because it is easier to access and exchange child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online, Vidya highlighted. With increasing access and affordability of production, it has become easier to create CSAM too, she adds.
Secondly, it is almost impossible to limit children’s access to what they see on the internet. “But where we have failed is to give young people the understanding and wherewithal to navigate their way through this information. They are the only ones in control of their lives,” Vidya said.
“Take the example of pornography. It’s a part of the personal safety health education module in the UK - so the children don’t grow up with some very distorted ideas, believing them to be a reflection of reality!” she argued.
Media’s role in covering CSA
Gita Aravamudan, journalist and writer, said that while the media has played an important role in highlighting CSA as a rampant problem, it must also exercise caution.
From left (VS Elizabeth, Gita Aravumudan, Emidio Pinho)
One problem she pointed out, especially with broadcast media, was one voice becoming louder than the other. Another issue is shielding the child from the media glare, especially when it comes to television.
“The media hype around a CSA case may traumatise the child and can also be misused by someone close to the child. For instance, a person who wants to be in the limelight, while speaking to the media, may end up giving out details of the child’s school or residence,” she said.
Caste and vulnerability
While the panel discussed various intersectionalities in CSA, VS Elizabeth, a professor at NLS and a member of Centre for Child and the Law, remarked that issues of caste and marginalized communities had not been touched upon in detail. She was also the moderator for the session.
What was also missing from the discussion was the discussion about children who belong to gender or sexual minorities, like transgender or intersex children, and their vulnerability to CSA.
When TNM pointed it out to Elizabeth, she said that this was a wider problem where we tend to focus on victims from more privileged backgrounds. These particular intersectionalities should also have been acknowledged, if not discussed in detail.