Our culture of stoic silence.

Child sexual abuse Its time to break the culture of silence around the intimate abuser
Voices Child Sexual Abuse Sunday, November 20, 2016 - 18:06

It’s 4am on a Mumbai morning. The makeshift shack in the Koperkhairne slum neighbourhood in Navi Mumbai is starting to get light through the tin-cracks on the roof.  Dwalibai*, a 40-year-old widow, wakes up with a heavy head, a hangover from the cheap liquor she drank the previous night.

Her phone rings. It’s her cousin, Gopya Naik, on the other end, angry and sobbing. 

He says, “Bai! Thar choran police se wal pakadlege” (Sister! Your son has been taken by the police).

Dwalibai is startled. “Ye bagwan! Kasan lege?” (Oh God! Why?)

“Uh chora hamar nanki chorin rape kidho.” (He has raped our little girl), Gopya says.

Dwalibai frantically grabs what little money she has saved and leaves for lakya thanda (settlement of the Lambada community) in Mahabubnagar District of Telangana. 

Vashi has been home for Dwalibai and her three sons since her husband died eight years ago. But this winter, she had sent her younger son Rambal, to the thanda to spend some time with the family. The boy, all of 15, grew up watching pornography on the cell phones of his co-workers in the dark alleys of Vashi, the only past-time in the midst of a grueling Mumbai day. 

Back in the thanda, it didn’t take much effort for him, to lure his 4-year-old cousin, who was returning from the anganwadi (a “courtyard shelter” run by the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) for rural children). The family didn’t look for her as they thought she was playing with her brother from Mumbai. After few hours the girl came home bleeding heavily, frightened. She could barely walk. 

A villager informed the Police and the girl was rushed to the hospital by the local Sub-inspector of Police. After coming out of the initial numbness and shock, the girl narrated the gruesome incident to a lady Inspector in detail. The juvenile offender was apprehended after due investigation and produced before the Juvenile Justice board in Mahabubnagar.

While my team briefed the members of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), my mind went back to that harrowing January day in Nalgonda in 2014. A special branch head constable of Peddavoora mandal in Nalgonda district of undivided Andhra Pradesh received a tip-off that around 15 minor girls had been sexually assaulted by their tutor in a missionary-run organisation for homeless tribal children.

When the issue came to light, the elders tried hushing it up by forcing the accused to pay money to the parents of the victims, all aged between eight and 15 years. Local stringers had their share too, to stay mute. 

Alas! Our culture of stoic silence.

But the police promptly responded by reaching out along with the concerned officials. What followed was a traumatic week. 12 little girls, poor and malnourished, spoke of the grisly offence in detail. Twelve cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the accused was remanded to judicial custody, and is serving his sentence now.

These are not stray incidents. Every day we wake up to the gruesome reality of India’s growing culture of child abuse. Child sexual abuse has become so rampant that our collective conscience has managed to bury it under an evolved culture of silence. Society has no qualms blaming the victims for enticing the abusers. 

Every person, at some point, looks the other way, until it hits one of ours hard. Many reports and studies have tried to link the cause with the dismal institutional mechanism. But the bitter truth we refuse to accept is that a child abuser is lurking in the very corners of our homes. A substantial number of abusers are persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility.

Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads a crusade against child labour, calls this “an epidemic of abuse” in India. He gave a bold call to religious leaders to boycott the perpetrators of this heinous act. The result, as expected was a cold societal response. 

A stark reflection of our selective conscience. 

According to the data released in the “Crime in India 2015” report of the NCRB, 8800 cases were reported under the POCSO Act in 2015. In 94.8% of such cases, the alleged offender was known to the victim. The devil definitely has the kids by the throat, and we as a nation choose to be mute spectators, conveniently ignoring the fact that we need to protect our kids within the four walls of our homes first. We need to break open the collective pact of denial we enter into for our own protection and comfort. 

Parental responsibility doesn’t end with provision of basics alone; times like these call for extra vigilance. We need to teach our children about their bodies and boundaries, and build the courage to open up, when they are violated. It’s high time we busted the myth about stranger danger. The abuser is lurking in here – very much an insider.

Children are vulnerable not only in the physical world, but in the virtual world too. With the World Wide Web holding sway over our lives, online abuse has become quite rampant. 1,540 cases of online child sexual abuse cases have been registered since 2014. This definitely is a huge number, given the societal reluctance to report such cases. In August 2016, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) launched an online portal, ‘e-Box’, to register online complaints of child sexual abuse. Taking a step further, the Department of Tele-communications mandated that all internet service providers (ISPs) block websites mentioned in the Interpol’s “worst-of-list” for containing extreme child sexual imagery.

For the first time ever, the “Crime in India 2015” report tabulated data in terms of the relationship of the victim and the accused, particularly in cases involving rape. In 35.8% of cases, neighbors were the perpetrators; in over 10% of cases it was either the father, brother or a close family member. Child labourers are the worst-hit with the highest percentage of rape reported at work place. In 2015 alone, out of 6877 cases of human trafficking, 3490 (51%) involved children.

The data gives a clear indication that there is growing awareness, and victims are coming forward to report abuse. Communities must act as a force multiplier to augment the efforts of the police and other agencies to bring the child sexual assault offenders to justice. Collaboration is the key to narrow the justice gap.

Many police units across the country are making efforts to sensitise officers to deal with children both as victims and perpetrators. As per Section 18 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and Sub-Section (1) of Section 107, in every police station, at least one officer, not below the rank of Assistant Sub-Inspector, with aptitude, appropriate training and orientation, may be designated as the “Child Welfare Police Officer” to exclusively deal with children either as victims or perpetrators. CWPOs reflect the child-friendly indicators of policing methods and work to ensure effective linkages between the legal provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015 and the police.

Any discussion on the causative factors generally makes a critique of law enforcement agencies for poor conviction rates in such cases. But a detailed analysis of the prosecution process in these cases shows that the most common factor contributing to the low conviction rate is “the familiarity problem”. A large proportion of victims turn hostile, as the perpetrator is usually known to the victim.  The solution lies in making the prosecution process child-friendly and in empowering the institutional mechanism. 

As we gear up to observe another November 20 as Universal Children’s Day, let’s undo the flaws in our approach towards abuse. Unicef’s report on the “State of the World’s Children 2016: A fair chance for every child” gives us a clear warning signal.  Unless we facilitate a safe environment for our children, those who are going to be potential assets as the future workforce will become potential liabilities. 

Collective social responsibility should not just be an empty buzzword. We must give it meaning by acting on it, quite firmly. We must rise above the narrow confines of stigma and teach our children to speak up. The burden of keeping the world, every corner of it, safe is one that has to be shared. As Dr. Seuss puts it “A person’s a person, no matter how small”. 

*Names of persons and places changed

Rema Rajeshwari, IPS, is Superintendent of Police, Mahbubnagar District, Telangana.



Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.