THE night is long, dark, and torturous. Any other 12-year-old would have rushed into the reassuring comfort of his parents’ embrace. But for Rohan this is not an option. This normal-looking family has a sinister secret to hide. A secret darker than the night in which the protector remains the protector no more and the birth-giver remains a mute spectator to the plunder.
For eight-year-old Rani, even broad daylight brings no protection. For this daughter of a daily wager working on a roadside construction, the very act of existence comes at a heavy price. The payment is extracted by the contractor from this child as he fondles her and makes her hold him while he squirms with pleasure. Her parents pay with silence for the bread they earn.
Nine-year-old Kiran did not know what it was that her 16-year-old bhaiya from the neighbourhood did to her tiny body. But she did know that if she disobeyed or divulged their secret, her bhaiya would not play with her. So she complied, braving revulsion, nausea and pain and was compensated with sweets and chocolates.
Who are these Rohans, Ranis and Kirans? Most of us would believe these incidents of child sexual abuse, appearing in newspapers from time to time, to be little more than occasional aberrations. Yet nearly all of us know of an acquaintance’s child who had been forced to masturbate his school bus driver or of a lady who had to take her two-year-old daughter to the gynaecologist for ‘strange’ injuries. It is also not uncommon to see a lewd exhibitionist being thrashed outside a school or a man passing obscene comments to girls on the road. Bottom pinching or breast slapping is too routine a matter to even elicit a protest.
Yes, child sexual abuse (CSA) is a dark reality that routinely inflicts our daily lives, though the truth regarding the same is often kept under wraps. CSA refers to a wide variety of acts, subtle or gross, which adult individuals indulge in, in order to derive sexual pleasure through the medium of children. CSA may take the form of acts like obscene talks, exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography. Fondling a child’s sexual organs, forced masturbations and oral sex encounters, forced penile, digital or object penetration constitutes extreme forms of CSA.
Statistics tell a chilling tale of how widespread this abuse is. As per government statistics, 20 per cent of India’s population under 15 years is susceptible to CSA. Journalist and author Pinki Virani in her book on child sexual abuse in India, Bitter Chocolate, reports that on an average 12 children are raped every day in our country. The World Health Organisation studies reveal that one in ten children is sexually abused in India, though domestic NGOs peg the figure of sexual abuse much higher. As per them, five out of every ten girls and three out of every ten boys are sexually abused.
Who are the perverts who indulge in such abusive form of pleasure? The answer is chilling. It has been established by several national and international studies that in a majority of the cases, the abuser is a person whom the child knows and mostly trusts, like a family friend or acquaintance, a domestic help, a relative or in the most tragic and traumatic of the cases a member of the immediate family like the mother, father, brother or grandfather. That is the primary reason why the perpetrators are able to carry on with the abuse for a reasonably long time. Ironically this is also the reason why child abuse is many a time allowed to continue despite getting detected. A study based on interview of 350 Delhi schoolgirls, for instance, found that nearly 63 per cent of them had been abused by a family member. Another study on 1,000 middle and upper class women, revealed that 71 per cent had been abused by people they knew.
Studies also disclose that the abuser can belong to either sex, though often men are the offenders. The victim too can be of either sex, though a girl child is more likely to be abused. Most adults who tend to indulge in CSA are often ‘normal’ individuals. Though many offenders might be those who have themselves been victims, but in most cases CSA is simply a result of unbridled lust and easy opportunity. Children are basically trusting, dependent and often taught unquestioned obedience to adult authority. They are also, as studied in most cases, ignorant. Most parent refrain from imparting any kind of sex education to their children. Therefore, the younger victims of CSA might actually not be aware of what the abuser is doing with them. Pain, discomfort, revulsion might be the associations that a child may form in relation to sexual abuse but knowledge of the actual harm or depravity of the act is absent.
The parents often fail to equip children with vocabulary that the child can use to report sexual abuse. The child may exhibit other abuse-related signs like anxiety, isolation, depression, bed-wetting, regression, avoidance of particular individuals, difficulty in concentration, sudden use of sexual words or display of explicit behaviour, infections in the throat, anal, and genital areas and the like. But these signs may be lost on ignorant, unsuspecting or non-communicative parents. Besides it is easy to coerce and bribe young victims into secrecy and obedience.
In case of older children, the scars that an abuser leaves behind may be more traumatic as they might be aware of the depravity of the act that they are being forced to perform. However they might be helpless to prevent the abuse, as the protective forces might themselves be the exploitative ones.
In cases of involvement of close family members, the child’s allegations of misconduct against the same might not be believed because any acknowledgement of such a behaviour is likely to lead not only to a familial rift but also to a social scandal. So a child in such circumstances is sacrificed at the altar of family unity and prestige. All allegations of abuse are denied, leaving the child to grapple with the abuser and the related guilt alone.
In other cases, when people other than the family member are involved, the fact of CSA is easier to acknowledge and confront. But here too complex social and cultural factors make it extremely difficult for the affected party to take up cudgels against the guilty. To begin with in a society like ours, the victim is often the one who carries the cross of shame. It is the victim who becomes the target of mocking eyes, slandering tongues and a butt of lewd jokes. The stigma of sexual assault and victimisation continues long enough to even hamper the marital prospects of the girl child in question. Thus silence regarding the crime is often the most advised and frequently followed recourse to the problem of CSA. But for the parents of the victims who decide to break the silence and seek punishment for the guilty, the path to legal justice is often long and arduous. For starters, there is callousness and insensitivity of the law enforcement agencies to deal with. Then there are the regular judicial delays. The fact that our legal system is hardly equipped with mechanisms to deal with CSA further complicates the problem.
CSA in our country is covered by the provision for rape under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 375 defines Child Sexual Abuse as ‘the sexual penetration of a child below 16 years of age.’ If the minor is the man’s wife then the man is exempt from punishment unless she is under 12 years of age. Moreover, the law in our country defines rape in general and Child Sexual Abuse specifically, only in terms of penile-vaginal penetration. The law contains no specific criminal provisions for "sexual harassment" of a child leave alone a boy child. Sexual harassment is covered under the peculiar title ‘Violation of a Woman’s Modesty’ under Section 354 of the IPC. Whether a child, a girl or a boy, can be equated with a woman is in itself a highly debatable issue. Also the law makes no distinction between rape or sexual harassment by an immediate family member or a relative or a stranger, though the matter of fact is that an abuse by an immediate family member is much more serious a crime than an abuse by a relative stranger.
Then there is Section 377, which covers unnatural offences and is often invoked in cases of sodomy. The maximum punishment for it is five years. Under this law can fall forms of CSA like forced digital and object penetrations. But an important question here is that when many unnatural sexual acts are akin to rape itself, why make a mockery of child’s trauma and pain by giving the criminal a much milder prison sentence?
These and several other lacunae in our legal system either help the criminals go scot-free or get away with a punishment much lighter in comparison to the crime in question. But even in cases where justice is delivered in legal terms, the victim’s families often lack the social and financial support system to start afresh. This deficiency is painfully clear in cases like that of Rohan, where the abuser — the father — also happens to be the family’s sole bread-earner. A prison term for the offender is certainly not Rohan’s mother’s idea of justice, as it would spell doom for both the mother and son. Hence the children in such tragic cases continue to suffer.
But in many other cases, CSA can be prevented. How? The first step in this direction must necessarily be that we as a society accept the hard and ugly fact that CSA exists and exists in the proportion that studies have revealed it to be. From here we can proceed to equip our children with ways and means through which this terrible form of exploitation can be dealt.
There are several very basic rules that the parents can follow to protect their children from CSA. First of all, children must be given basic sexual education. They should be taught that any form of sexual advances from adults is wrong. The children should have the confidence that their parents are there with them to protect them. Parents should develop strong communicative relationship with their children. Children should be encouraged to question and discuss their experiences.
The parents must make an
effort to know their children’s friends and their families. In case
the child talks of an experience that sounds anywhere like an abuse, the
child should be believed and precautionary or preventive steps must be
taken. The parents must let the children express affection in their own
terms and not insist upon the child to give hugs and kisses to
relatives. The parents must acknowledge that CSA is a problem and
remember the old adage ‘forewarned is forearmed.’ This will help
reduce the chances of child abuse.
‘90 per cent cases go unreported’
SINCE sex is still considered a taboo, societies have often reacted with an ostrich-like attitude towards abuse of the young ones. They either close their eyes to child sexual abuse or label it as "mere imagination" of the child.
"Though reported rarely, the fact remains that child sexual abuse is not uncommon in India and the prevalence rates could be about 30 per cent amongst women and 10 per cent in men," remarks Dr Adarsh Kohli, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, PGI, Chandigarh.
She says in majority of cases it goes unnoticed and unreported. "Though there has hardly been an occasion when a case of child sexual abuse has been brought to us revealing the whole truth, but even when we remotely broach the issue the family members or relatives dismiss it outright and never return with the patient."
"A child who has been sexually abused is traumatised for life and the damage cannot be undone. It is, therefore, all the more essential that we believe the child and give proper care and healing touch to help them overcome it as far as possible," opines Dr Savita Malhotra, Professor in Psychiatry at the PGI. It is the serious consequences and social stigma attached with sexual abuse which prevents parents and relatives from making it public.
Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, who have handled such cases, point out that more than often it is a family member or a relative who is involved in this heinous crime. "There was this four-year-old girl who had been abused by her own father. The incident had happened many times before and the mother accidentally discovered it while bathing her. The child never thought it was something wrong. Remember, she was just four," says Dr Kohli talking about the case. With more than 90 per cent cases going unreported, it is but obvious that parents are unable to gather courage to come out with it in the open.
Emotional after-effects are very common with surveys in the region indicating that more than 90 per cent of victims show one or the other emotional problem. These problems include anger, fear, depression, crying spells, anxiety, irritability, loss of self esteem, feeling of humiliation, alienation and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.
It is only much later in life when the emotional and psychological trauma aggravates that such people seek medical help. "Direct disclosure of abuse is less common and is always accompanied by a plea for complete confidentiality. However, uncovering a history of sexual abuse is often difficult mainly because of the stigma attached," stresses Dr Kohli.
A young lady brought to the PGI psychiatry clinic with pain in the chest had actually been abused many times by not just her cousins, the orderly and but also by her boy friend. "She was highly unstable as a person and had difficulty adjusting in life, not knowing how to go about in life," says the psychiatrist treating her.
Doctors point out that psychological testing greatly aids the process of disclosure of abuse but the drop-out rate is very high. In a case of suspected sexual abuse, the old attendant accompanying the girl was so evasive and guarded about any information regarding their relationship that the treatment couldn’t proceed beyond the initial stages.
Doctors point out that in most cases it is not the family members or relatives but the victim herself who comes out with the real story of abuse, which, of course, had taken place much earlier in her life. They are unanimous in their opinion that it is time we accept that child sexual abuse is rather common in our society and instead of pushing it under the carpet, we start dealing with it squarely.
"There is an urgent need to take up the problem of child sexual abuse as a larger social issue where the society has a responsibility, to help the victims overcome their trauma and move on with life as normally as possible," says Professor Malhotra.