Child sexual abuse is a priority, so why isn't government acting on it?

This is an issue that needs to be openly acknowledged by the political leadership.

 |  5-minute read |   19-11-2015
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Imagine being a parent to a three-year-old and hearing that your child has been molested at school. Then having to struggle for months and years to get justice whilst at the same time having to deal with the emotional and psychological scars of your child. Two years ago, a brave mother who decided to fight for her child approached me and made me focus on the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA) - and through the process of helping them, the uphill task for a parent/child became obvious to me.

The first reaction I got was a state minister's - "It is not our responsibility" - but soon it became clear to me that it was not just government apathy but also discomfort and defensiveness people felt while talking about CSA. The responses ranged from believing that CSA was a "Western" phenomenon to CSA being a rare aberration.

Facts

In a 2007 study, described as "The conspiracy of silence", by the then minister of women and child development, disclosed some very disquieting facts. Of the children interviewed, more than half (53 per cent) stated that they had been subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse.

Over 20 per cent of those interviewed said they were subjected to severe forms of abuse, defined in the report as "sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude". Of those who said they were sexually abused, 57 per cent were boys.

In 2005, Save the Children and Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse surveyed 2,211 Chennai-based schoolgoing children. As high as 15 per cent of the children interviewed reported having experienced severe forms of abuse.

Also read: I was raped when I was a child. Yes, it can also happen to a boy

These studies point to CSA being prevalent and widespread rather than exceptional. That in the last 68 years, the government has neither sought to conduct a national study on this, nor considered it important to institutionally address this comprehensively is a sign that - though constituting over 30 per cent of the country's population - we are letting our children down.

The role of the government in ensuring the protection of children needs more examination - What do the institutions mandated to protect our children do to monitor CSA and prevent abuse? How does the system respond when it receives an allegation of abuse and how does it treat victims after they are abused? We do have a law!

It's called Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. While it provides for a detailed list of procedures mandated to be followed by different stakeholders in the response system, the gaps in implementation have been glaring.

Inconsistency

A 2013 report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests that there is considerable inconsistency in the way three pivotal stakeholders - police, doctors and courts in different parts of the country respond to cases of abuse.

The police, the primary point of contact for an abused child, is highly short-staffed, and lacks the specialised training and psychological competencies to handle these cases in a sensitive manner.

As a result, police stations remain hostile and intimidating spaces, which dissuade parents or children from pursuing cases. Special child crime units are required in every police jurisdiction.

Post assault, medical examinations by the government hospitals are yet another weak link in the systemic response. In 2012, a three-year-old girl from Bangalore was subject to tests that grossly violated her bodily privacy. The HRW report suggests that doctors approach such cases with the view to simply collect evidence, rather than assist in the healing and recovery of the child, and that this adds to the trauma of victims and parents.

Also read: Family or predators? I was sexually abused, so were my mother and brother

The courts, too, are lethargic in disposing of cases of child sexual abuse, despite POCSO mandating trials within a period of one year. Through my questions in Parliament, I learnt that of the 6,816 alleged perpetrators booked under the POCSO Act, only 166 convictions have been made, while 389 accused acquitted. The conviction rate under the Act is a paltry 2.4 per cent.

The tragic corollary to this is that pendency rates for child rape cases have actually increased from 20,594 in 2010 to 37,519 in 2014 - an increase of about 84 per cent. While the judicial process dawdles along, eight cases of child sexual abuse continue to be reported every day.

The number of registered child rapes rose 151 per cent from 5,484 in 2009 to 13,766 in 2014. This combination of slow trials, low conviction along with lack of child sexual offenders registry means that offenders are free to continue to live or work among children where they offend again, given the repeat offence nature of such criminals.

Effects

Sexual abuse leaves deeply destructive effects on the psyche of a child - and will only contribute to sustaining the pernicious cycle of abuse. While there is considerable awareness about child rights for our 430 million children, including focused programmes and resources on important issues like health, education, girl child rights, etc, we have not done enough to protect them from abuse. This is an issue that needs to be openly acknowledged by the political leadership.

This is why I have started a Change.org petition, requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make this a priority of his maximum governance agenda. Our children are the losers with this denial and apathy.

They deserve better. Today on the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse, I am hoping that we can collectively wake up to our responsibility to ensure a safer childhood for children of India.

Also read: Why a mother sexually abusing her daughter should not shock us

Writer

Rajeev Chandrasekhar Rajeev Chandrasekhar @rajeev_mp

Member of Parliament & Technology Entrepreneur .

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