-“Shhh…. Don’t tell this to anyone else, he is your own grandfather.”
-“Oh! Stop lying, will you?”
-“By not wanting to go to school, you are accusing your teacher. Are you out of your mind?”
-“You must have mistaken your uncle’s touch, he was just playing with you.”
These are just some of the ways how we in India silence thousands of voices of the victims of child sexual abuse (CSA). In a country where every second, a child experiences some or the other form of sexual abuse, we like being ignorant about it. A total of 33,098 cases of child sexual abuse and 7,112 cases of child rape were reported in the nation during 2011 as compared to 26,694 and 5,484 such cases in 2010, showing an increase of 24% and 29.7% respectively. India has the world’s largest number of CSA cases and studies show that more than 7200 children, including infants, are raped every year, not counting several cases that go unreported.*
As per a study conducted in 2007 by Ministry of women and child development, covering 13 states of India, 21% of the participants were exposed to extreme forms of sexual abuse. 57.3% of the respondents were boys and 42.7% were girls. A total of 40% people were between 5 to 12 years of age, and almost half of the participants were exposed to other forms of sexual abuse.
I can go on with the statistics but I’m sure you realize that they are scary, and the reality is alarming. Many of us highly romanticize this topic and it seems fancy to be discussed on internet only by English speaking, pseudo-activist class of the society. This is where the forces of poverty and illiteracy combine, and a lot gets swept under the carpet, only to come out in dark later, in the form of media headlines. A sense of sympathy along with discomfort arises in the Indian drawing rooms for a while but we soon choose to live in denial again. Denial that it may happen in our family too. The silence allows the criminal to get away, while the victim continues to languish.
A few days back, a friend sent me a WhatsApp text asking to change my DP (display picture) to plain black, as a sign of protest against the heinous crime committed against Asifa, a young girl in Jammu and Kashmir. I tried to assess the impact it would create and laughed in my head. I neither replied to him, nor changed my picture. He got angry to the extent of calling me insensitive and ignorant.
Sadly, I wasn’t shocked to hear about Asifa. Such violence is not strange to me anymore. As my everyday work revolves around child sexual abuse, this particular incident didn’t drag my attention just because of its geo-political religious minority clad controversial representation. I knew it was cruel but had the overexposure desensitized me. I was angry on myself.
Aren’t we an angry generation, and isn’t that a problem? The rebellious liberals seem to be entitled to an opinion. We have to take a stand on everything, and to defend the opposition, we have to be aggressive. That’s where the silent shift of primary argument happens. As we justify the political chaos, an incident becomes an issue. It becomes a filthy way of criticizing others.
Being targeted by criticism, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi introduced death penalty for rapists of girls under 12 years, which followed an outcry over the latest sexual assaults. Now this penalty is problematic in many layers.
According to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) crime report 2015, almost 95% of sexual crimes against children are by people known to the child. India, being a country of culture, diversity and ethnicity, gives preference to strong family values over safety of their children. We have made family as the most sanctified space. A family’s honor is the highest virtue to be safeguarded. The parents warn children about a mythical stranger who may harm, kidnap or even kill them but they don’t say anything about those in our homes, the potential abusers.
For the victim, it may become more difficult to not only live with the shame of abuse but also with the guilt of being the reason of someone’s death, in case he/she is given death penalty. Sometimes, even convicting the perpetrator may complicate the situation. For example, if a father is the offender as well as the only earning member in the family, convicting him may risk the survival of all other family members. To be clear, I am not advocating for the perpetrators but flagging the need of looking at alternate solutions.
I doubt if the perpetrators even think about the consequences before committing the crime, but if they know there will be death penalty for them, they may choose to silence the child by killing her themselves. It is a safer option for them to destroy the possibilities of being accused at all. In the end, the safety of children will be at stake.
Lastly, the slow pace of justice will be a significant obstacle in this attempt to deal with sexual assaults. The executive order calls for the mandatory completion of rape investigations within two months and for trials to last a maximum of the same period. India launched fast-track courts after Singh’s murder in 2012 but they are struggling to cope with the volume of cases. There were 40,000 rapes reported in 2016, with children making up 40% of victims. but the NCRB reports say that only 28.2% of those child sexual abuse cases brought to trial had resulted in convictions.
We don’t need new laws to come into action, but the existent ones to be implemented properly. Even five years after the POCSO act came into force, the conviction rate for child rape stands at 28.2% and pend-ency at 89.6%. Neither the special courts (under POCSO) nor special public prosecutors are exclusive. Most of the government officials including police forces don’t know how to deal with a child victim. They are often ignorant to follow child-friendly policies. There has to be proper scrutiny, policy implementation and sensitization workshops with such stake-holders. Aggression will never solve this mess!