It isn't easy to talk about child sexual abuse in most Indian families. Last year, when journalist Barkha Dutt revealed that she had been molested by a distant male relative when she was 10, her struggle with fear and guilt stemming from the abuse, resonated with many, many Indians across the country. "It was the loneliest and most frightened I had felt as a child and the fear lurked in the shadows, following me into adulthood," she wrote. When Dutt broke the silence surrounding child sexual abuse, she spoke for countless Indian kids across the country.
A landmark report by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare in 2007 revealed that as many as 53% of the 12,500 children surveyed between the ages of 5 and 12 faced sexual abuse, with 50% of the abusers being known to the child or in a position of trust and authority. Around 57% of those abused were boys. Most of the children surveyed did not report the matter to anyone. Despite the magnitude of the problem, the silence surrounding child sexual abuse is partly due to the shame and social taboo surrounding it.
As many as 53% of the 12,500 children surveyed between the ages of 5 and 12 faced sexual abuse, with 50% of the abusers being known to the child or in a position of trust and authority.
It is a reality that is familiar to many chid sexual abuse survivors. Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman was 4 when she was first abused by a family member. Four years later, she was molested again, by a caretaker who pretended to play a game with her. When she told her aunt, she faced laughter and ridicule instead of support. Too afraid to tell her parents about the abuse, she blamed herself for a long time. Later, when she was old enough, she decided to start a support group in school.
"I wish we were as scared of the fact that our kids could get abused," Devburman said.
Now 28, Devburman has started the One Million Against Sexual Abuse campaign to fill the gap in creating awareness about child sexual abuse in India. It aims at educating a million people about child sexual abuse with a focus on teaching age-appropriate personal safety to kids, LGTBQ groups and differently-abled persons. She is also running an online campaign to make personal safety education compulsory in all CBSE and ICSE affiliated schools in India, to help children identify signs of abuse, avoid predators and help parents protect their children.
The Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) of 2012 was considered to be important step in providing protection from sexual abuse. It is gender neutral and encompasses different kinds of sexual abuses, including non-penetrative assault, harassment and pornography. Moreover, it makes the reporting of child sexual abuse mandatory.
The Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) of 2012 was considered to be important step in providing protection from sexual abuse. It is gender neutral and encompasses different kinds of sexual abuses.
"A wide swathe of authorities in India, including political leaders, bureaucrats, police, and judges, have publicly condemned the sexual abuse of children," a 2013 report on child sexual sexual abuse in India by Human Rights Watch says. "Yet, poor awareness, social stigma, and negligence have facilitated the continued perpetuation of such crimes."
While the law itself is a strong legal tool against sexual abuse, awareness remains low. By 2015, only 6,816 police cases of child sexual abuse had been registered between 2012 and 2015, implying that there were eight cases of child abuse everyday. with the number of convictions being a dismal 166, or only 2.4% of the total cases registered.
"I notice that most people don't know about the law against child sexual abuse outside the legal fraternity," Devburman said. "Just something as simple as putting up posters explaining child sexual abuse and the law in age-appropriate and layman's terms with contact information in every school, will make a difference."
There is no specific focus on the preventive aspect of child sexual abuse. There has been no large, national-level campaign.
Activists argue that while there have been several local and state-wide campaigns on child sexual abuse, the problem is yet to be highlighted in a long-term nation-wide public campaign. "There is no specific focus on the preventive aspect of child sexual abuse. There has been no large, national-level campaign," Prabhat Kumar, General Manager, Child Protection at Save the Children said.
"There are several organisations like Tulir, which have worked on time-bound campaigns in different states. It is time to review how POCSO has worked and whether we need to build a campaign to popularise it and make it more effective."
The closest initiative to a national campaign is the National Award winning animated film called Komal, which was released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the NGO Childline in 2013. The film explains the concepts of safe and unsafe touch as well as personal safety through the story of Komal, a middle-class girl who is molested by her male neighbour and father's fried, and the trauma that the incident entails. Released in 12 languages, the film has been widely screened in schools and was even telecast on Doordarshan.
However, Devburman argues that Komal has its limits and represents only one facet of child sexual abuse. "It is about a girl from a privileged family who has a good relationship with her parents. It is very simplistic, idealistic and does not reach out to a wide socio-economic mass," she said. "The language is not child-friendly. We were also concerned that are no boys."
Full Stop, a campaign started by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi's Bachpan Bachao Andolan last year, sent a considerably more nuanced message.
In contrast, Full Stop, a campaign started by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi's Bachpan Bachao Andolan last year, sent a considerably more nuanced message. A short two-minute shows a boy trying to tell his mother about being abused at a sports academy, highlighting the need to listen to your child. The film was accompanied by a series of candid first-person stories by adult male and female survivors of child sexual abuse, which revealed how the abuse had impacted them as a person and their relationships with others.
Vidya Reddy of Tulir points out that such campaigns also need to present a nuanced view of child sexual abuse. "I think there has to be an awareness that things can happen, children can be of sexual interest to some people," Reddy said. "A large part of the cases involved medical treatment, tipping point and they had to come to us. Small safeguards, you do not leave young children unsupervised. Listen to your children, don't ignore them. This child is making up stories. Abuse happens because we allow the abuse to happen."
"I think there has to be an awareness that things can happen, children can be of sexual interest to some people."
A more effective alternative is a campaign tailored to and targeting specific stakeholders. "You have to tailor your campaign to different audiences. different social and economic sections," Ashwini Aliawadi of Rahi Foundation said. For instance, in 2015, UNICEF and the Indian Medical Association started a 10-day campaign to train medical practitioners, often the first point of contact in a child sexual abuse case, to understand different facets of the problem as well as the legal provisions. The trained doctors, in turn, would disseminate the knowledge in different states and districts. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, a watchdog of child rights, has also held several smaller, time-bound campaigns in different states.
While a public campaign can help spread the word, it also needs to be backed by an efficient support system that includes a network of trained counsellors.
While a public campaign can help spread the word, it also needs to be backed by an efficient support system that includes a network of trained counsellors. "If the government undertakes a campaign, it can reach every nook and corner of the country," Aliawadi of Rahi Foundation said. "Everyone knows what is happening. It is India's worst-kept open secret, but such a campaign has to be sustained, have a clear message and ingrain itself in people's heads like Amul or Lifebuoy. What's more, it also needs to have the resources to help survivors to move forward."
Aliawadi's Rahi Foundation has been working in schools, colleges and with adult survivors for over two decades. He says that while there have been substantial changes in the way people perceive child sexual abuse over the years, there is still a long way to go. "Earlier, people asked us, 'does this really happen in India? We are protected by our culture," he recalled. "This happens in the West or in slums. Ours is a respectable college. we don't hold programs like this.' Now what used to be a private issue is slowly turning into a public one."