“I asked my students in Grade IV to write an essay on ‘What is that one thing which scares you the most?’. A student wrote about her father’s best friend. She wrote that he does something to her in the absence of her parents and she does not like it, she is scared of him. She vaguely mentioned that she was being sexually abused.”
This story was narrated to me by a schoolteacher who met me during one of my workshops on the prevention of child sexual abuse held as part of the Break the Silence Campaign.
What would we do, each one of us, if we discovered that a child in the neighborhood, in our class or in our own family was being sexually abused by someone trusted?
Most of us might try and solve the matter internally within the family, the school or the neighborhood. Some of us might turn a blind eye since sexual abuse is a subject that makes many of us uncomfortable. Very few of us would think about reporting the case to the nearest police station. Going to a police station is not the accepted norm in India and carries a burden of shame.
But the new law on The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences says we cannot solve child sex abuse cases by ourselves and mandates that these must be reported to the police. This might make life a bit uncomfortable for some of us.
Section 20 & 21 of the new law states that any person who fails to report a sexual offence against a child shall be punished with imprisonment of up to six months and/or be subject to a fine. The punishment is higher if the person is in charge of a company or an institution, for people who serve in trusted positions.
Worldwide, mandatory reporting of child abuse (which includes child sexual abuse) has been instrumental in drawing attention to the problem of child maltreatment and has been heralded as a triumph in protecting children. India is following the steps of most developing countries, where Mandatory reporting is the norm and considered to be one of the most important strategies to prevent child sexual abuse.
While there is no concrete data on the number of children sexually abused in India, a report in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development on Child Abuse in India gave a rough estimate. In all, 12,500 children were surveyed across 13 states in the country and 53.22% reported one or more forms of sexual abuse. Interestingly, the percentage of boys reporting abuse was higher than that of girls. Children on the streets, at work and in institutional care reported the highest incidences of sexual assault. The survey also showed that 50% of abusers were known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility. Most children had not reported the matter to anyone.
But are we ready for mandatory reporting?
Currently there are seven NGOs focused on the issue of Child Sexual Abuse prevention and on the rehabilitation of victims. Two to three NGOs working on the issue of human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation also work with victims of Child Sexual Abuse. Even among the NGOs working directly on the issue, the focus is different for each one. While some work only with middle class adult woman survivors, some focus on children from Grade I to IV studying in private schools. Few work with the police and child welfare committees to raise awareness on the issue.
Most of the NGOs working in the sphere of prevention of sexual abuse feel that mandatory reporting will have a direct impact on their work, wherein parents and teachers will not let children attend sessions on prevention of child sexual abuse. where the topic might be discussed. Sex and sexuality are taboo in India; we are discouraged from talking about it in our homes and schools. Adults feel that children should not be exposed to these things at a young age, since it would corrupt their minds. It is difficult to talk about sexual abuse in such a challenging cultural context.
NGOs say it takes them months to persuade parents and school administrations to let them conduct sessions with children. If this is the mindset of English speaking elite in private schools, one cannot even imagine the state of affairs in a vernacular Government school, which caters to underprivileged children.
I have observed that when children disclose sexual abuse within schools or families’ adults try to handle the revelation in their own way. Rarely is discussion or dialogue encouraged, instead, desperate attempts are made to protect the image of our schools and families.
NGOs that work with a single agenda of prevention of child sex abuse worry that mandatory reporting might make life difficult and perhaps result in closure of their programs due to a negative response from schools, families and communities. No one wants the world to know that his or her child has faced sexual abuse in the family or in school.
The cultural framework in India does not allow victims of sexual abuse to live a life of dignity – sometimes we do not allow victims to live at all. They are ostracized from their communities; families are worried about the future of the child. The stigma for girls is even worse, especially since no one would marry her if it were known that she was abused. In such a difficult cultural context mandatory reporting might be detrimental to the attempts made by NGOs to break the silence around the issue.
Still, many organizations feel that despite the risk, the new law could work well if used in the right way. This would include highlighting problems among castes in India.
At present, the majority of the cases of sexual abuse that are being reported to the police come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Mandatory reporting insists that no one is spared under the new law. Children from elite backgrounds if abused, are never allowed to report a case to the police. The family name and the image in the society would be tarnished. This helps the offenders go unpunished.
Offenders who belong to the lower socioeconomic groups are soft targets in the sense that they can be easily arrested and prosecuted.
But high profile offenders ensure that the case is never reported and even if it is reported they never get punished. This perpetuates two myths: That sex offenders are only the illiterate and the poor, that only children who are poor become victims of sexual abuse.
Mandatory reporting will help bring to light high profile cases of sexual abuse. This will help people realize that anyone could be a sex offender and sexual abuse could happen to any child irrespective of socioeconomic status.
Now, however, police must register a case no matter who the offender is and no matter what their perception is of the victim based on his or her socioeconomic level.
The fact remains that mandatory laws are good as an aid in gathering data but it is not known how effective they will be in preventing cases of sexual abuse. Mandatory reporting sends out a strong signal to perpetrators that child sexual abuse will not be tolerated.
However, mandatory reporting does not guarantee a better environment for child protection. The already overburdened police forces are not adequately trained or equipped to deal effectively with the issue. We are a country with a strong desire to protect our children but that desire is limited to paper.
Indeed, there is no way to translate this intent into action – much like much of India’s sweeping legislation with a recent example being the Fundamental Right to Free & Compulsory Education.
While we can all agree that mandatory reporting might help bring to light cases of sexual abuse, perhaps mandatory reporting to the police is not the right approach – at least one for which India is prepared in reality. The existing workload of the police, lack of adequate training, lack of enough personnel to follow the cases, lack of special or fast track courts and lack of a social mindset to blame the offender and not the victim are major roadblocks.
The new law is ambitious but unrealistic at present. We must ensure police reforms, establishing a separate unit within each police station with officers trained to handle cases of abuse. There is also a need to educate and sensitize the judiciary, health workers and even social workers on the issue. Local NGOs should take upon themselves to reach out to the Child Welfare Committees (wherever they exist) and educate them about the law.
There needs to be discussion and debate on the pros and cons of Mandatory reporting Without taking adequate measures to ensure proper handling of cases, mandatory reporting is futile.