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In his decades as an activist against child labour, Ashoka Fellow Kailash Satyarthi noticed that the boys and girls rescued from mines, factories and small workshops have recently started speaking out about a previously hidden aspect of their mistreatment: child sexual abuse.
“They consider it as part of their life,” Satyarthi said. “But after a little effort they come out and they themselves realize they have gone through such a hideous crime.”
The experience of these children and what seems to be an epidemic of this abuse in India compelled Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to found “Full Stop,” a campaign to raise awareness and educate about child sexual abuse. As part of his mission, Satyarthi urged religious leaders in India – many of whom have millions of followers -- to address the issue.
“I’ve been calling upon them to please announce in their congregation or on their television channel,” Satyarthi explained. “I asked them to say that whosoever does child sexual abuse should not be considered a part of that faith. Boycott it. Outcast it. ‘He's not a Hindu, He's not a Muslim, He's not a Christian.’ The faith leaders should speak out. It will create an impact.”
But Satyarthi said he has not seen any concrete results so far.
“They don't have the courage to speak out,” he said. “But what is the purpose of religion? You are a faith leader and have such a big following, but you cannot protect our children.”
They are not the only ones to leave children unprotected.
The statistics are startling. With one-fifth of the world’s children, India holds the dubious distinction of the largest number of child sexual abuse cases globally. More than half – 52.3 percent -- of Indian children have been sexually abused, according to the 2007 “Study on Child Abuse” by the government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development. (Sexual abuse is a problem that affects children worldwide. According to one study, one out of five girls and one in ten boys are victims.)
Satyarthi and other Ashoka Fellows whose work impacts children say key factors in Indian society explain why child sexual abuse is such an entrenched problem in the country. And will continue to be without systemic changes in attitudes and mindsets.
Social Taboo and Silence
It’s not only faith leaders who do not want to address child sexual abuse. There is a general aversion within Indian society.
“In our country, sex and sexuality is such a bad word,” said Rita Panicker Pinto who founded Butterflies, an organisation which works with vulnerable and marginalized children.
This has a direct effect on children in India. Parents won’t discuss sex with them. And Pinto said teachers are often so embarrassed by the subject they talk about it theoretically or as a physiology lesson.
The taboo also makes it that much harder for victims of sexual abuse to report it.
“How do you expect children or even older survivors to talk about anything sexual to their family members? Especially something which has so much shame associated with it,” said Anuja Gupta. She is the founder of RAHI (Recovery and Healing from Incest), a centre for adult women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse. RAHI was founded 20 years ago and was the first Indian organisation to address the subject.
With victims unable to speak out, the consequences can be grave. The abuse may continue. The victim is unable to get help. And the abuser – “who are just people like you and me” according to Gupta – is able to hide his or her crime.
“Silence is the friend of the abuser,” said Gupta. “Sexual abuse includes silence and secrecy and shame.”
Family Above the Individual
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrator of child sexual abuse is known -- a relative, neighbour, teacher, etc. Most children, according to studies, do not report their abuse, finding it difficult to raise their voices against someone “trusted.” Family is often structured so that children’s voices are discounted or ignored.
“Parents don't find time to respect a child's voice,” said Satyarthi. “It begins with mutual respect and mutual sharing, but it does not happen. It's kind of a monologue. It's the parents who think they know everything.”
Even a child who would attempt to speak out about abuse may come up against a formidable force.
“There is a kind of sanctity that the family has in Indian society,” explained Gupta. “Where nothing in the family can be discussed or be considered wrong. It’s the concept of family as being above the rights of individuals, especially the rights of women and children. And you can't really touch it. It's really difficult to work against that.”
Gupta added that the concept of respecting your elders is especially debilitating. If children are taught not to talk back and become fearful of elders, they are powerless against abusers. In addition, adults may not respond if a respected person is accused or suspected of abuse.
“Sometimes we are so protective of that so-called family reputation and social norms and respect,” said Satyarthi. “So we cover up many of those evils.”
Patriarchy and Status of Women and Children
The horrific “Nirbhaya” gang rape in 2012 drew worldwide attention and brought a greater focus on violence against women and children in India.
In its aftermath, Panicker Pinto’s organisation Butterflies gathered a group of adolescent girls and boys to talk about the issue. The resulting discussion laid bare a fundamental problem in Indian society.
Panicker Pinto recalled: “The girls said, ‘What do our brothers witness in our homes every day? They witness our fathers brutalizing our mothers and us. It’s verbal abuse, physical abuse. They witness this right from infancy. Then they grow up to think it's fine to use verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse against women.’”
In this patriarchal structure, women and children are rendered powerless.
“If you're looking at changing anything to prevent child sexual abuse, you really need to question patriarchy as a system,” said Gupta. “You need to look at changing mindsets. It has to start with how do you treat women and how do you treat children in the family. And how do you bring them up? That needs to change.”
Awareness and Education
In 2012, India enacted The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. According to the law, it provides protection from sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography while “safeguarding the interests of the child at every stage of the judicial process …”
The law also makes it mandatory to report alleged child sexual abuse. But its implementation may be less effective because of a lack of awareness.
“Most people have no idea how to react to (a report of sexual abuse),” said Satyarthi. “Most people are not aware of the various laws in relation to child sexual abuse. Even police authorities are not aware of the nitty gritty of the system.”
Beyond the legal aspects of the abuse, its effects on the person are little understood, according to Gupta.
“People don't have a clue,” she said. “It's taken 20 years for people to say child sexual abuse is happening. But the fact that the consequences could be so devastating and continue throughout a lifetime is not very well understood.”
She continued: “Child sexual abuse has devastating consequences. It has a cost on your physical, emotional, mental, sexual and reproductive health, even as an adult. The kind of impact, and the severity of impact, is not really understood.”
Raising awareness and educating the public continues to be a key part of these Ashoka Fellows’ work. Satyarthi’s Full Stop not only provides support to victims and their families but provides information to medical personnel, teachers, social workers and the police.
Gupta’s RAHI Foundation has programs such as ASAP (Adolescents for Sexual Abuse Prevention), an effort in schools involving students, teachers, counsellors and parents. Panicker Pinto’s Butterflies reaches out daily to thousands of street and working children who are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
But it will take some time for their work to be fully effective, at least according to Gupta.
“My own sense is that for children to start talking, it’s going to take another 20 years of work,” she said. “You have to create situations where children are able to talk. That depends on adults. So the question really should be why adults don’t listen. What happens when children disclose? Nobody is going to believe them and they're going to be blamed.”
Gupta continued: “The focus needs to be on how do you help adults acknowledge the issue of child sexual abuse, the extent to which it is happening, and educate, sensitize and train them to address this issue.”
M-R Abraham is Storyteller in Residence at Ashoka India.