In the midst of the fears generated by the possible impact of the Allahabad High Court judgment in the Ayodhya title case (scheduled for September 23 but deferred by the Supreme Court for a few days), and concerns over the Commonwealth Games mess, the threat of swine flu, and, of course, the Kashmir crisis, there is one social issue of importance that has occupied substantial media space. It is the depressing phenomenon of child abuse in its myriad forms.
Child abuse, as everyone knows, is by no means India-specific. Violence against children, sexual or otherwise, is practised in many countries, including the developed nations. The United Nations Organisation is also seized of the problem and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989 after five decades of campaigning has been ratified, it has been remarked, “more quickly and by more governments (all except Somalia and the United States) than any other human rights instrument.” Another notable feature of the Convention is that it is the one major international human rights treaty that has expressly given non-governmental organisations (NGOs) a role in monitoring its implementation.
The issue came to the fore during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United Kingdom, with child rights campaigners and various commentators attacking the Vatican's insensitivity to the scandal of numerous priests sexually abusing children. The Pope's condemnation of child abuse by Catholic priests as “shame and humiliation” to the Church and his public apology made headline news round the world.
In India, the press has reported that Sonia Gandhi, Congress president and Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, has renewed pressure on the Union Ministry of Law and Ministry of Women and Child Development to come out with a fresh draft law for protecting children from child abuses. This contemporisation of the law in a critical human rights area is certainly overdue. Pending this, there are signs of the judiciary getting tough on the issue: two High Courts have confirmed convictions in sexual assaults on children. A national conference on child abuse, held recently in Chennai, suggested, among other things, the appointment of a High Court judge to monitor child abuse cases in the State.
The Indian media, print, broadcast, and digital, have done well to project these social issues, despite the heavy flow of political news, national and international. In fact, this role has won appreciation in specialised reports on the practice of child abuse and from several NGOs. This trend is encouraging.
Over the years, research on child abuse has identified three broad categories of child abuse — physical, sexual, and emotional plus the neglect of girl children on a scandalous scale. Research has also exploded many myths about the practice of child abuse and the background of its perpetrators.
The National Study on Child Abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development notes that 19 per cent of the world's children live in India. (A child is defined as “one below the age of 18” by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.) According to the 2001 Census, some 440 million people in the country are below 18 years of age and constitute 42 per cent of India's population of over a billion. “This is an enormous number of children that the country has to take care of,” the study points out. “While articulating its vision of progress, development and equity, India has expressed its recognition of the fact that when its children are educated, healthy, happy and have access to opportunities, they are the country's human resources.”
Exposed to abuse, exploitation
A key finding of the national study is that children in the 5-12 age group have clearly emerged as the ones most exposed to the risks of being abused and exploited.
As for physical abuse, two out of every three children are physically abused, according to the study. Out of the 69 per cent children physically abused in 13 sample States, 54.68 per cent were boys. Over 50 per cent of children in all the 13 sample States were being subjected to one or the other forms of abuse. A shocking 88.6 per cent of the children, who are physically abused in family situations, were victims of parents. This explodes the general myth that parents are not the real perpetrators of abuse. Worryingly, many schools practised corporal punishment against boys and girls. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi have consistently reported higher rates of abuse in all forms than other States.
In the case of sexual abuse, 53.22 per cent of children reported having faced one or more forms of it. Again, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest percentage of sexual abuse among both boys and girls. Children on the streets, child labourers, and children under institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault. In most cases, the victims do not inform their families about their plight.
As for emotional abuse, every second child reported facing it, according to the national study. Both boys and girls suffer emotional abuse and in more than 80 per cent of the cases, parents were the abusers. The neglect of children by parents makes them vulnerable to child abuse. Harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, child labour, caste-based discrimination, son preference and the consequent neglect of the girl child, and lack of nutritious food have cumulatively deprived the women and children of India of the strength to protect themselves. Social critics blame the government in large part: it does not make adequate budgetary provision for the welfare of the non-privileged mass of women and children, it cares little about proper education and good health for them, and it fails to take prompt and consistent steps to empower them. The media have shown signs of doing better than the government in this area but complacency and self-congratulation is the last thing they need. There is a staggering amount of journalistic work that waits to be done in this arena, if the social responsibility of the Indian news media is to mean anything.
Keywords: child abuse