Ramya Kannan and Meera Srinivasan
A national study shows that the cases which come to light are just the tip of the iceberg
CHENNAI: Incidents of child rape and sexual abuse, when they manage to get some media attention as they did recently when a five-year-old girl was found naked and bleeding in a clump of bushes near Kelambakkam, send shockwaves in the community.
The reality, however, is that every day, in their most comfortable spaces — homes, including those run by the government, non-governmental organisations, schools, on the streets, in tuition classes, in buses and trains – children are being subjected to various forms of abuse, physical, emotional and sexual.
A national study, conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, one of the first such studies in the country, showed that the cases that come to light are just the tip of the iceberg.
The study showed that two of every three children were physically abused, while every second child was subjected to emotional abuse. Over 53 per cent children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. Though the study did not include Tamil Nadu, it reflects the national picture and the case is not too different here, Thomas George, Communication Specialist, UNICEF, says.
For the results of another study conduced among school children in Chennai, conducted by Tulir -Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, showed pretty much the same thing. The study was conducted to determine the prevalence of child sexual abuse among school-going girls and boys in Chennai, to understand the nature of child sexual abuse with relation to type of abuse, frequency, onset and proximity of abuser, says Vidya Reddy of Tulir.
The results were stunningly similar to what the Central government put out. As many boys as girls were being abused. A total of 939 children out of 2211 participants in the study, almost as many boys as girls, complained of sexual abuse. Fear, shame and guilt, and the ensuing stigma impact on how the abuse is perceived, and the subsequent availability and efficacy of support networks.
“It is the men and women next door, or family members, people known to the child.” The fact that people shy away from it gives a sort of laissez-faire to the perpetrator, Ms. Reddy added.
The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) that is responsible for handling cases of abuse to children under the Juvenile Justice Act sees at least two or three cases every month of various forms of abuse of children, including abuse at the work place. CWC Chairperson P. Manorama says, “once any such case of abuse comes up, we get a medical report, a full history from the child, file an FIR and initiate action against the perpetrators,” she says. The CWC gets a lot of referrals from the child helpline 1098.
She admits that follow-up can be a big chore, with the CWC members often having to invoke higher police authorities to see a case run to its close. She believes that awareness is essential for police personnel, “For instance, in a case that came up over the weekend, a 15-year-old girl was accusing the father of molesting her. The police did not know that only a lady officer (in plainclothes) can enquire with the girl child and that the child could not be taken to the police station.”
Once again, experts stress that it is extremely important to examine home as a space where abuse happens to children. Not just sexual, but also physical and emotional abuse, except that no one even considers it as child abuse, just child rearing. S. Revathy, parent of a 10-year-old, says though corporal punishment is illegal, some teachers still resort to it. “Even worse, I know parents who ask teachers to beat their children to discipline them. What do we do in such cases?”
Though more adults are beginning to acknowledge the incidence of child abuse — of physical, emotional and sexual nature — much needs to be done to step up general awareness, experts note.
The Centre’s study also showed that 70 per cent of the abused child respondents never reported the matter to anyone. Often, it is the adults’ reluctance to listen to children that may prevent them from sharing such information, says Mr. George, adding: “We need to give them a chance to speak and also listen to them with seriousness.” Children have to be taught the difference between right touch and wrong touch and told to report incidents to someone they can trust, Ms. Reddy says.
However, even in those cases where adults are willing to listen, they may not always know how to handle the situation. Emphasising the need for a strong referral system, Aruna Rathnam, Education Specialist, UNICEF, says the availability of doctors, child psychologists and other support structures is important while attempting to address the issue. “Everybody is grappling with questions like ‘Who do we go to?’, ‘What do we do now?’, ‘Do we seek a lawyer’s help?’ and so on.”
Raising awareness and sensitising adults seem to be the closest right answer. In an attempt towards that, the School Education Department has been organising workshops for its education officers, in association with bodies such as the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) and UNICEF. After the Department launched its complaint cell (044-28273591) about two years ago, some incidents of abuse were brought to the department’s notice and had action taken.