Destroyed childhood

The Constitution provides for the protection of the child against violation of its rights. But abuse of children and exploitation is still rampant. LEELA MENON writes on the Children's Code Bill which is to be presented in Parliament.

GLOBALLY, adolescence is in a crisis. The reports of gun-toting school children in the U.S. killing or injuring classmates testify to their increasing psychological trauma and social alienation. In contrast, Indian children are more victims than offenders. Even in progressive Kerala, children are increasingly becoming victims of abuse and torture, including sexual abuse, according to a survey conducted by The Torture Prevention Centre of India in schools in Ernakulam.

The survey only served to confirm the impression that adolescence is indeed experiencing and confronting a tortuous context in Kerala. This was manifestly demonstrated by recent reports of two teenaged school girls becoming mothers. A 12-year-old school girl was sexually violated by an auto-rickshaw driver in the neighbourhood and she has become a mother. Another 15-year-old girl was impregnated by her own uncle, her mother's sister's husband. Both girls, still in their skirts, holding infants against their breasts, and standing before the Women's Commission were telling testimony to the trauma and devaluation of adolescence. Their quest for justice appeared farcical. What justice can they expect, with their permanently scarred innocence and destroyed childhood? At an age when they should be playing, they are forced into motherhood and its awesome responsibilities.

However, it is not girls alone who are becoming victims of abuse, as the survey confirms. Both boys and girls are vulnerable. Of 10,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 covered by the survey, around 4,119 responded positively to the question: "Do you experience and encounter physical, sexual, emotional or any other type of cruel, inhuman or degrading behaviour from any person in any context, either at home, in school or in public places?" The children, asked to say yes or no in their questionnaire, said yes. Torture was defined for them as the aberrant behaviour of a normal person, which leads to physical, psychological, religious, political, sexual or economic trauma or a combinations of traumas with total shattering of the personality of the victim/ survivor.

Forty-one per cent of children admitted to experiencing torture or abuse, with positive response from 1,853 boys (46 per cent) and 2,266 girls (38 per cent). It is not the figures that are significant, but the fact of their victimisation.

The survey revealed that boys were more forthcoming about their experiences while girls were reticent. Torture in the home was admitted by 340 boys and 399 girls. Twenty-four per cent of boys and 14 per cent girls said they experienced physical torture while 42 per cent boys and 54 per cent girls said they experienced mental torture. More girls experienced sexual torture than boys. The torture profile in school was more or less identical with 36 per cent of 372 boys and nine per cent of 566 girls reporting physical torture, and 41 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls suffering mental torture, and six per cent of boys and five per cent girls suffering sexual torture. Abuse by teachers, librarians and so on was prevalent the girls said, adding: "We are afraid to admit it".

The number of adolescents exposed to torture at public places was 1,865 of which only 714 were boys and 1,151 were girls. Twenty seven per cent boys and 16 per cent of girls experienced physical torture and 34 per cent of boys and 44 per cent of girls experienced mental torture. Obviously girls are more vulnerable than boys to mental torture in public places, include eve teasing, invitation to see porn magazines and indecent exposure. Sexual torture was admitted by both equally: 10 per cent.

What is significant is that the children do not share their trauma with parents. There is a marked chasm in communication between parents and their offspring. Children are increasingly depending on peer support in their time of stress.

This communication gap between generations became obvious in the case of the two girls who became mothers. They did not confide in their mothers. Nor did the mothers even notice that their daughters had become pregnant, oblivious to the signs pregnancy induces. It was a school teacher who told the mother that her 15- year-old daughter had become pale and weak and suggested a medical check-up, which revealed that she was pregnant.

"It is a power game, both at schools and homes. School managements wield the power of authority, while for parents, children are an investment in their old age, apart from being status symbols when they score ranks, the end objective of most parents. Punishment is only part of the game. Girls are threatened with dire punishment when they are sexually molested, which ensures their silence", said psychiatrist Dr. S. D. Singh, who headed the survey.

This absence of interaction between parents and children is not a phenomenon restricted to the low-economic strata of society. Even rich mothers detect their daughters' pregnancy late. Rich adolescents do not become mothers because they are subjected to medical termination of pregnancy. Statistics reveal that teenage abortions are on the increase in Kerala. Official figures for 1997-98 showed that there were 68 under-15 girls and 1,385 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who had had abortions. Kerala comes fifth in India in abortions.

Children in India are unaware of the existence of child rights. Both parents and teachers are reluctant to spread awareness among children as they view it as a threat to their authority. The Constitution provides for the child's survival, growth, development and protection. Standards are prescribed for the protection of children and punishment is stipulated for violations of child rights. But despite an array of laws relevant to child rights, many of them fall short of the Constitutional objectives. India is also a signatory to the World Declaration agreed to at the World Summit for Children. It has also acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Efforts are on in Kerala to formulate a comprehensive Children's Code, incorporating the provisions of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the essence of all articles of the CRC. This is significant in the Indian context because deep- rooted customary practices and beliefs continue to render children vulnerable to foeticide, infanticide and exploitation.

A special expert committee chaired by V. R. Krishna Iyer has prepared the Children's Code Bill 2000, to be presented in Parliament. This Code suggests the formation of a National and State Commission for Children, much like the Women's Commission. The code provides for a uniform age definition of the child and suggests special provisions relating to the girl child to prevent discrimination against her.

The Code stresses the responsibility of parents to provide a comfortable home, with affection, sans cruelty. It also prescribes punishment for child battering, female foeticide and infanticide, and for cruelty to children. Another suggestion embodied in the Code is children's courts for speedy trial of offences under the Code. The other suggestions include free compulsory primary education and provisions for health and nutrition. It is time too.

The psychological health of adolescents is vital for a healthy society. Laws alone cannot ensure it. It is necessary to impart awareness among parents, especially mothers. Or adolescents will remain orphaned, despite parents.