Last week’s column for the DNA
There are many brutal things that one reads as a part of our news consumption – passenger airlines shot out of the sky in conflict zones; children killed in the escalating warfare between the Israeli government and Hamas; young schoolgoing girls kidnapped in Nigeria by fundamentalist terror groups; children dying of malnutrition; systematic violence against women; ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria; targeted violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and the spontaneous thought is ‘thank heaven, it is not here’; thank the stars that we bring up our children in a relatively safer society. But that feeling of relative safety, security and a better tomorrow for the next generation gets shattered when we read about horrific child rape cases, that are increasingly featured in the media.
Last week, most of us reading or watching the news came across the story of the 6 year-old in an upscale Bangalore school who was raped by her skating teacher. As more and more details of the story emerged, the sense of horror and terror increased. The girl was allegedly raped by two staff members; one of the staff members, who was later arrested, had child pornography depicting kids in uniform being raped. There may have been other cases of child sex abuse in the same school that are still being investigated by the authorities. The school had outsourced the skating teacher’s function to an outside agency, absolving themselves of responsibility. The school in question, as well as other private schools, also tried to get parents to sign a disclaimer that absolved the institutions of any responsibility for incidents that took place on premises or at school organised events.
This is not the first child sex abuse case to hit the headlines, nor will it be the last. Just last year we were shocked by the story of a little boy who was raped by school bus attendants. A six month old child who was raped; a three year-old abducted from home, raped and thrown away into the bushes. The horrors seem never ending and relentless. And, what makes it worse is that it is just the tip of the iceberg – stories that are reported as opposed to incidents that have occurred.
Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There were always men, and sometimes women, who indulged their carnal desires with children. Not so long ago, it was believed that sex with a prepubescent girl would cure men suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Children would be kidnapped, purchased and sold to men suffering from such transmittable diseases. The STD would not be cured, but the girls would be infected. It is not just false belief or superstition that drives such behaviour, but also baser instincts.
Children, today, are growing up in a far more complex and sexualised world than earlier generations. They are also exposed to images and behaviour that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Morality has changed, values have changed, and yet educators, the government and other bodies would rather cling onto modes of behaviour and deterrence that is better suited for a century earlier. These powers are seemingly taking an ostrich-like approach to the whole issue instead of taking concrete steps and measures that not just prevent such occurrences but also punish the offenders.
What is needed to keep our children safe? The first is a national level campaign educating parents, teachers and citizens in general about the dangers of child sex abuse. Creating an awareness that such a problem exists and steps that can be taken to counter it are essential. The solution is not to keep children at home – in many cases the home is as dangerous a place as outside. In many cases the case of sexual assault begins at home, by people who are supposed to keep the child safe. Simultaneously, making the children understand that the world is not safe. That there are people who can touch and harm them in ways that are beyond their comprehension. Children need to be made aware of the dangers from such predators.
The second, and this is a slightly more controversial measure, is to start sex education classes. There are a number of social and cultural norms that will challenged by this – but the purpose of sex education is not to make sex more attractive. As anyone who has gone through a sex education programme will tell you, it is most likely to put off youngsters and push the age of experimentation by a few years. If children cannot, for whatever cultural reason, go through these programmes, parents can perhaps take their place. So that they are best able to communicate to the children the issues at hand. In a world where the local paanwallah can give you a memory card loaded with films for an amount as low as Rs50, the system cannot cope with the kind of content that is being disseminated. Porn is legally banned in India, anyone caught downloading it is theoretically breaking the law. But, when people can access this kind of content through a very different mode of file sharing – memory sticks and pen drives – control becomes difficult.
And finally the authorities need to be both more sensitive and sensible. The job of the authority is not to preserve culture, that is the role of family and society. Their job is to deliver governance and keep citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society, safe. They need to be put through an education programme that helps them handle situations like this with sensitivity. This would include elected representatives at the central, state and local levels; the police force; the judiciary; administrators and educators.
The problem of child sex abuse is not going away anytime soon. The sooner we, as a society and people are geared to combat it — leaving aside our preconceived notions — the more likely are children to grow up in a safer world.