The Tears Of Our Children

July 16, 2010

Not a week passes when in the pages of every national daily there isn’t a report of some horrific atrocity against a child. A 6-year-old raped in Shahapur (7 July); a 16-year-old gang raped in Ghaziabad (23 June); a 5-year-old gang raped in Chennai (4 November 2006); another in Panvel (4 January 2010); a six-year-old raped and murdered in Bhayander (13 June 2010). This month, a young man has been arrested in Kurla, suspected of having raped and killed three minor girls. In June, a 41-year-old man repeatedly raped his teenage daughter, impregnated her, forcing an abortion (13 June 2010).

Between November and December 2009 the media reported at least eight cases, one worse than the next: two teenagers raped a girl just over four years old in Kherwadi, Bandra (3 November 2009); in Mumbai, a father raped his 9-year-old daughter (4 November 2009); two teenagers raped a 4-year-old at knife-point in Mumbai (4 November 2009); a 17-year-old sodomized his 6-year-old neighbour (5 November 2009); a 40-year-old watchman raped a 7-year-old girl in Malwani (9 November 2009); a 12-year-old was gang raped in Delhi (18 November 2009); a 7-year-old was raped in Thane (27 December 2009); a 16-year-old was raped by eleven men over three days in Himachal (28 December 2009).

Every day, the news nauseates. We turn the page. Perhaps the problem will go away. Life will go on. For us, maybe.

Each one of these cases defies all comprehension of humanity. What kind of creature is sexually aroused by a child? Are these perpetrators fit to be called human beings? Some animals in the wild hunt, kill and eat the offspring of other animals, sometimes even their own kind. None do it for pleasure. None are sexual predators. Is this what most distinguishes us from animals, that we are the only creatures to sexually prey on our young?

Many countries, have reasonably well-established laws that deal specifically with child abuse, including physical abuse and sexual abuse. Amazingly, despite its welter of laws on almost every conceivable subject under the sun, India has no specific law on child abuse. The same criminal law on rape and molestation that applies to adults is made to apply to minors, because there just isn’t anything else.

Our statute on rape is prehistoric. A woman cannot be raped by her husband if she is over — this is incredible — 15 (though the age for statutory rape is 16). Other sections of the Indian Penal Code are peculiar: S.372 (“selling minor for purposes of prostitution, etc” actually uses the phrases “let for hire”. There is no specific law against child porn.

In the past, our courts did not exactly cover themselves with glory in dealing with rape cases generally. Here’s one gem from 1979:

“A philanderer of 22, appellant Phul Singh, overpowered by sex stress in excess, hoisted himself into his cousin’s house next door, and in broad day-light, overpowered the temptingly lonely prosecutrix of twenty four, Pushpa, raped her in hurried heat and made an urgent exist having fulfilled his erotic sortie.”

That extract needs no emphasis.

In the infamous Mathura case, where a girl of about 14 was raped by policemen in custody, the trial court acquitted the accused, holding, among other things, that she was “habituated” to sexual intercourse as she had a lover. In a sensitive and measured decision — the horror and pain comes through — the High Court reversed the decision and convicted the accused. In a judgement that was widely criticized the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision. The words “habituated to sexual intercourse” appear in the Supreme Court decision too. As exculpation for rape, this is simply bizarre. It is like saying that if you leave your front door open, you can expect to be robbed or assaulted, and that’s no crime. Fortunately, the recent trend, though gradual, has been to treat rape victims with a gentler hand, and the perpetrators with greater severity.

In 2007, the Government of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development published an outstanding report on child abuse. Its findings are shocking, the more so because they are set out with such clarity and objectivity. Children between 5 and 12 are the most vulnerable. Over 50% children in all 13 sample states were found to be physically abused, and an equal number sexually abused. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi consistently reported the highest rates of abuse in all forms. One in every five children reported facing a severe form of sexual abuse. Street children, those forced into labour and those in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault. Half the reported sexual abuses were by persons known to the child or in a position of trust. In 2005, there were over 4000 cases of rape against children. Between 2002 and 2005, the number of minor girls sold into prostitution increased by a staggering 163%.

The WCD report recommended a revision of the National Policy on Children, one that is now 36 years old. It also recommends a national legislation to deal with all forms of child abuse: especially sexual abuse including commercial sexual exploitation, child pornography and grooming for sexual purpose; and physical abuse including corporal punishment and bullying, economic exploitation of children, trafficking of children and the sale and transfer of children. These numbers are frightening. But even more terrifying is the finding that over 70% of child victims do not report sexual abuse.

As a subject for discussion the issue has never occupied centre-stage. It remains the concern of a minority, albeit a persistent and dedicated one. Most of these child victims are desperately poor, and therefore in greatest need of protection. Those of us who can, and should, act prefer not to confront reality; it is much too grim. Our children do not, by and large, have such experiences; these things only happen to the children of others. But we should look again: being born to privilege is an accident, not an excuse, and it carries with it a greater degree of responsibility for those less fortunate. We should look again and say to ourselves, there, but for the grace of god, go I. The more appalling argument is that this is a matter of numbers: there are just too many of us, and when you have these numbers, such things happen.

Child abuse as we now know it isn’t new. It has existed from ancient times when Greeks and Romans routinely kept catamites, young boys for the sexual pleasure of older men. Very young girls were married off or used as sex slaves. More recently, in Victorian times, children were routinely used as cheap labour, forced into sweat shops, beaten, starved and sexually abused. To judge history by the social and ethical mores of today is pointless; and should we judge older literature from a modern perspective we might well have to abandon much that is of value. The world of Dickens is full of the most awful instances of what we now consider child abuse, and yet he is not just read, but his work is made into movies. But the fact that child abuse has its own history does not validate its continuance.

I have an apparently bizarre theory that dumbfounds planners when I put it to them: that illicit sexuality and particularly sexual abuse are directly related to the urban form; specifically, to the urban form in which the poor live. In areas that are cramped and without any form of privacy, places that fit no definition of the constitutional right to shelter — slums, shanties, jhuggies — there is no space available for that most basic of human function. Stir into the pot a restrictive, unyielding and antediluvian sexual morality and you have all the makings of an uncontrollable situation. The structural form also has its other traumas: noise, congestion, financial stress, just making it through a day. When getting a bucket of water is a fight with your neighbour, a child’s tantrum or screaming is apt to trigger a disproportionate reaction. The easiest target in either situation is a child, precisely because she or he is the most vulnerable and the least capable of a meaningful self-defence. Even in Dickensian London, the abused children were always the ones who were poor. There is probably a direct correlation between poverty and a high incidence of child abuse, though it is incorrect to attribute child abuse only to financial status. Certainly there is child abuse — much of it sexual — among the well-to-do but for the most part they are better shielded. Protecting a child takes time, energy and, often, money. It is the poor who are the most vulnerable.

Prolonged and repeated civic strife also seems to blur distinctions between right and wrong in matters of child abuse. War-torn societies, inured to atrocities over a period of time, see the infliction of pain or violence as a matter of compelling obedience. Consider the impact of both, poverty and strife: in 2002, a Cambodian mother nailed her daughter’s foot to the floor in an attempt to discipline her. The child was later made to draw water from a distant well. The authorities were slow to react, saying the mother was overworked, looking after four daughters.

Another perspective is that the entire case on child abuse is primarily Occidental, a western-import sought to be grafted onto cultures that have no such sensibility and yet have managed perfectly well. Societies may have tolerated, or even encouraged, acts that we now regard as abusive. But in a world that has changed and is no longer what it was, to say that some things should be allowed to remain in a time-warp is no argument at all. Child abuse, in any form, is a violation of the basic human rights of the most defenceless among us. For that reason alone that every civil society, or any society that aspires to being called civilized, must protect its children.

The WCD report was made three years ago. It recommended a dedicated law to deal with child abuse. Our children still wait for that law. Child rapists and murderers do not. Between banning a book and interviewing a ghodiwala at a cricketer’s wedding we have more important matters to engage us, forgetting that a society that does not care for its children is a society without a future. A line from the American poet, Hilda Doolittle, is today a question to our government: “to what child are you pitiless?”

Just another fella with strong views
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