“Child sexual abuse does not happen in India, certainly not to boys. It happens to children on the streets because they are vulnerable.”
“It cannot happen to my child because he is safe in my house.”
“There is no need to talk about sex to my children; my parents never spoke to me about it.”
“We should teach our girls how to dress and tell them to pray every day. That will protect them throughout their life.”
These are common responses I hear when I talk to people about child sexual abuse in India, where we have always turned a blind eye. There has been a culture of silence, which has become a a conspiracy of silence.
There are no real estimates of the magnitude of child sexual abuse in India. In 2007, however, the Government of India produced a first-ever national study on child abuse that showed 53% of children surveyed had been sexually abused. However, the report methodology was limited and the numbers were simply indicative.
The study estimated that 20% of children had been subjected to severe forms of sexual abuse and of those, 57% were boys. It was the first time a government report admitted that sexual abuse does happen to boys.
The survey also found that very few cases of sexual abuse were being reported and even when they were, there was no proper system for child protection, and the stringent legal framework led to inappropriate interventions.
Indeed, the topic of sexual abuse surged to the forefront in December with the brutal gang rape of a medical student in Delhi. This terrible event led to the woman’s death and stirred a national debate on sexual offenses, rape laws and women’s rights in India like never before.
Since then, there has been continuous media coverage from all corners of the country, relentless protests by civil society groups, as well as constant debate and discussion among political groups on the issue. For the first time, it is out in the open that our society is oppressive and we do not respect our women.
In India we now have read repeatedly that children are raped and molested – in villages and cities, in homes and institutions, by relatives and strangers, irrespective of their caste and socio-economic status.
As an illustration of just how deeply this trauma has been felt, recently I was invited to address a gathering of 200 naval wives who represent some of India’s elite. As I spoke about the sexual abuse of children there was in the audience a sense of shame, silence, denial, hopelessness and helplessness all at one time.
Picking up on this sentiment, Human Rights Watch recently released a report entitled ‘Breaking the Silence’, which illustrates the plight of victims of sexual abuse and the lack of adequate protection for our children in India.
The report shows that the new law on Protection of Children against Sexual Offenses is a significant step in tackling the challenges. It points out, however, that without implementation mechanisms and measures to raise awareness on the issue, we still cannot ensure protection of our children.
At present, nothing much is being done to prevent child sexual abuse. No one wants to report it once it has happened, and even if someone does report an act, the weak legal framework does not do much to protect the victims or punish the perpetrators.
In response to this, late last year we extended the ADMCF/Stairway Foundation Break the Silence initiative to India. BTS started in the Philippines and then moved to Thailand with the goal of using highly effective animated materials and trainings to educate NGOs, the police and communities about child sex abuse and trafficking.
After conducting research in India to understand what already existed in the way of NGO activity, we saw there was need for better collaboration, stronger educational materials and perhaps a campaign to keep the issue in focus.
We began by training student social workers in two universities, NGOs, government officials, schoolteachers, parents and women’s groups using Stairway Foundation materials that had been translated and adapted to suit local needs.
At the same time, ADMCF joined the ten-member Mumbai-based Child Rights Network, which has played a key role in drafting the new child protection law.
In February, Human Rights Watch invited ADMCF to help launch its new report, Breaking the Silence against Child Sexual Abuse. Human Rights Watch and Prerana, a leading Mumbai organisation that works on the topic of commercial sex trafficking, are potential partners for the new BTS-India effort.
One of the biggest challenges faced by groups in India is a lack of standardized training material and resources. Organizations also need legal advice and expertise on how to deal with cases of sexual abuse.
“Silence” on the topic has been a reason behind child sexual abuse in India but the process of breaking the silence has slowly but surely begun.