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The shadow of child abuse

Print edition : Sep 07, 2007 T+T-
Children taking part in a rally in Chennai as part of a campaign against child abuse. A file picture.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Children taking part in a rally in Chennai as part of a campaign against child abuse. A file picture.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

It is debatable whether the law alone can tackle the serious problem of sexual abuse of children.

Im a 37-year-old woman, sexually abused as a 6-year-old by a man now aged 47; he is still out there, somewhere, living, working, breathing in a street near you. The experience has haunted me all these years. Six years ago I star ted confiding in certain people around me (though not my family members) and it became apparent that three women and three men in my social circle had been sexually abused as children.

THIS is how a reader responded recently to a Sunday Times (London) article on the menace of child assault, which is often inexactly described as paedophilia. Paedophilia also covers even non-assaults in which a mentally sick person derives immense gratification from merely looking at pornographic images of children. The evil is definitely not something unknown to mankind. History is replete with instances of uninhibited child sexual abuse by those who co mmanded wealth and wielded authority. These persons were guilty of outrageous practices, which hardly, however, caused social indignation. Public opinion was not stirred by these practices because the common belief at that time was that these were a prerogative of royalty and affluent landholders and that making a noise about them would only exacerbate the problem.

The prohibition of child marriage in India through the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 was at least partially motivated by the need to protect children from being treated as mere sexual toys. The Offences against Children (Prevention) Bill, 2007, which has been in a state of limbo with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, is another example of an endeavour to curb the exploitation of children. The point that is debatable is whether law alone can tackle the problem.

The global incidence of child abuse is still substantial enough to cause worry. While sexual abuse of children can encompass an entire continuum from fondling to rape, according to Crime in India 2005 (the official publication of t he Union Home Ministry), more than 4,000 girl children were raped during the year (a 13 per cent increase over 2004). Also, there were 145 cases of procuring of minor girls and 28 of buying girls for prostitution, both sharp rises over the previous year. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the United Kingdom reported that about 16 per cent of all women and 7 per cent of all men interviewed by it said that they had been sexually abused before they were 12. Further, more than 90 per cent of all sex and violent offenders were prone to reoffend, indicating that sexual assault of children was too serious a matter to be left solely to the police.

The media undoubtedly gloat over celebrity misbehaviour with children. Whether it is for commercial gain or pure enlightenment, such coverage has helped to arouse noticeable public interest in a subject that normally repels civilised human beings. The British press was until a few days ago full of the trial of Chris Langham, the award-winning stage comedian who was accused of having had sex with a teenager years ago and was also in possession of pornographic child images. While he has been cleared of the former charge, the jury found him guilty of downloading pictures of child abuse on to his home computer.

Langhams case raises several points. First is the ease with which many in society are able to hide their perversions for a considerable period of time. They get caught very late in their lives when they have already caused plenty of damage to their hapless victims, and any penalty in the form of incarceration means little to them. We must, however, feel gratified that destiny does catch up with at least a few who indulge in child sexual abuse. Such instances should deter those who wrongly believe that their status in society is a guarantee against exposure. This is why everything needs to be done to ensure that victims do not suffer in private and are unafraid of the consequences of going to town against their aggressors. The role of the media and social action groups in facilitating this process can hardly be exaggerated.

Secondly, Langhams exploits confirm the widely held impression that cyberspace offers alluring opportunities to paedophiles. Those who protest against policing cyberspace will understand from the Langham case the hollowness and unreasonableness of their stand. Cyberspace panders unwittingly to trusted and seemingly respectable people in society who masquerade as upholders of the rights of children but are inclined to abuse the latter in the shadow of their private moments. It is for this reason, if not for anything else, that monitoring of the Internet by law enforcement agencies has become a sad necessity.

Finally, a major argument that the 58-year-old actor put forward in court was that his was not a crime but an aberration, the consequence of his own victimisation when he was a child of eight. When Langham downloaded questionable images, not only was he researching for one of his plays a claim considered facetious by one of his fellow-actors but he was also apparently trying to dissect his own childhood experience.

Whether Langhams defence is truthful or not, it brings us to the question, how relevant is ones childhood experience to ones conduct later on in life? While Langhams deposition to the magistrate in his defence is more the rule rather than an exception, it is the belief that the insidious impact of child sexual abuse often does not allow many child victims to lead optimal lives as adults.

Eileen Vizards research (reported in detail in Newstatesman; August 9) is an eye-opener of sorts. Vizard is a consultant with the NSPCC, which recently co-authored a major study on Links between Juvenile Sexually Abusi ve Behaviour and Emerging Severe Personality Disorder Traits in Childhood. This three-year study covered 280 identified juvenile sexual abusers, 10 per cent of whom were women. Most of their victims were relatives, friends and acquaintances, which is the usual relationship proximity for adult child sex abusers as well. While child-on-child sex abuse is hardly ever considered or even taken seriously, the stark fact remains that one-third of convicted child sex offenders reported their sexual interest in children even as young teenagers, besides also starting their patterns of sexually abusive behaviour from that age. Vizards research, like many others before, counters the belief that exposure to child pornography is not all that harmful. The stimulus provided by online images of sexual activity involving children affirms for most people a hitherto reprehensible fantasy. Often, the ensuing rationalisation also leads to a repetition of similar behaviour towards other children.

Andrew Durham, who works for the Warwickshire Council in the U.K., affirms this explicitly: When young people see adults abusing children on the Net, it normalises what is being done. What is of some consolation is Vizards view, which is also widely subscribed to and is the focus of much research, that cognitive behavioural therapy is effective in dealing with feelings and impulses in a non-damaging way.

The significance of Vizards study is its emphasis on the treatment of child abusers. But then, how do we supervise and manage juvenile sex offenders in the community once they are sent back to us after serving their sentences? I tend to agree with Minette Marrins (We need more than jail for child abuse, The Sunday Times, June 3) view on the administration of antiandrogen drugs and antidepressants, even if such a course is only partially effective.

What is more essential is keeping track of such offenders once they are out in society so as to prevent them from reoffending. This requires a good information system and an informant channel. Sex offender registries, like those that exist in the U.K., have their own share of failings, even in that far less populous country with a better overall understanding of sexual violence against children. Coupled with some counselling, such registration can take reasonable care of the tendency of some convicts to lapse into delinquency. While the recent establishment of the Technology Coalition and the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography is a welcome initiative, it would be a cause for a lot more cheer if there were a substantial involvement from the information technology (IT) and financial industry in India as well.

In this context, Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (CPHCSA), Chennai, an organisation that addresses itself solely to the problem of sexual abuse of children, is indignant that a proposed Bill to amend the Information Technology Act, 2000, has dropped an expert committee suggestion that a comprehensive definition of child pornography should find a place in the Act. This is in spite of India having ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. It is ironic that the lawmakers of a country that is synonymous with IT are myopic to the transnational nature of the crime of possession and distribution of images of child abuse, a fact that has a huge impact on the rapidly widening contours of sexual crime against children everywhere.