Dimensions of child abuse

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Children at a rally taken out in Chennai as part of the campaign against child abuse. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Nothing can be more dishonest or harmful to our future generations than underplaying an issue such as the abuse of children.

A FEW days ago, I was invited by Talir, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) to speak on the problem of sexual abuse of children. By all accounts, the NGO is doing commendable work in the area. It had given wide publicity to my presentation on the subject held in the heart of the city. I was therefore amused, if not wholly disappointed, that there were just 30 to 40 persons to listen to me. It was not the smallest of audiences that I had addressed in my life. It was just possible that a few who might have been genuinely interested in the subject had stayed away because they had something more interesting to do on a Saturday evening. However, I somehow gained the feeling that this modest response to a talk on an issue of great social significance generally reflected the growing community apathy to myriad problems that we face in the present times. Worse is the tendency of those in authority to sweep a problem of this kind under the carpet and circulate the impression that the population at large need not be overly concerned. Nothing can be more dishonest or harmful to our future generations if we underplay an issue such as the abuse of children. According to the last Census figures, nearly 40 per cent of our population is less than 18 years, an age that comes under the legal definition of a `child' in most statutes. Actually, if you take into account this age-profile, we are a relatively young nation, a fact that should give us tremendous advantage in our effort at nation building. This at a time when many countries in the West are concerned at their own burgeoning component of senior citizens.

To reach out to a larger audience, I thought I could share the salient features of my presentation through this column. I want to begin with the generalisation - supported by many incidents reported to our NGOs and the police - that child abuse, especially for sexual gratification, is not confined to the West. We in India have the evil in substantial measure.

Children are generally vulnerable to crime. However, those who find themselves in especially difficult circumstances, such as orphans or those living with a single parent, are a particularly easy prey. Compared to many other regions in the world, we have the additional phenomenon of a large number of teenagers being employed at our homes to do domestic chores. This is somewhat compounded if you reckon the fact that child domestic workers in our country have hardly any social or legal umbrella. I am told on authority that this category undergoes the worst form of victimisation. Cases are legion of young maids being continuously sexually harassed by their masters. These suffer in silence because of sheer economic needs.

Some fundamental crime statistics can shock our conscience. According to Crime in India, the annual publication of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), Union Ministry of Home Affairs, during 2003, 374 children in the age group of 10 to 18 were kidnapped for illicit intercourse, and 57 for being forced into prostitution. And 2,949 children were raped that year, a figure that registered a 21 per cent rise in 2004. Give enough allowance to non-reporting by victims themselves and suppression of complaints by the police (for reasons of a lack of time or downright favour shown to the aggressor after receiving illegal gratification), you have on hand a problem of enormous dimensions that can certainly become a monster over the next decade, second only to AIDS. While looking for serious research studies on the subject, Vidya Reddy, the energetic woman behind Tulir that hosted my talk, led me on to the one conducted in 2000 jointly by the Queensland Crime Commission (QCC) and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) in Australia. Called Project Axis, this study came up with several significant findings that are not wholly irrelevant to the Indian setting. Greater female than male victimisation characterises abuse of children. There are several risk factors. Children living with a non-biologically-related adult male or away from their mothers are particularly vulnerable. Low family income is another element that enhances risk.

How do we protect our children? A glimpse into the offender-profile is of some help. Abuse takes place in an isolated setting, even when it occurs at home or at a workplace. The predator looks for a moment or two when he and the victim are thrown together, away from anybody else's presence or glare. Organised offending is low, and groups violating a child at the same moment in time are rare. There are, of course, child sex promotion groups in some countries. These again are small in number.

Perhaps, the most disturbing development of the past decade is the birth of the Internet as a dangerous networking medium that facilitates the distribution and exchange of child pornography. I have discussed this in several of my previous columns. Instances of children establishing undesirable links with total strangers over chat rooms and thereafter being lured out of homes for criminal attack are legion. Many of us will, therefore, have to monitor closely our children's surfing habits. Any laxity here can lead to their abuse without our being aware of it.

The most worrying aspect of the problem is the police's low-key approach to bringing offenders to book. It is easy to be critical. We need to probe why the police have not exactly shown themselves sensitive. There is a parallel here to their performance on the front of crimes against women. I would go to the extent of saying that they are even less knowledgeable about the factors that surround offences against children. To be honest, many like me who had spent decades in law enforcement, had hardly been exposed to the problem. Thanks to NGOs like Tulir, there is a growing awareness among senior officers that they have a role and they will be under increasing public scrutiny for non-performance. Media attention to bad incidents involving children is another factor that is helping to change police perceptions.

I am not for a moment accusing the police of a total neglect of the issue of battered children. Many senior police officers do now display commendable sensitivity. This has, however, not percolated down the line. The lower rungs in the force somehow treat offences against children on par with other crime, and hence tend to be heavy-footed.

There is little appreciation of the fact that ferreting out the evidence in such cases is an Himalayan task, which demands not only dexterity but also perseverance and hard work.

When a child has suffered sexual victimisation and consequent trauma, how are you going to persuade him or her to talk cogently and be clear about vital facts? Children will often find difficulty in identifying the aggressor and fixing the place and time at which such an assault took place, unless the latter is a close relation and the incident itself occurred against a domestic setting. This is why so much importance is attached to the `interview' of the victim. The interviewer, normally a police officer of the rank of Inspector or Deputy Superintendent, will have to be carefully selected. He cannot be an abrasive and superficial man in a hurry. He will be one who has had access to children in normal situations, and has the ability to establish an immediate rapport with the child victim. To carry credibility of the whole process, an unobtrusive video recording of the interview that can be subsequently produced before the Judge is often recommended. A recording of the scene where the incident happened can also be helpful. Making the victim testify in court in a persuasive manner that suggests no artificial embellishment of facts - a characteristic of so many failed prosecution exercises - again requires skill and integrity of a very high order on the part of the investigator.

Of course, a lot will depend upon the Judge's own ability to appreciate such evidence. There are peremptory judges who can look for standards of maturity in a child victim that is very unreasonable to expect. The child, while narrating the incident, can often slip into inconsistencies and contradictions that could be fatal to a prosecution story. Only a Judge who understands the nuances of child psychology would be prepared to sift the evidence and ignore non-vital elements in a child's account of the happening before making up his mind on the guilt or otherwise of the alleged aggressor. I would celebrate a Judge who goes by the substance of a child's story that sounds utterly genuine and opts for a conviction and penalty for the accused after ignoring holes pointed out by the defence. This may be in violation of the basic tenets of the English jurisprudence, which places the burden solely on the prosecution to adduce conclusive proof of guilt. But then this is the only way you can put fear into predators who are constantly on the prowl for unwary children.

Finally, is there a case for specialised units in the police for handling crimes against children? I believe so. I am all for setting up a cell in the State Crime Branch CID that will have skilled investigators who will give undivided attention to abuse of children. I will not entrust all crime against children to such an outfit. Rapes of children and their forcible induction to prostitution will definitely form part of its charter. There is also a suggestion that as in the case of women, we could think of police stations devoted to the cause of children subjected to neglect or physical assault, other than rapes. This proposal cannot be dismissed as unnecessary based on an argument that the volume of work involved will not merit it. An experiment of one or two such police stations in major cities is definitely worth the costs involved. It could encourage victimised children and their guardians to come forward much more freely to register their complaints. More than any other gain, it could pave the way for a humane police force in our country. The success of such an experiment would of course hinge heavily on community support and the pressure that NGOs could bring to bear on criminal justice policy-makers.

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