January 24, 2020
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Lost Innocence

The demand for stricter laws intensifies, as it becomes clear that the sexual abuse of children is a widespread malaise

Lost Innocence
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A deputy manager in an insurance company, Ashutosh Mathur, was acquitted by a Rohtak court in May 1994 of raping his daughter in November 1992. He repeated the act on the 12-year-old girl on September 29 this year. Though arrested the same day following wife Gargi’s complaint and the child’s medical examination, Mathur managed to secure bail and accused his wife of framing him. Subsequently, his eight-year-old son reportedly revealed that Mathur had sodomised him, too. As a result, the school in which Gargi taught not only refused to admit her children, but even sacked her for fear that she would bring disrepute to it.

On November 23, doctors at Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital in east Delhi saved the life of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by a neighbour, Darbari Lal, in Nand Nagri. The child could have bled to death—her vagina was torn down to the anal sphincter and the penetration had ruptured her stomach walls.

TILL recently, social activists, psychologists and the police alike regarded cases of child rape in India as aberrations and the work of "deviants" and "psychopaths". And though the police still believe that "normal" people, especially parents, do not molest children, there has been an alarming increase in the reported incidents of child rape. This extreme form of abuse is also the most under-reported.

But even available statistics are chilling. Of the 10,068 rape cases registered in 1990, 2,105 were girls between the ages of 10 and 16 and 394 below 10 years. Delhi tops the list—in the first half of 1994, 98 of the 162 rape victims, almost two-thirds, were minors. In 1993, of the 321 reported rape cases, 197 were minors, 35 below seven years of age and 119 between 12 and 16 years. This year 210 cases of child rape have already been registered between January 1 and November 28 this year. And convictions? None of the accused in 1994 have been convicted, only two were convicted in 1993, with seven acquitted, 70 cases closed and the rest still awaiting judgement.

According to psychiatrists, child sexual abuse exists in all cultures and strata of society. While both male and female children are victimised, girls are abused more frequently. Research in India by Sakshi, a Delhi-based NGO dealing with sexual abuse, as well as international statistics, show that at least two out of four girls and one out of six boys are victims of sexual abuse.

Two separate surveys conducted last year by Samvada, a Bangalore-based NGO in collaboration with Dr Shekhar Sheshadri of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, revealed that 15 per cent of the girls surveyed had experienced "serious abuse" such as coercion, aggression and rape, 47 per cent had been subjected to sexual overtures, 82 per cent had been eve-teased, 14.3 per cent of the boys had been subjected to homosexual abuse and 7.3 per cent experienced sexual advances from older women. A significant finding was that while girls tended to blame themselves for the abuse, boys in general did not perceive it as traumatic and many even found their experiences with women pleasurable.

Says Sheshadri: "Another survey was conducted among girls in Cochin and its preliminary findings are similar to that of the Bangalore study. By mid-1996 we hope to complete three more surveys in Kerala and one each in Baroda and Chandigarh."

 Concern over the issue has grown considerably. Public outcry against Karam Chand Jhaku, a Home Ministry official arrested on charges of forcing his daughter into having group sex with his friends, has snowballed into a full-fledged campaign. People are coming forward to create public awareness on the issue, press for special laws to deal with such cases and help young victims cope with the trauma.

In July, a group of Delhi-based teachers, activists, doctors and writers formed the Peoples’ Forum Against Child Sexual Abuse. The first phase of the campaign concluded in the city last month with a demonstration by over a thousand people, including school and college students. Slogans were raised against "insensitive" handling by the police, "inhuman" cross-examination of victims and delays in judicial procedures which leave the child’s psyche scarred for life.

Their demands: (a) make child abuse a separate category and amend the rape law accordingly, (b) sensitise the police in handling such cases and collecting proper evidence, (c) reduce judicial delays, (d) amend evidence laws to eliminate repeated cross-examination, and (e) create rehabilitation facilities like counselling centres and creches.

On December 7, a delegation of the forum submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister who gave them a "categorical assurance" that his Government would initiate the process of legal reform before the current Parliament’s term ends. Rao has nominated CPI(M) MP Malini Bhattacharya to liaise between the activists and Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj to work out the modalities of making changes in judicial procedure as well as long-term legal reform.

Under existing law, sexual abuse is con-fined to penile penetration alone. While a person below 18 years is legally a minor, the age of consent is 16. And in cases of child marriage, forced intercourse with a girl of 15 years and above does not constitute statutory rape. Activists spearheading the demand for a separate law say the Government has ignored the recommendations of the Law Commission, and not even looked at the draft bill on sexual assault prepared by the erstwhile National Commission for Women. The bill sought to raise the age of consent to 18 years and redefined "sexual assault" to include oral and tactile abuse.

In the first phase of its campaign, the forum reached over 15 schools, held block meetings in resettlement colonies and residential areas, addressed employees of public sector undertakings, trade unions and distributed one lakh pamphlets door to door. "The initial phase of the campaign is aimed at making child abuse a public issue—to create awareness and to urge the Prime Minister and Parliament to address it," says activist Brinda Karat, a forum member.

Adds Annie Koshy, principal, St Mary’s School, Delhi: "We want children to be able to fight back and speak out against the abuse. Most children don’t do so for lack of support. It was encouraging that a majority of the people felt the need to change the negative community response to incidents of child abuse, but unfortunately most people want somebody else to do the work." The Jan Natya Manch has held over 60 shows of its street play on the issue, Artnad, in Delhi. "People, particularly university students, come to us after the play and ask how they can be associated with the campaign," says Manch activist Brijesh Sharma.

Sakshi has also conducted sensitisation programmes for the police and is creating community awareness in Delhi through mobile creches and agencies working in slums. It is about to finalise an instruction manual for potential "interventionists" to seek out and help victims. "An interventionist is anybody who is close to a child, such as a teacher or parent, who can help the child overcome the trauma. The person must be capable of tackling the subject of sex and sexuality, make children feel comfortable about their bodies and teach them to distinguish good from bad touches," says Jasjit Purewal of Sakshi.

In Bangalore, a group of psychiatrists, pae-diatricians and activists who deal with children have formed an informal network to help victims. In July, they started a "hotline" service to counsel victims of child abuse, monitored by therapist and coun-seller Saroj Welsch. Says Sheshadri: "The response has been very good. From the second week onwards, about 75 per cent of the calls were from teenagers or older persons who were abused as children. Only 10 per cent were crank calls. While most problems are handled over the phone, some persons want to meet the counseller."

The group recently completed its first "lay counselling" workshop to train college students in various aspects of sexual abuse counselling, and its members have written a play on sexual abuse called My Children Who Should Be Running Through Vast Green Spaces, which they plan to stage shortly.

The efforts of these activists in Delhi and Bangalore are merely the rumblings of a battle. As Purewal says: "For the moment, it would be a positive step if the State at least agrees to expand the definition of rape to include various forms of child sexual abuse and ensure time-bound disposal of such cases."

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