Monday, 23 April 2007

Give them back their childhood

- The Hindu Magazine, Apr 22nd, 2007

THE first survey of its kind — the National Survey on Child Abuse — virtually across the length and breadth of the country has come up with a startling revelation: a majority of children have experienced various forms of violation, physical excesses and sexual abuse. Over 50 per cent had experienced physical abuse such as slapping and corporal punishment from parents and teachers alike; more specifically nearly 65 per cent of schoolchildren, particularly from government schools, reported that they had been beaten by their teachers.

Of the many children that were sexually abused, almost 70 per cent stated that they had never reported the matter to anyone. Last but not the least, with every second child admitting to being emotionally abused, it is no exaggeration to say that the survey is possibly the single largest vote of no-confidence against the natural and trusted guardians of the young.

Under a cloud

So much so that the much-revered and much-lauded Indian family is under a cloud for not only being one of the main perpetrators of the crime but also for using the smokescreen of the sanctity of the family to hide many ugly realities. More worrisome is the finding that the teacher, often associated with a noble profession, not only proves to be ignoble but also a child-baiter, resembling the infamous Fagin abusing Oliver Twist.

So what are we battling today? As a nation, we need to recognise the sanctity of the child, as citizens to stand up and be counted and as a society to have the courage to look within and speak out.

Maybe for a start we can recognise the fact that we all need help, having probably been trapped in two sets of irreconcilable value systems and norms? Ever ready to accept modern aspirations and values but not willing to sacrifice the traditional expectations and safeguards.

In many ways, more than happy to adopt norms such as the two-child household, nuclear family, facilitating children in the pursuit of excellence and even willing to treat them as friends in need of guidance and care but at the same time privileging oneself with the right to use of the age-old techniques of authority and wherever possible impose the familial diktat. In other words, as parents and as teachers, we often end up by making sure that all that we do in the name of children is driven by the adult and their notions of right and wrong, success and failure, truth and falsehood, excellence and mediocrity.

All pervasive occurrence

So does this lack of coherence and an inability to arrive at new norms of relationships leave us no choice but to build a nation-wide consensus on the need for a legal system to recognise and define child abuse?

More importantly, has the problem of child abuse reached a proportion and magnitude that it is beyond repair at the familial and societal level and now requires the firm and decisive intervention of the legal and human rights instruments? It is in this context that the evidence appears to be damning.

It is an all-pervasive occurrence inflicted on both girls and boys and assumes every possible form — from psychological, emotional, sexual, outright neglect to all manner of perversions and physical abuse.

In fact, we are being told in no uncertain terms that the Nithari incident is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg and, as a nation, we are possibly harbouring many such horrific incidents. However, even as we see Nithari as a great wake-up call, even as the government is now busy preparing a draft bill to prohibit "Offences Against Children," what the survey has indicated is a far deeper social malaise.

In fact, an equally disturbing trend and cause of concern is the numerous less known but equally poignant experiences that the child undergoes every day at the hands of teachers and other adults. Often caught between the urge to better their lives and finding it near impossible to get the necessary support from those who matter, millions of children have stopped dreaming of and aspiring to a better life.

Social activists involved in education-related issues find that in each class there are scores of children who have virtually dropped out. "They sit in the back, often in a state of trance, not wanting to participate in any process of learning and some do not even bother to open their bags and take out their books," said Mita Deshpande, a young researcher from Delhi associated with a project on quality of education in government schools.

Others are equally quick to add that this is not only rampant in government schools but also true for children studying in the so-called public or exclusive schools. This is particularly true for children with learning disabilities. Speaking in confidence, a parent, sharing her experience of having to deal with discriminatory teachers and school authorities, said, "Not a day goes by when I am not told what is wrong with my son and I am constantly amazed at how little they know or care to know about him. While as professionals they have a long way to go, it is their attitude as fellow human beings that leaves you with so little hope." According to her they often adopt the stance that offence is the best method of defence and therefore even before she turns around and asks them what they can do together to address the concerns of the child, they present a litany of woes, as if the child is misbehaving wilfully and deliberately.

Focus on child's rights

Clearly it is time that we give up the notion that parenting, mentoring and nurturing children is a private or institutional preserve and agree to bring it within the scope of a law that defines the rights and obligation that is firmly centred on the rights of the child. In the process, set right the age-old imbalances as far as the child is concerned. To begin with, get parents to stop taking for granted their "natural rights of ownership" over the child and assume that every kind of imposed behaviour is dictated for the future well being of the child.

Even more important, make the State far more accountable than it is today. Get the government to recognise that it has contributed to the current situation by under-investing and almost neglecting and ignoring the vital area of child protection.

India ratified the Child Rights Convention in 1992. However, much more needs to be done by way of embracing its spirit and ensuring that it trickles down into the existing legal framework and government schemes and policies. Further, such a child-centred legal framework needs to ensure a policy of zero tolerance for acts of violation against children while also providing for the effective protection and promotion of the rights of the child. For instance, even while addressing issues of child delinquency under the Juvenile Justice Act, most legal experts recognise the fact, that the Act has never considered the child as a legal entity with a right to self-expression and this has posed a major challenge for child-rights groups.

Speaking on behalf of CRY, a child rights advocacy organisation, K. Geeta, Deputy Manager, welcomed the government's move to legislate on this issue. "The issue has to be tackled at all levels, starting from the child, family, community, school, as well as law enforcers," she said. Given the enormity of the challenge, she added that not only should the legal and judicial system be geared to handle the issue of child sexual abuse, at a more practical level, an all out effort needs to be made to sensitise the police. They act as the first contact point for people seeking immediate relief. Therefore, they need to be made aware of the vulnerability of children and their responsibility towards them as law enforcers.

* * *

  • Two out of every three children are physically abused and every second child faced emotional abuse.

  • Of the 69 per cent of physically abused children, 54.68 per cent were boys. An equal percentage of boys and girls faced emotional abuse.

  • Of the children physically and emotionally abused in family situations, parental abuse constituted 88.6 per cent and 83 per cent respectively.

  • 65 per cent or two out of three children experienced corporal punishment.

  • Of the 53.22 per cent of children who faced one or more forms of sexual abuse, 5.6 per cent reported being sexually assaulted. The worst affected were children on streets, at work and in institutional care.

  • 50 per cent of the abusers were known to the child and in positions of trust and responsibility.

  • 32.1 per cent of children had experimented with one of the substances like alcohol, bhang, ganja, charas, heroin, smack.

  • Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Delhi have almost consistently reported higher rates of abuse in all forms as compared to other States.

    Source: National Study on Child Abuse; Conducted by Prayas Institute of Juvenile Justice in collaboration with Ministry of Women and Child Development; Supported by UNICEF, Save the Children Fund (U.K.).

    Sample Respondents: 12,477 children, 2324 young adults, 2449 stakeholders.

    Location: Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Mizoram.


    1. Hi Himabindu,

      I read the article, it's awesome.

      --Raja Shekar Reddy.

    2. Nice article. Pretty shocking figures.