Silent Victims

Sexual abuse of children is a very real problem in India, and the situation is aided by the absence of effective legislation and the silence that surrounds the offence.

India has the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest number of sexually abused children with a child below 16 years raped every 155th minute, a child below 10 every 13th hour, and one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point in time. These figures resoundingly break the silence that surrounds sexual abuse of children and perpetuates the evil.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in every four girls and one in every seven boys in the world are sexually abused.The main cause of the high prevalence of child abuse in India is the way children are perceived – virtually as properties of adults.

There are primarily four driving factors that lead to child sexual abuse – the need to abuse a child sexually; convincing oneself about the act; building a good relationship with the people around the child; and gaining the child’s trust.Invariably, the familiarity and the trust they enjoy with the children – usually built over time – make them abuse the power over the children.

Prevention can be focussed at three levels. At the primary level, the focus can be on removing the causes, strengthening the child’s competence to recognise and react, increasing parental awareness, strengthening social vigilance, and bringing in effective and punitive penal policy. At the secondary level, the emphasis should be on early detection, quick intervention and provision of a supportive environment in schools and families. Tertiary intervention should involve coordination among the police, courts, counsellors, doctors and social workers.

The offenders generally fall into two broad categories – paedophiles or fixated persons, and regressed individuals. While the first category plans the incident well and is more dangerous, the latter, which is more common in India, comes mostly from within the family.Paedophiles, on an average, have 300 victims in their lifetime – though some are documented to have had over 1,000 – and the regressed five to seven victims.

Although child abuse is rampant, India has no separate legislation to deal with it. The legal remedies available include the laws on rape (Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code), sexual molestation (Section 354 of the IPC) and sodomy (Section 377 of the IPC). But rape laws only recognise sexual crimes involving penile penetration, and are totally dependent on medical evidence. Such evidence is very difficult to get, as child sexual abuse is usually not one isolated incident but a series of incidents; it even involves episodes in which the offender does not touch the victim. The sexual molestation law covers all sexual offences “that outrage the modesty of the victim”, other than penile penetration. However, these two are bailable offences and attract only punishments of a maximum of two years in jail and/or a fine of few thousand rupees. Only Section 377, which criminalises sodomy, is harsh. Though this section can be used in the case of child sexual abuse, its reference to “unusual sexual offences makes it difficult for child victims to use this option as a legal remedy. As there is no clear definition of sexual abuse, the victims are largely at the mercy of the judiciary discretion.

Most often, sexually abused children make no noise about their traumatic experiences. It is this that encourages offenders.

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