“Don’t kid me!” That’s exactly what I replied to the SMS from a friend who announced in absolute joy, “Hey, the Child Sexual Abuse Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha.” I ignored the message and drowned into my laptop. Then I received another message from another friend, saying, “Congrats buddy” and then another and another. I thought there must be some truth to it. I decided to investigate. I Googled and landed on Aamir Khan’s interview about Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2011, being passed by the Lok Sabha. I streamed the interview repeatedly to confirm if what I heard was indeed true. And yes, it was. I could hardly contain my emotions. I became a puddle of tears. I am someone who has been through 11 long years of sexual abuse in my childhood. Abuse by a male relative. Though I don’t mull over it much and see it as just one challenge in my life that I won over in my own way, I can’t deny that I did spend a lot of time in my childhood watching my friends play as I stood at the stands with no confidence to stand with them shoulder to shoulder. I can’t deny that those are some precious years that I would never get back.
I have been vocal about my abuse on the press and also on TV shows like Zindagi Live, We The People and, recently, Satyamev Jayate. The National Award-winning I Am and the critically acclaimed Amen take a leaf from the haunting memories of my childhood. Post shows and the film screenings, I receive mails from fellow survivors and curious empathisers.
People have always been shockingly flummoxed at my response to the question: “Why didn’t you file a police complaint” which is “but there is no specific law against child sexual abuse”. Yes, while we debate about inefficient laws and the need to strengthen them, here was a case where there was no law at all. There are sections in the Indian Penal Code that protect children, but no specific law against child sexual abuse. Plus, since we live in a society that flaunts fake machismo and male chauvinism, we find it very difficult to digest the fact that a male child could also be abused. Similarly, in the air of the overglamorised maternal instinct of the woman, we completely close our minds to the fact that even a woman could be a child sexual abuse offender.
Besides not empowering children with a law that acts like a deterrent to sexual offenders, till date we failed children by turning them into a mere statistical figure. The revelation by Aamir Khan on Satyamev Jayate that 53 percent of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse sent shock waves down the spines of the audience. I wonder, though, if the percentage was 10 percent or even 1 percent, does it mean that those children are not entitled to a law and society that protects them? And the way we treat our children in police stations across the country is shocking. Imagine yourself as a child who has approached an authority in the police for help or examination by a medical professional post an instance of child sexual abuse and you hear this… “Rape case hai?… “Poori tarah bataao… kya hua… kidhar haath lagaaya”. Though it is wrong to generalise, for there are sensitive and insensitive people in every profession, an instance of insensitivity by the hands of the authorities who question or examine children could lead to the child getting mentally molested again and again. And sometimes, these scars would remain with the child all throughout life contained by a deafening silence.
Law empowerment was a necessity. Besides many other pertinent points, I feel there was an urgent need for a law on child sexual abuse that is gender neutral and that clearly prescribes procedures to deal with a child in cases of sexual assault. The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Bill, 2011, fits in perfectly there. Without getting much into the details and the legal format of the bill, as a layman and a crusader for the cause, let me list down some of the many salient features of this bill that I find most interesting and empowering.
• This is a gender neutral bill. It recognises that even male children can be abused.
• It recognises that penetration is not essential to constitute abuse. And it clearly mentions other forms of child sexual abuse, which could be visual in nature (For example, displaying genitals to a child or asking the child to strip for voyeuristic pleasure/pornography)
• It doesn’t assume that the perpetrator is a male.
• It clearly specifies the guidelines and protocols on dealing with a child who has survived child sexual abuse. There are mentions about the responsibility of the basic police procedures and medical procedures to ensure that these procedures don’t end up further traumatising the child.
Ever since I shared the news on social media, my Facebook account has been buzzing with activity. While many are congratulating Aamir Khan and Satyamev Jayate, I reinstate that this success is a result of a collective effort. And yes, the show is one of the many triggers for the same. By highlighting the truth that there was no law on child sexual abuse in an international platform, the great shame of India was exposed internationally. But, more importantly, it is the work of grassroots level organisations across the country that participated in the making of this bill and pushed for reforms that made the real difference. In the end, it doesn’t matter who made this possible. I’m sure it is a collective effort, and media, activists, survivors as case studies, NGOs — all have played an important role in formulating this bill.
Child sexual abuse education is not a relay match. There are no full stops, no starting points
I know some of us will be clouded with cynicism about the fact that our country has several strong laws but they are not implemented. I agree with them on this observation but does this mean that we should live in a society where it is alright to not have a law that protects children and serves as a deterrent to sexual offenders? Secondly, the implementation of the law is in our hands. Even if in existence, it will not change anything. As long as human beings exist, the demons in them will also exist. It is important that we continue to educate our children about ‘safe touch’ and ‘unsafe touch’. People often ask me where should sex education start. My reply so far has been, “We cannot look for a starting point all the time, we need to have a rounded approach to education and empowerment against child sexual abuse.” Parents would have to educate their children. Schools have to open their minds and introduce sex education. The police has to be educated. Doctors and medical practitioners need to be appraised. Media needs to treat this as important — all of it, and all at once. Child sexual abuse education is not a relay match that passes from one party to the other. There are no full stops here, and no starting points. Reforms and dialogues should begin at all points, and now is the opportune time.
We have our entire life for cynicism, this is not the time. This is a historic moment for the judicial system in India and her children. Needless to say, I wait with bated breath for the formation of a strong law against child sexual abuse. Every child in my country deserves the right to a happy childhood. And let’s give it to them — untroubled.
Harish Iyer, is an equal rights activist, and a survivor of sexual abuse.