Zero tolerance for abuse is needed

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Unsafe ride The commute to school is full of hazards for both boys and girls. Photo: AFP
Unsafe ride The commute to school is full of hazards for both boys and girls. Photo: AFP

As I look back at my work in the arena of child protection, three distinct cases come to mind which have left a deep impression. They made me learn the complexities of victim disclosure and the systems in which justice operates for children in cases of sexual abuse.

The first case is that of a girl we can call Mira. An eight-year-old student of class 3, she was a teacher’s pet as she was good at studies. Suddenly she failed in three subjects. Worried, her teacher had a word with her. A nervous, disturbed Mira shared the saga of sexual abuse that she had faced for over three months from her stepfather.

The first time he abused her, she had courageously shared it with her mother, believing that she would protect her. But the mother advised her to be silent, telling her this is the tale of a girl’s life. Each time she narrated her experience, she felt deep agony and helplessness.

The teacher reached out to a local organisation and the police was roped in. The overconfident and enthusiastic investigating officer directly contacted the family to inquire further. He ended up confronting the victim’s mother rather than agreeing to the suggestion of safe rescue of the child. The events which followed were completely unexpected. Overnight the family moved out of that city and has not been traced ever since. Neighbours guessed that they had gone back to Bihar but no one knows any further details.

The second case involves sisters Neeta, 6, and Rekha, 4, who used to commute to school in a cab. One day, the younger sister returned at 12 noon while Neeta was scheduled to return at 2 pm. As she was dropped last, the cab ‘uncle’ would often squeeze her chest, touch her inappropriately, and insert his finger in her vagina. But Neeta did not report this because the driver had warned her of dire consequences if she revealed this to anyone. She also felt she had a commitment to protect her younger sister.

Komal Ganotra | Director, policy and advocacy, child rights and you (CRY)
Komal Ganotra | Director, policy and advocacy, child rights and you (CRY)

Emboldened by the girl’s silence, the uncle that day raped Neeta, washed her up and dropped her at her at home. Neeta’s parents came to know about the abuse when Neeta started having high fever and refused to walk. Her parents immediately reported the matter to the police. They wanted to make sure that the perpetrator did not have an opportunity to target any other child.

The school initially was in denial but eventually they suspended the driver. The news flashed in media without the child’s name but the details of the case made it easy to guess the victim. Since then the child refused to go out to play or interact with others. Threats were also sent out by the accused, putting the family under pressure to leave the locality as well as change the children’s school. Civil society actors ensured financial support for her treatment but the court case dragged on. As usual, after a while the parents lost interest due to increasing court fees and the tedium of travelling to court for numerous hearings.

The third case is that of 12-year-old Ganesh, who was abused in the worst possible manner by people as old as his father. The boy worked in a motor garage during his school vacation. Two fellow workers, in a bid to crush his confidence, pumped air into his rectum. Baal Haq Abhiyan (BHA) of Child Rights You (CRY) closely monitored the case for 18 months and supported the child throughout his treatment and rehabilitation. Cases were filed against the two people involved as well as the owner of garage and they were arrested.

Ganesh’s trials were not over even after an emergency surgery. The case was politicised as he belonged to the Matang community among Dalits. His father, an alcoholic, failed to take responsibility which left his mother struggling to provide for treatment for her child. After multiple efforts, the child got compensation of Rs 25,000 from the Social Welfare Board of Maharashtra and his family was encouraged to take good care of him, ensuring that he completes his education.

As a child protection professional quite early in my career, I recognise the enormous struggles in dealing with notso- equipped stakeholders and a vacuum of norms in case management. The first case described here falls under the category incest, which in our country is not sufficiently talked about due to family honour. According to data on 2014 with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 46 percent of the total 713 cases reported involved incest; survivors of abuse are between the ages of 12 and 18. The reported cases are merely the tip of the iceberg.

The second case was legally very strong, with the girl speaking up and action being taken. But the community and society at large failed the little girl who had mustered the courage to speak up. There were financial challenges, displacement and the mother losing her job. No enabling environment could be created for the family to get quick closure.

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