Child abuse: can India afford to remain in denial?

Traditional notions of the Indian family allow child abuse to happen with impunity.

 

Last week in the Indian capital Delhi two men drank, watched porn and then lured a five year old from her play area using a chocolate as bait. They kept her in captivity in a rented room in the same building where she lives with her parents and systematically raped her, in turn. For three days. Her cries led neighbours to find her locked in the room, bruised and bleeding. By then, the two men had fled, thinking they had left the child for dead.

Doctors treating the child say they extricated pieces of candle and glass bottle from the little girl’s vaginal orifice. The rapists have confessed to inserting candle parts and a glass bottle into the child in a panicked attempt to stop her bleeding, while confirming that the child was raped even after she began bleeding profusely. She has suffered severe internal injuries as a result and will now need surgery to reconstruct her intestines.

This horrific case has triggered angry protest marches in Delhi, akin to what the city witnessed after the excruciatingly brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old student aboard a bus in December 2012. This time even school children have played a vocal part in the anti-rape demonstrations. Yet rapes and child rapes are continuing unabated.

Just last week the case of a four-year-old girl raped by her neighbour in Haryana  – a state that borders Delhi – was reported, along with the rapes of a five-year-old girl in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a six-year-old girl in the state of Uttar Pradesh, two rapes involving two twelve year olds, and a thirteen-year-old who was gang-raped in Delhi for nine days.

Between 2001 and2011 there have been 48,000 cases of child sexual abuse. Moreover, there has been a 336 per cent jump in cases between 2001 and now. The Indian media is now calling these numbers an epidemic.

There is a valid argument to be made about woefully inadequate public services fuelling the crisis. Inadequate forensic labs, dysfunctional police training colleges, corruption and a lack of sensitisation are key among factors that exacerbate an institutional apathy that victimises the victim. In this most recent case on the nation’s radar, police officers offered the child’s family 2,000 rupees (£20 approx) as a price for their silence.

Yet the most compelling deterrent to such crimes can only come from a change in familial mindsets. India prides itself as a child-friendly country where within families, members of the immediate and extended family are believed to view children as a prime source of their family’s joy. But statistics suggest that the home is where the Indian child and woman is most unsafe. “Ninety-seven per cent [of rapes] are committed within homes, three per cent by strangers,” Delhi’s police commissioner confirmed in an address earlier this week.

Most cases of sexual abuse happening in domestic environments go unreported. But reported cases alone suggest that rape and child sexual abuse are mostly happening within the home and with a disturbingly increasing frequency. A harsh spotlight ought to be put on prevailing notions of the Indian family. The universal understanding in India that the family system is beyond reproach and family elders are perpetually pristine must be questioned.

In Indian society appearances are paramount and the keeping up of appearances by families is the epicentre of this societal veneer. “Covering up” for family members is an essential part of maintaining this veneer. Moreover, as a culture at large, and within families in particular, elders are considered to be beyond blame and censure. Youngsters are told that  elders are the apotheosis of all that is best and beautiful. Accordingly, the young are expected to exhibit an unquestionable reverence to all elders and especially towards relatives.

In Indian culture, every blood relationship has an ascribed moniker such as chacha for father’s brother, mama for mother’s brother and so on. It is under the guise of these sobriquets that relatives commit heinous crimes within their families with impunity. More chillingly, when a child or woman makes abuse known, the social stigma is seen to lie with the victim, not with the perpetrator. A mentality that espouses that children know less, compared with elders who are always right sadly still holds sway. At best, this patronises the child, and at worst labels him or her a repository of shame and discredit. The child is simply put down for his/her audacious attempt to malign a much-respected relative. Hushing up cases of abuse then maintains the status quo of the pride and place of the extended family in the wider culture.

Unsettlingly, the mindset that emanates from traditional notions of the Indian family is seen to empower family members to commit sex crimes towards children, knowing they will be well protected. When tradition serves as a veil behind which atrocities can happen without censure, then tradition must be called up, put in the dock and sent to the gallows. A society that fails its children, has failed entirely. India cannot afford to remain in denial about child sexual abuse any longer. Corrective measures are essential. But shrill chants on the streets in themselves will not herald the urgent change needed. Change has to start with the mindset in every Indian home.  

A placard is seen as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad. Photograph: Getty Images
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle