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Child abuse: can India afford to remain in denial?

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

A placard is seen as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad.
A placard is seen as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad. Photograph: Getty Images

 

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.