Civil society groups in India are working together on a new campaign to end child sexual abuse by 2021 by raising awareness and action to the widespread problem.
In a country where most families prefer to keep cases of child sex abuse under wraps, the latest one came to light because it was simply not possible to ignore it.
The plight of a 10-year–old girl in the Indian state of Haryana, who was allegedly raped repeatedly by her stepfather, was brought before police and the courts some 20 weeks after she became pregnant.
Her mother, a housemaid, took her to a doctor when she suspected something amiss and then called a woman’s helpline. The court allowed doctors to do an abortion although Indian law prohibits termination of pregnancy after 20 weeks.
The young victim had remained silent about the abuse all along because her stepfather warned her not to say anything.
That is why “Break the Silence” became the rallying cry as a charity, World Vision India launched the campaign this week. Along with civil society groups, it aims to raise awareness among five million children, parents and communities across 200 districts about the problem and how to address it.
Child rights campaigners say although child sex abuse is rampant in the country, there is a deafening social silence because the abusers are usually caregivers or persons in trust — parents, close relatives, or those known to the child such as teachers and neighbors.
In a conservative society, the problem often remains confined within the four walls of the home — either the children are too scared to talk about it or parents are resistant to complain.
“It is something people like to keep a secret, there is a stigma attached to it,” says Cherian Thomas, Director of World Vision India. Among the very few cases that do get reported, he said, “some of the reports are very horrific, because it involves very young children.”
The scale of the problem is widespread — a 2007 government survey found that 53 percent of children had faced some form of sexual abuse.
A more recent one conducted by World Vision India among 45,000 children revealed this bleak picture has not changed over the years.
“I do believe it is an epidemic, I believe it can be prevented, I believe it needs to be treated as an epidemic which means it has to be dealt with on a war footing,” said Anuja Gupta whose RAHI Foundation began working in the area of child sex abuse two decades ago when the problem was barely acknowledged.
And contrary to popular perception, it is not just girls who are abused. “The bulk of the time, the perpetrators are male, the victims however can be both girls and boys,” said Thomas. And those from affluent families are as much at risk as those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Given the reluctance to confront the issue, child rights campaigners say most perpetrators get away with their crimes.
With cases seldom bring reported, there are growing calls for educational and training institutions to incorporate child sexual abuse awareness programs in their curriculum.
A senior police officer in New Delhi, Robin Hibu, said institutions like family, school, places of worship and community leaders will have to play a greater role given the fact that police cannot intervene unless cases are brought to their attention.
“If anybody can be taught about what is good touch, bad touch, what is the way the child should be encouraged,” he said. “You have to instill the confidence in the child, and we have to involve the parents, involve the teachers.”
In city slums, abuse takes place because mothers often have to leave young children unattended when they go to work – as did the mother of the 10-year-old who became pregnant. The stepfather, in his twenties, took advantage of her absence.
Komal (one name only) who came from her village ten years ago to New Delhi and works as a part time housemaid, was not surprised when she heard the report of the young 10-year-old girl being sexually abused by her stepfather. She said it is common knowledge in her slum that such abuse takes place.
“We have to take great care of our girls. I only leave my two daughters with my sister,” she said.
Campaigners say on the plus side more people are waking up to the problem, and more survivors of child abuse are stepping forward to talk about it.
And while the five million children World Vision aims to reach is, as Director Thomas said, “a small drop in the larger ocean” of a country of 1.3 billion people, campaigners hope it will become a movement which will get the whole country involved.