Sexual Assaults against Children: When will this Brutality End?

Albeena Shakil

Albeena Shakil, a former President of JNU Students’ Union, is a political activist.

There are no words to describe the utter horror evoked by the sadistic rape of a 5 year old girl in Gandhi Nagar, Delhi. A chilling reminder of the brutal gang-rape in December, the feeling does not appear to be going away anytime soon, since we seem to be producing sadists and perverts with consistency. Held captive and raped over a couple of days by a neighbour and a possible accomplice, the little girl was brutalized vaginally, anally and orally. The badly bruised and scarred child was strangulated and left for dead.

She, however, survived and it were her cries that alerted others to her rescue on April 17, only to reveal the further extent of her mutilation in the hospital, where candles and a bottle were extracted from her body. The subjection of an innocent little girl to such barbarity is a reflection of the out-and-out failure of our state, society and polity. It is imperative that the entire might of the state and its medical resources are summoned to ensure that the child not only survives, but also recovers both bodily and psychologically.

Not much has changed in the attitude of the police since the massive outrage and protests that erupted across Delhi in December. Despite the new law of Sec. 166A enacted by the Parliament recently, that makes it mandatory for all public servants including the police to act upon such complaints prescribing a punishment of six months rigorous imprisonment and fine for disobeying the direction under law, the police were reluctant in filing and acting upon the initial missing person’s report lodged by the girl’s mother. The reluctance of the Home Minister in invoking the law against errant Police officers is already a sign of things to come regarding the implementation of the law.

When the child was finally found by the family, there were procedural delays by the police in rushing her to the hospital. A set of policemen then showed promptness in offering Rs. 2000 to the girl’s family not to talk to the media and to avoid ‘shame’. They advised the family that it was now time for them to rest their efforts and be thankful since the girl had been found alive. An ACP felt so infuriated by the resultant angry protests, that he publicly vented his anger and slapped a young woman several times in full media glare. The political class as a whole is again at a loss and unable to utter suitable words to the family or connect with the sentiments of the people.

Whither Justice Verma Committee Recommendations?

The recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee (JVC) Report that were ignored in implementation by the government are pertinent in this context. The JVC was hailed by many not for some facile reasons, but because the Committee was genuinely perceptive and sensitive about relevant issues. The Report contained two entire chapters on ‘Trafficking of Women and Children’ and ‘Child Sexual Abuse’ that can be related to this incident. The Committee notes that “…when a factum of a child going missing is reported to the Police station, no FIR is registered….cases of missing children…is considered at par with a ‘lost and found’ situation of inanimate objects…”. It notes that “complaints for 117,000 missing children were received in the last two years, but only 16,000 FIRs were eventually registered [or acted upon] under the category of kidnapping”.  The Committee made several comprehensive recommendations, which, if implemented could have prevented or at least reduced the ordeal of this young child.

It is also interesting and apt that the JVC categorized the Police force across our country not as the arbiters of law and order based on the Constitution of India, but as arbiters of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. It is outrageous but not entirely surprising that one of the first reactions of the Police after the discovery of the crime was not to initiate prompt action to deliver speedy and robust justice and relief, but to think about their own ‘honour’ and the victim’s ‘shame’.

photo: prakash k rayThe JVC also noted that at a time when thousands of children go missing each year without ever being found, the police force is yet to acknowledge any pattern or organized nature of such crime. Surely, among the first responses of the Police in this case should have been to scan the entire neighbourhood, when it is known that an overwhelming 90 per cent of all rapes of children are committed by relatives, neighbours or other known persons. The Police force is still geared towards reluctantly acting against crimes only after they occur and are reported. They are not oriented towards prevention and routinely waste crucial time.Even lay persons who are not experts in criminology can note that the children of single women are being regularly subjected to sexual crimes, perhapsbelievingthat single women would not pursue complaints with the same vigour. While in this case, the child has a father, the fact that he worked in another city cannot be ignored. A complete overhaul of policing in our country is the urgent need of the hour. Those at the helm of affairs cannot absolve themselves of the blame for such gut wrenching incidents, when they have consciously chosen to ignore many recommendations on the table.

Rampant Rise in Brutal Crimes against Women and Children

There are deep linkages between the alarming rise in crime and brutality against women and children in our country today. The growing sexual assaults against women are an offshoot of the changing patriarchal status quo in contemporary India where women are participating in increasing numbers in public life as well as demanding changes through shared domestic responsibilities within families. This is contrary to their age-old prescribed roles and restrictions. Growing sexual assaults are a violent reminder to women that they continue to be nothing more than sex objects to many, even as they are trying to carve out a niche as professionals, intellectuals, leaders, etc. This brutal intimidation is accompanied by growing discord and violence within families where the demands of a new generation of women who are no longer reconciled to bearing the double burden of work, is enraging many male counterparts (37.2 per cent women face spousal violence as per NFHS-3 Survey of 2005-06). This on-going change in patriarchal status quo is irreversible; it is also producing positive offshoots as was evident in the shared gender sensitive moorings of the youth, both females and males, during the recent protests; but it is also an extremely violent process with women having to bear the brunt ofa widespread and brutal backlash.

Experts have pointed out for long that rape and sexual assaults are as much about power as about other factors. This is significant for understanding the rise in sexual assaults against children today. It may be useful to recall a unique study conducted by Swanchetan NGO over a period of five years among 242 rapists lodged in Tihar Jail. The study was published in 2009 and tried to profile therapists. They found that on an average the Tihar inmates had committed four rapes before being tried for one. “They harboured intrinsic hatred of women, habitually referred to them abusively, almost dehumanizing them as objects of desire….over 70 per cent of them showed psychopathic traits.” Of the cases under study, 45 per cent involved extreme violence, 15 per cent were sadistic and 5 per cent were fatal for the victims. “Rapists prefer easy professions that give them access to the unsuspecting victim…He plans meticulously…He targets the vulnerable…the powerless such as adolescents and mentally retarded women. They usually intoxicate the victim or control them by extreme use of force…Once is never enough…Rapists commit multiple crimes on varied victims and often change the geographical area of operation.” “In every case, the trigger is power, not lust.” (parts of the report can be accessed here)

The growing incidences of crimes against children are deeply distressing as children are the most vulnerable, unsuspecting and helpless of victims. As per NCRB statistics of 2011, of the total 33098 reported crimes against children in the country, the highest incidences were of rape accounting for nearly 21.5 per cent (7112 cases) of the total crimes. The ‘sexual’ subjection of children as well as the accompanying ‘sadism’ are both extremely disturbing. If the recent debates on ‘age of consent’ are anything to go by, they reveal precisely what is wrong in our system. The notion that children cannot be subjected to sexual acts by adults is as recent as the evolving changes in the roles of women. In 1860, the age of consent was legalized at 10 years, followed by 12 in 1880, 14 in 1929, 15 in 1959, 16 since 1983 and 18 years in 2012 (Flavia Agnes, ‘No sex before 18, please’)

Thus, till just 150 years ago, children were routinely subjected to child marriages involving sexual acts by adults or among children. It was an evolving debate over the suitable age for bodily and psychological development as well as more egalitarian notion of relations based on making an informed choice that contributed to the prohibition of child marriages. It is only by 2012 that an explicit law against ‘child sexual abuse’ was framed in our country.  As per the NFHS 3 Survey, even in 2005-06, 16 per cent of married women between the ages of 15-19 years in the country were found pregnant by the survey. Child marriages are still rampant. And if our Parliamentarians are to be relied upon, the consent of women who are 15 years and over, is not required for sexual acts within marriage. All these contribute to the rape culture of our country.

The extent of sexual abuse against children in India was also revealed by the 2007 Report of the Ministry of Women and Child Development titled ‘Study on Child Abuse: India 2007’. The study exposed that a shocking 53.22 per cent children have faced some form of sexual abuse, including 52.94 per cent boys and 47.06 per cent girls. Thus sexual abuse is also rampant. The fault lines of the kind of culture we provide to children are frequently exposed in reality television contests that involve applaud for children singing or dancing to tunes loaded with sexual overtones. A suitable culture for children is nearly absent in our society. Even within families, children are trained for unquestioning obedience to adults, rather than allowed to discern, use their judgement and dispute adults. While these are issues that need to be redressed through the promotion of child rights in our country, the fact that children are the easiest prey for sexual predators and sadists seeking sexual control is a phenomenon that must be addressed urgently.

The rise in sadism accompanying sexual assaults is even more worrisome. The fact that a rising number of criminals are deriving pleasure by inflicting extreme pain and by completely mutilating/degrading/humiliating their victims is extremely worrying. Experts have identified both psychological as well as social reasons for the same. The fact that a deeply unequal democracy torn apart by gender, caste, class and other conflicts is producing the perverse outcome wherein an otherwise sense of powerlessness is being compensated by violent and extreme exercise of sexual power over hapless victims, needs to be discussed more widely and openly. The practices of sadomasochism by the powerful are also very alarming. Feeding into these perversions is the rampant circulation of pornography, including child pornography that routinely portrays violence, domination and humiliation as normative sexual practices. In a society that otherwise does not permit free interaction with the opposite sex or provide sex education in schools, pornography is fast becoming the source of schooling in sex and it is the most harmful schooling.

Where To, Now?

While all these urgent issues are staring us in the face, those at the helm of affairs are failing to rise up to the occasion and take drastic and necessary actions.The protests on the streets are a sign that despite many odds, people are not willing to become a defeated society of cynics. In these protests lies hope for the future.

The only way forward can be that such crimes have to be prevented. It is the emphasis on prevention that must be driven home. Otherwise, parents and children across the country are growing more paranoid and fearful with each such passing crime. There was talk of delivering justice within 100 days in the December gang-rape case. However, the culprits have not yet been punished. If the government indeed shares the anguish of the people, let it commit that it will punish the culprits in this case within a month. Let the culprits be awarded exemplary punishment. Let it commit to implementing its own laws and initiate action against errant police personnel under Sec. 166A. Let it accept accountability and sack the Delhi Police Commissioner. And, let us unite to ensure that all resources are mustered up for the recovery of this little girl and her dignified future. It is her perception of our country and society that will decide if we can look ourselves in the eye.

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