New Internationalist

We need to wake up to child abuse

I am filled with disgust and shame at the raft of child abuse stories that have hit Indian headlines recently. I always thought of our country, our society, as child-friendly. As kids we went to school alone and played outside until dark unaccompanied by adults.

We felt safe and I don’t recall ever hearing of child molestation or sexual abuse. Perhaps it was kept under wraps. Perhaps I was ignorant and uninformed in an age without TV or internet.

The accounts of five-year-olds forced to perform oral sex on adults made me ill. India Today, a popular weekly, carried an article called ‘House of Horrors’ about a privately-run shelter home in Haryana where children and young women were beaten, sent out for sex work, trafficked and abused in horrible ways.

I called a friend, Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-founder of Haq, a leading child rights organization in Delhi.

‘There’s lack of cognizance with families and organizations alike,’ she says. ‘People don’t want it to go public. They want to protect their families or institutions from scandal, so it’s hidden.’

Enakshi talked about the other side of juvenile justice where a 15-year-old boy who forced a young girl to perform oral sex on him was let off by the judge.

The woman behind the abuse of kids in the Haryana House of Horrors boasted that no one could touch her. ‘They have no proof,’ she gloated. Impunity is the rule, not the exception.

In despair, I asked Enakshi what the solution was.

‘We may not be able to control the behaviour of other human beings but we must put protocols in place to provide safety to women and kids,’ she said. ‘We have to take legal action, remove adult offenders and give kids a space to speak out so they are not terrorized. Why do all these homes have a lock and key system which prevents kids from running away? Would the kids run away if they were happy?’

But you can’t just walk in to a shelter home that you think looks shady. You need a mandate, permission to enter. We need a system where local communities are encouraged to supervise and check on care homes for the elderly, children, women, all vulnerable sections of society, to make them transparent. We cannot afford to wait till scandal breaks out and there are more dead or traumatized people before we wake up.

We have NGOs, social groups, people from local neighbourhood communities who ought to be able to monitor these homes. What it boils down to is we need awareness and caring communities so the vulnerable are not exploited.  It’s especially ironic that they are being abused in ‘care’ and ‘shelter’ homes. What a cruel contradiction.

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  1. #1 Katy P 20 Jul 12

    I don't know whether abuse of this nature happens more now or we just hear about it more. If we're hearing about it more, that's a step in the right direction because once it's recognised it can be dealt with. What's crucial is that children should not be afraid of speaking up. They should feel safe in the knowledge that they are not to blame, they have nothing to be ashamed of, they will be given support and something will be done to address the problem.

  2. #2 Mark Fernandes 20 Jul 12

    Your very is a very big evil that is swept under the carpet most of the times because our society comes down hard on the victim rather than the offender... we are getting enlightened about the extent of this evil in our society via the fact, if I am not mistaken, the parliment is finally passed the child protection bill a month back...before that offenders would go scot free !!

    Lets hope that we as citizens, being aware about this evil, may be able to stop it happening around us!

  3. #3 Aloke Surin 20 Jul 12

    I am shocked and saddened that this sort of thing is happening in India...I hope that those responsible for the care of young children can be made accountable for any violation of the dignity of these fragile souls.

  4. #4 conscience of the society 20 Jul 12


    Your disgust and anguish in understandable ! Any human person with his sense of reason would share your feelings !

    But we, the thinking minority in the Globe have more responsibility other than expressing our disgust at the bi-products of the deeper malady. The reigning economic system capitalism, with their life principle of self-interest tend to produce thousands of such non-humans every day ! I have already sent my blog today that explains this deeper malady in detail.(

  5. #5 mari 20 Jul 12


    I keep getting rejected.

    Here's the comment:

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara speaks for many of us who are outraged in countries across the globe. A wise journalist knows who to talk to. None is better than Enakshi Ganguly Thukralwho has devoted so much of her life to protecting and improving the lives of children and women.
    Appropriate interventions are necessary and they should include
    group support that help overcome the shame that leads to silence. It is in that setting that advocates will be nurtured and they will include children as well as woman who can also identify male advocates.
    David Cohen,
    Washington DC

  6. #6 mari 20 Jul 12


    I keep getting rejected.

    Here's the comment:

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara speaks for many of us who are outraged in countries across the globe. A wise journalist knows who to talk to. None is better than Enakshi Ganguly Thukralwho has devoted so much of her life to protecting and improving the lives of children and women.
    Appropriate interventions are necessary and they should include
    group support that help overcome the shame that leads to silence. It is in that setting that advocates will be nurtured and they will include children as well as woman who can also identify male advocates.
    David Cohen,
    Washington DC

  7. #7 Peter Berger 21 Jul 12

    Hi Mari,
    Like domestic violence, abused children in India do not have a voice. Unfortunately corruption in high places helps these ’institutions’ to survive, only the press and the media can make the horror a front page news item that does not go away after a few days but eeps the pressure on until the government does what it is elected to do, protect the weak and defenceless in our society.

  8. #8 nirupama 22 Jul 12


    It is very unfortunate to see a series of them in the last two months. Unless, things are bought out int he open nothing much would happen. Spectators and people taking videos of it....... i really dont know what to say. Unless the law becomes stronger and the punishment is not prolonged we wont find solutions.

  9. #9 Poonam Singh 22 Jul 12

    Well said. Shame on our society!
    Poonam singh,chandigarh

  10. #10 john dsouza 23 Jul 12

    Now that these stories make juicy ratings for TV channels, the situation is worse. Child Abuse needs a social answer. NGOs must work towards addressing the root cause of such abuse: the issue of power, coupled with issues of sexual anxieties. We need to talk of issues at this level and also about the impact of Moral policing, self righteous neo-liberal media and culturally alien images of sex. I am not for a moment saying that this is a modern phenomena only. Every age seems to have had it sexual discontinuities.

  11. #11 Mamun Elghusein 24 Jul 12

    In a simple,clear and powerful style this short article tackles a horrendous reality of our time .p

  12. #12 JagadishPradhan 24 Jul 12

    In India nowwe have better media network and spread for which we get more news of abuses now but also it is a fact that the incidence of abuses not only on children and women but also on the elderly and the weaker persons and the unorganized ,everywhere the incidence of abuse and violence have been on rise .Social activist groups and other C.S.O.have been playing some important role against all these but their number and the scale is unable to keep pace with the horrifying decay of the society. More and more activists and concerned citigens like Maari is the need of the hour to awake the mass to humanize and save the society from getting further decayed.

  13. #13 Lucy 26 Jul 12

    Marie, another thought provoking and informative blog which is much appreciated.
    Abuse is past, present and future as are the cover ups... from cover ups within the Catholic Church to Penn University see:
    Within our governments, organisations, institutions, services, groups and communities we must have the structures, skills, confidence and morals to want to act on the information we hear from children and vulnerable adults. And we must be ready to face the consequences.
    Thank you Marie

  14. #14 Helen Cromar 26 Jul 12

    This is far too widespread, and must not be hidden. Having worked in care homes and for women who have suffered child abuse in the past, I know it is very common throughout the UK. Thankfully there are systems in place to try and deal with this. But to have this hidden is an atrocity, and it will be the biggest challenge to unearth this, and bring people to justice. We must protect the rights of the child, before it is too late. Thank you for publicising this issue, and let's hope all the services and dedicated people in India can work together in solidarity to bring change.

  15. #15 Ludwig Pesch 29 Jul 12

    A timely piece to be grateful for. I know from experience that Indians tend to feel immune and close ranks towards ’western’ interference in such matters, just like bonded or child labour issues. Yet there is no justification to let this issue escape attention any longer - all too long as we understand from Mari's moving piece. And this with disastrous consequences for countless children!

    Sadly the problem seems so all pervasive. Particularly where customs favour hierarchies without apparent accountability towards individual citizens - military, sports and religious organisations included.
    Predators will always seek - and all too often find - safe havens in such environments.

    Socially weak and other vulnerable groups like orphans and migrants provide other promising ’hunting grounds’ where acting with impunity is all too common. And what about those illiterate young female migrant hired as ’nannies’ in search of better lives, only to end up being trapped and abused in the Middle East, London or ... for years before escaping, if at all; and only seldom with the wholehearted support needed for repatriation/rehabilitation.

    A few spectacular exposures, often with hypocritical, sensationalist if not voyeurist media coverage, have not reduced the scale of the problem; nor have been self-serving demands to return to ’traditional norms and values’ because it has been seen, time and again, that these ’norms’ have themselves created the very conditions for prolonged abuse within families and close-knit communities. Those who could end abuse tend to be afraid of negative publicity: if taken into confidence, they are easily blackmailed into silence. No society or culture should therefore been seen as being immune or superior!

    Until education policies provide for greater transparancy on a daily basis, and unless children have persons of integrity to turn to even before being in danger, naming and shaming, and legal accountability are the only deterrents. Knowing how to obtain help when actually needed most by a child appears to be the exception rather than the rule. There are other dilemmas as well, considering the need for privacy as well as protection against false accusations (something many teachers have faced with equally devastating effects in Europe).

    With all the tact and cultural sensitivity needed, endowing kids with resilience and self-confidence should figure in all forms of education, be it for educators, prospective parents, or students. They must be enabled to stay sane and safe in societies where moral orientation is hard to come by. That's just about everywhere!

  16. #16 India 24 Aug 12

    I find myself on the other side of efforts to end sexual abuse of children, after years of coping with my own child hood abuse. The use of a sex offender registry served to further increase discrimination of a marginalized population and promote vigilante justice. Most sex offenders commit suicide or are victims of homicide. Sex offender registrants are humans, husbands, fathers, and sons. It is difficult to imagine that having been raped at age four, that my own peace came by forgiving my attacker rather than seeking revenge.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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