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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