April which is celebrated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month has ironically put the spotlight on how poorly India fares on the child protection index.
The brutal murder of a seven-year-old boy in Kerala at the hands of his mother's lover is a stark reminder that we as a country have failed in protecting our children.
In India where a staggering 53 per cent of children –the highest in the world- admitted to being sexually harassed, according to the 2017 NCPCR report, child abuse still remains a taboo topic that is brushed under the carpet.
It is reported that around 174 children go missing every day in India out of which only 50 per cent are found. Many of these children are kidnapped, trafficked or murdered. In some cases, they run away to escape violence or marry their lovers.
In a situation where crimes against children are rampant, why are so few offenders brought to book?
Being unaware is the most common reason for child abuse going unchecked. In many cases, the kids are too young to understand or comprehend the abuse or the parents are not able to identify something unusual in their behaviour.
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Although the act of abusing a child in any form- neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, cyber-bullying or sending and receiving explicit content, emotional abuse or exploitation- is a crime, parents often refrain from filing a police complaint even if the child has brought the incident to their attention.
The main reason is the social stigma and isolation which follows in the wake of a complaint. 93 per cent of abuse victims personally know their abuser, who might be a family member, family friend, teacher, parent of another kid or someone in a position of power.
In such cases, many parents desire to avoid embarrassment or confrontation.
The harassment and intimidation of those who complain also serve as a deterrent to others. In October 2018, the sexual abuse of children in a Chennai school was reported and what followed was nothing less than a nightmare for the two families who filed the complaint. They were harassed and intimidated by the school, with no help from the police.
"The investigating officials in the case are unnecessarily harassing us by showing the children at least 40 to 50 photos and confusing them by telling them that they would have seen sexual activities of their parents and told imaginary stories," said one complainant.
What can parents do to prevent or identify child abuse?
Be aware of children's surroundings and be an integral part of their lives to establish a strong trustworthy bond with them. This will help alert parents to any change in their behavioural patterns in case anything goes wrong.
Be attentive to kids and don’t brush off their talk as childish banter. In several instances, the statements of young kids have helped nab abusers or form a case against them. In the case of the Kerala boy’s murder, it was the victim's four-year-old brother who disclosed to the authorities that his brother was abused.
Keep a check on children's mobile phones and internet usage. Having the internet at one’s fingertips has made it very easy for sexual predators to trap innocent kids and exploit them. The Madras High Court's order to ban TikTokfollowed by its removal from the Google and Apple app stores can be seen as a stepping stone towards regulating the use of the internet by kids.
Teach kids the concept of good touch and bad touch at an early age.
How can schools and the government help?
All institutions must install CCTV cameras on their premises.
Schools must go through a screening process to flag any unusual behaviour.
Staff must be sensitized to equip them to handle complaints responsibly.
Undue delays in investigation and trial processes must be avoided.