If you are a police chief and there are frequent thefts in your area, what would you do to prevent them? The answer lies in increasing manpower, improving patrolling and using technology. These time-tested methods are often effective in fighting property offences and most other forms of crime too. However, what would you do, if there are recurrent rapes, especially of minors in your area? If you think the same methods will work, you are wrong.
In 80-85 per cent cases of child rapes in our country, the offender is a known person. He can be a neighbour, someone from the local community, a relative or even a family member staying under the same roof. This horrific data, from the National Crime Records Bureau, simply shows even the best of police systems and toughest of laws cannot ensure prevention of sexual violence against children. They can, at best, punish the perpetrator after the crime is committed. However, as we all know, by then, the damage is already done. A jail sentence to the accused comes after years of legal battle, if at all, and hardly helps the victim in dealing with lifelong trauma.
Indian penal laws on sexual violence were last changed in 2013. It was a comprehensive and well thought out amendment; even the definition of rape was widened. Some crimes, mainly crimes involving women, like stalking and human trafficking were made punishable. The amendments were clearly influenced by the outrage that erupted after the Nirbhaya gangrape in 2012.
Just five years later, we had to tighten our rape laws further in response to similar or rather more horrific crimes in Kathua, Unnao and other places. For long there have been demands that child rapists must be punished with death. With the promulgation of an ordinance, this is the law of the land now. Rape is punishable with death if the victim is below 12 years of age. As far as strengthening laws is concerned, we have reached almost the dead end.
Police forces across the country have been struggling to tackle sexual violence. Encouragingly, many positive steps have been taken. Today we have higher representation of women in the police force. Exclusive women police stations have been established. Gender sensitisation has become an essential part of the training curriculum in all police academies. Special cells to deal with crime against women and children are functional at all levels, starting from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi to the office of SP in each district. Can we say that the changes have really made our country a safe place? Will sexual violence decline after strengthening the laws? Unfortunately, the experience so far does not support these assumptions.
During an awareness campaign conducted by the Odisha Police on sexual violence against children, many heart-rending stories were narrated by the victims. In most cases, the offender was either a relative or someone from the neighbourhood.
A sexual offence by a known person is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. Due to the physical and social proximity with the offender, the crime gets perpetuated and the victims suffer continuously. Many a time, especially when the offender is a family member, the victims don’t resist or report due to fear of social stigma. Sometimes they are not supported by their own family. Sometimes minors do not even understand that they are being wronged. Even when such issues come to light, many families try to hush them up and offenders go unpunished. In many such incidents, victims are forced to change their statements in court just because the matter has been ‘amicably settled’ among the elders, who are mostly men.
All along, the government machinery—cops and courts—have been blamed for sexual violence. However, in social crimes, the family and the community have an equally important role to play. By putting the onus on the government, we have not combatted the crime successfully. Simple things like educating kids about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ can immensely help in preventing sexual abuse. Due to societal norms, there is hardly any discussion on sex—including safety—in the household. Children are left to fend for themselves. Similarly, families need to be educated that kids may need protection from people around them. Unlike a thief, a rapist might be lurking in the vicinity all the time.
Continuous community awareness programmes are highly essential in dealing with the problem of sexual violence. Such programmes can educate the possible victims, the affected families and even the likely offenders. What purpose does a death sentence serve, when a lot of people don’t know about it in the first place?
Working people, both in urban and rural areas, leave their kids at home unattended. Many rapes take place in urban slums, because children are left alone or with some person known to the parents, mostly out of necessity. Community based programs like Anganwadi and Women Self Help Groups need to be recalibrated so that they can function as creches. Most importantly, a regular discussion in the community on the issue of child sexual abuse can help change the mindset.
The perceived stigma attached to a victim has functioned as an escape tool for offenders. The recent #MeToo campaign on social media has given courage to many women across the globe to speak up against the wrongs they suffered for years. The community awareness programs also have a similar impact. Recently in a few cases of sexual abuse in Odisha, the victims said that the recent campaign gave them the courage to speak up.
Along with stricter laws and effective policing, support from the family and society is needed to control the menace of child sexual abuse. Only when children are empowered to speak, when families are supportive and when the community is aware and joins hands with the police and other agencies, will we be able to keep our children safe.
The author is a serving IPS officer
Follow him on Twitter @arunbothra