Author: Aamina Rafeek, IV year of B.Com.,LL.B(Hons.) From His Highness The Maharaja's Government Law College, Ernakulam, Kerala.
“I lie beneath my bed; the pillow no longer drowns the dread.
What made you so mad?
You only hit me once yet I feel so sad.
I’m in my room on my knees, hoping that you will see, the hurting child inside of me.
I’m praying that lightning will strike; will I die before the morning light?”
These lines from Rebecca Burns' poem “My name is Bobby” reveals horrific experience of abuse through the eyes of a child fictionally named Bobby. The pain, trauma and dilemma endured by the child strikes the hearts of readers. Despite talking of modernity in thoughts and action, child abuse is a prevalent evil in our society even in this advanced 21st century.
It is one of the most heinous crimes perpetuated by the human race against a vulnerable and defenceless section of society. Spectrum of abuse is so broad that most of us unknowingly play a role in it at some point of our lives. Child abuse may include any act or failure to act by a parent or a caregiver that results in actual or potential harm to a child and can occur in a child’s home, or in the organizations, schools, or communities the child interacts with. This may be physical, psychological or sexual and can have lifelong impacts on a child such as low self-esteem, higher tendency of self harm, alcoholism, unstable relationships in future etc.
According to National Crime Record Bureau report of 2020, 418,385 crimes against children were recorded. Of these, child sex abuse offences under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, alone accounted for 134,383 – or roughly one third – of the recorded incidents. The reason for an ascend in child abuse incidents can be mainly attributed to society’s ignorance towards this. A study by UNICEF named ‘Parenting Matters: Examining Parenting Approaches and Practices’ shows there are 30 different forms of physical and verbal abuse that Indian parents use on children as young as 0 to 6 years as part of disciplining efforts. Corporal punishment is viewed as a necessity to “straighten” children. Adults see it as their right and responsibility to spank and shame a child for “better” upbringing of the child.
Ever since independence child welfare has been of paramount importance to our policymakers. The Indian Constitution has embodied these specifically through Article 21A, 24(a), 39(e ), 39(f) and generally through Article 14, 21 and 23. More than 250 statutes in India, passed by the Union and State Governments, deal with children. Yet we face a number of challenges in eradicating this menace.
To a large section abuse constitutes only the explicit physical injury or sexual violence inflicted on a child by an adult. Subtle acts of a grownup which gradually results in emotional downfall of a child is always unaccounted. On diving into the obstacles and issues posed by this subject we realise that the society has a lot of learning and unlearning to do.
To tackle any problem, the first step is to understand the ingredients of the issue. Indian society at large still live in darkness when this comes up for discussion. Child abuse is mostly limited to hitting a child, child labour, child marriage and sexual abuse. According to our perception an “action” of some sort is a necessity to constitute abuse. This is the first challenge before us. Society need to be educated on the concept of abuse as not being action oriented alone. An inaction at time of despair or neglect by adult towards a child is also abuse. Constant comments on size, height, colour, excessive control over activities of child and comparison with other kids on all aspects troubles the wellbeing of a child and falls under emotional abuse. It is disheartening to note that such small negligent acts on a continuous basis culminate into a large threat, yet many adults refuse to refrain from it. A child is denied individuality in most Indian households and is viewed as a mere extension of their parents. The idea of a them having their own emotional needs is foreign to many.
Indian society is conditioned to believe public expression of affection is shameful and this is a huge rock on our way to extinguish child abuse. It is a misconception that childhood traumas are consequence of big moments or incidents alone. Childhood wounds can stem from seemingly good childhoods if caregiver never cried or showed emotions, or told the child they loved him or hugged him, or where expressing the child’s needs were frowned upon. This emotional unavailability is a form of abuse with detrimental impacts on personality development.
Poverty and lack of education poses a threat to child abuse prevention in our country. Children turn to hazardous activities or prostitution for survival. Many are married off at young age to relieve the family from “burden”. This usually happens in rural areas where families with no male support find difficult to get jobs due to illiteracy or lack of opportunities.
Customs and beliefs also play a major role in this arena. The Mathamma community in Tiruvallur district, Badura community in Jumbulipur district etc practice prostitution as a family business. As part of the ritual, girls are dressed as brides and once the ceremony was over, their dresses are removed by five boys, virtually leaving them naked. They are then forced to live in the Mathamma temples, deemed to be public property, and face sexual exploitation. But this is normalised in the name of religious belief. What is a crime under ordinary circumstances is approved when associated with divine powers!. Isn’t it hypocrisy?. Religiously-based psychological abuse of children can involve using teachings to subjugate children through fear, crushing their perspectives and visions. Physical abuse in religious context involves illegal confinement, beating, neglect or near drowning by falsely accusing child to be practicing witchcraft, sorcery etc. It’s a herculean task to uproot these deep superstitions due to it’s sensitive nature in our society.
Global digitalization has now opened innovative doors for child abuse. Lack of digital knowledge and parental control have made children vulnerable to cyber attacks like online grooming, identity theft, child pornography etc. Children from broken and disorganised households mostly fall prey to such traps on Internet as they rely too much on virtual world to escape their reality. Narcissistic and stubborn parents or caregivers are hindrances for abuse prevention as children refuse to disclose the truth of being cyber bullied or threatened due to fear of grave punishment.
Improper family planning by people despite various awareness programs is yet another challenge to prevention of child abuse. Children born out of undesired pregnancies are prone to more ill treatment as their physical and emotional needs are neglected. They are constantly made to feel unwanted and unlovable. They are mostly left unattended, falling prey to paedophiles.
Victim blaming is a huge threat to child abuse elimination initiatives. A large number of cases go unreported due to fear of ostracism. Children are manipulated to believe that the abuse was a result of their wrongful acts or negligence. Their young minds are pushed into dilemmas that question their character and conduct at every step thereafter.
The long term issues or impacts of child abuse are plenty. Physical abuse can result in brain dysfunction, permanent physical injuries and even death. Bedwetting with no medical reasons, frequent complaints of headache, abdominal pain, nausea, constant fatigue and un-attainment of developmental milestones are some of the probable physical indicators of abuse. Extreme withdrawal or aggression, attention seeking behaviour, unusual clinginess, eating disorders, learning disorders including poor language and cognitive development, drug and alcohol abuse. high-risk sexual behaviour, distrust of adults or difficulty forming relationships with others, disrupted attachments with those who are meant to keep them safe are all some of the prominent long term consequences of child abuse. The child alone is not the sufferer here. Physical and psychological changes in a victim resulting from abuse also affects lives of people who genuinely care for the child’s wellbeing.
Legislation indeed is a great weapon in our war against child abuse but not without cooperation from society. More open discussions are required to prevent unintended mental abuse induced by care givers on children. To not know is not a crime, but purposeful ignorance is. Parents can play a major role by educating children to identify abuse signs and through regular communication with them. Do not let your parental fear limit the child’s social life and development, instead train them to be a fighter, instil confidence and self respect. Educate yourselves on better parenting as the child grows, because parenting is not same at every age. Seek help when needed, because your mood swings and resulting actions can leave deep imprints on child.
Anyone with a will can prevent an abuse despite your age. If you have reason to believe a child has been or may be harmed, call your local department of children and family services or your local police department. Never turn blind eye to a suspected abuse or neglect. Volunteer at a local child abuse prevention program. Such a platform can be impactful and will direct your potential and efforts to the betterment of a child who might be on the verge of a collapse.
Last but not the least, let the youth of today pledge to be the last victims of such abuse and not let anyone in future meet a fate similar to what they endured. Let it end with us. Let us be more open to discussions and learning so that the stigma which prevents reporting of abuse and the idea of normalization of parental abuse ends once and for all.