IN its annual report, the NGO Sahil found that there has been a 4pc increase in documented cases of major crimes against children (2,960 cases of child sexual abuse, kidnapping, missing children and child marriages) in 2020 from the previous year. To put this figure into perspective, this means that at least eight children were abused each day last year. Whether this rise can be attributed to increased reporting thanks to awareness and advocacy efforts to reduce stigmas for survivors, or due to an actual rise in such cases (perhaps, in part, exacerbated by the pandemic), one thing is certain. All evidence suggests that reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg. How, then, can we address an issue that is so deeply prevalent? Are populist calls for swift, brutal punishments for rapists, which are currently in vogue and also being propagated by the government as a policy response, actually helping to make this country safer for women and children? So far, there seems to be little evidence of it.

The truth is, that for all the alarms raised by child rights and health experts as well as by survivors, both state and society continue to bury their heads in the sand rather than confront the bitter realities of sexual violence. Both qualitative and quantitative data confirm the fact that, in the overwhelming majority of sexual violence cases, the perpetrators are known to their victims. For children, they are neighbours, family friends, teachers, even immediate relatives, who are able to exert their influence to silence victims and those they might turn to for help. What incentive do victims have to seek justice when the potential fallout of reporting their own family members includes the loss of what little support structure they might have? Harsher punishments for abusers to assuage society’s desire for retribution, or expanded social safety nets to reduce harm and support the actual victims? On Friday, the government issued a second statement regarding the prime minister’s harmful remarks on sexual violence, in which it spoke of the importance of addressing the “root causes” and taking a “holistic approach”. We can start by looking at all the exhaustive research indicating that widespread societal tolerance for violence, and gender and economic inequalities — ie, acceptance of power imbalances — are key risk factors in child abuse. We ought to start by listening to and learning from survivors and experts instead of dismissing their testimony.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2021

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