EACH day brings us heavy news of a child being sexually assaulted somewhere in the country. The issue needs to be seared into the public’s consciousness so that it results in the same wake-up call that we saw in Zainab Ansari’s assault and murder case in 2018. Public debates on the issue and policy interventions are the need of the hour. Although we have seen several gruesome cases of paedophilia and child abuse — such as the murder of over 100 young boys by the serial killer Javed Iqbal in 2001 — silence surrounds the topic which is considered taboo.
There are different factors which increases a child’s vulnerability to abuse. The current rise in child abuse cases and a statistical analysis show that there is a greater threat tilted towards male minors (under 10 years) who become victims of sexual abuse. Unless remedial measures are taken, this problem is likely to continue because there is a perception among parents and guardians of minor children that male minors are less likely to be the target of abuse. There are serious hazards attached to such misplaced perceptions, and a shift in this view and far greater caution by the parents is required.
Male minors are culturally perceived to be largely immune from abuse. The belief is that they can take care of themselves very well and even chaperone adult female relatives to ward off unwanted social pressure and harassment. This unnatural, culturally constructed masculine image puts male minors at a great disadvantage. As the data shows, male minors fall victim to strangers as well acquaintances and are assaulted in both open and closed spaces.
The disparity in the number of cases of child abuse among the provinces is the result of a difference in reporting mechanisms, cultural understanding of the issue and poor awareness of the laws. Nevertheless, a statistical scrutiny of reported cases reveals that among the children in the age brackets six to 10 and 11 to 15 years, boys are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation as compared to girls. But in the 0 to 5 and 16 to 18 years age brackets, it is females who are more susceptible to being abused. Overall, the reported cases of assault on male minors is almost twice that of female minors. Urban areas top the list mainly because of greater awareness of such cases and media and police access. But the situation may not be that much different in the rural areas.
Male minors are wrongly perceived to be immune from abuse.
The reluctance to report stems mainly from two reasons. One is the culture of silence which forces the parents to stay quiet and not approach the police. Analyses show that the absence of knowledge of child protection laws further paralyses the parents who hide facts. There have been instances where the child’s mother knew about the repeated assault he was being subjected to at school but since her son complained of physical pain only, she did not share this information with her husband for fear that she would be blamed for being a negligent mother. She was also afraid that her child’s education would be discontinued.
The second reason is the family pressure on parents not to disclose the identity of the perpetrator who is often a close relation or someone they know very well. Research on the proximity of the perpetrator to the child throws up some uncomfortable facts. The perpetrator can be a family member and the communication gap between the parents and the children and the blind trust of the parents in this family member who is actually a threat to their child is also responsible for such issues going unnoticed for long periods of time.
There are many challenges to grapple with when it comes to child abuse, and it is not easy to find solutions to this crime. Information and knowledge related to self-protection, also focusing on male minors and their vulnerability, must be made part of school studies and media campaigns. Children, both boys and girls, must learn that no place is safe from abuse and that they should immediately report any instance of being molested to their parents.
Similarly, parents and extended communities can be approached by the police to make them aware of their role as protectors of children and how they can come up with an effective child protection system, based on distinctive environments and social settings. Police come across many cases of attempted assault where parents and teachers are not sensitive to the need of the rehabilitation of the survivor through consultations with a psychiatrist or another similar professional support system.
A top-to-bottom approach to child abuse is needed, whereby the government devises practicable and efficient legal frameworks as well as child-centred policies and programmes with specific budgetary allocations. The reticence and sensitivity dominating this issue has unfortunately pushed society towards a dead end. A multi-stakeholder approach is the only effective solution to this long-standing problem.
The writer is a police officer.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2021