Thursday, September 20, 2007

Insecure Children

Dionne Bunsha
Vol. 24, No. 8, 21 April -
4 May 2007

HERE is something that threatens to shatter the picture of the big, happy Indian family. Children are safer at school than at home, says a study on child abuse conducted by the Central Government's Ministry of Women and Child Welfare. Every second child in India has faced sexual abuse, and two-thirds of children have been physically abused, the survey estimates.

The study was conducted in 13 States and based on interviews with 12,447 children. It is a damning indictment of Indian society's cruelty to its young and most vulnerable. One-fifth of the world's children live in India. Forty-two per cent of India's population is under 18 - that is 440 million people, a number greater than the population of the United States. Despite the fact that India has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the country has dozens of child welfare schemes, a large portion of the child population remains neglected and exploited.

Over half of the children interviewed (53 per cent) had been sexually abused. More boys than girls were harmed. And, 21 per cent of the children reported severe abuse. Children at home and not going to school were more at risk than those attending school. The most affected were children at work (61 per cent reported sexual abuse). Street children (54 per cent) were only slightly more vulnerable than children at home not attending school (53 per cent). More than 70 per cent of children had not told anyone else about their abuse. Of the young adults (aged 18 to 24) who were interviewed, 46 per cent reported that they were sexually abused as children.

Parents and family members were the people most likely to abuse children physically. Around 48 per cent of children said they were physically abused by family members, while 34 per cent were beaten by others. "Considering that the family is supposed to provide a protective atmosphere for the child, especially during the formative years, the high percentage is both surprising and alarming," the study says. But severe abuse was committed mostly by outsiders. Every sixth child faced severe thrashing by people outside the family.

Children are routinely hit at school as a form of disciplining. The survey estimates that 65 per cent of children get beaten in schools across the country. Boys are more vulnerable than girls in this regard. "In States like Delhi, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal and Gujarat, which are also sample States in the study, corporal punishment has been banned by State governments. Yet, some of the highest percentages of corporal punishment can be seen in these States," says the study, authored by Loveleen Kacker, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Welfare; Srinivas Varadan and Pravesh Kumar, with assistance from Dr. Nadeem Mohsin and Anu Dixit.

A reason for the alarming findings could be the fact that the study has focussed on the most vulnerable groups of children and has not taken a sample that is representative of the total child population. Essentially, five groups of equal sample size were interviewed for the survey - children in school, children out of school and at home, street children, working children and children in institutions. As it gives equal weightage to each, the survey cannot apply the findings to the entire population. Three of these are vulnerable groups that do not form a large proportion of the population, which may be why the results are startling. For instance, all over India more than 60 per cent of children are in school, but schoolchildren constitute only 20 per cent of the survey's sample.

However, the survey has been path-breaking because until now the main source of information on child abuse was the National Crime Records Bureau, where only registered cases are counted. Most incidents of child abuse are not reported to the police. Moreover, several forms of abuse are not reflected in the crime statistics.

"We did this study because a lack of data was one of our major constraints in pushing for greater resource allocation for child protection schemes. There was a conspiracy of silence, and people did not feel that child abuse was such a major problem," said Loveleen Kacker. "The results are shocking but confirm that there is more abuse than we tend to accept."

"It is very commendable that the government has done this survey and acknowledged the magnitude of the problem," says Vidya Reddy, from Tulir Centre for the Prevention & Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. "They are also proposing the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and an Offences Against Child Bill. If these are implemented properly, it will be a big step towards tackling child abuse."

Child workers formed one-fifth of the children interviewed and are among the most exploited. Of all child labourers, 56 per cent were employed illegally or in hazardous industries - domestic work; roadside restaurants, or dhabas; construction work, beedi-rolling; lock-making; embroidery; and zari weaving. More than half of child workers laboured seven days a week, without holidays. Of all working children, 23 per cent were domestic workers, of whom 81 per cent were girls. Fourteen per cent of the domestic child workers said they were abused by their employers.

Street children survive in the most inhuman living conditions. The survey found that two of three street children lived with their parents. Only 17 per cent slept in a night shelter. Hygiene conditions were miserable. More than 70 per cent defecated in the open, and 50 per cent did not have access to a municipal tap to bathe. The survey found that they were often not able to meet their basic needs for food.

The report recommends setting up a state commission for the protection of the rights of the child and implementing `action plans' for child protection. "We will introduce an Offences Against Children (Prevention) Bill in Parliament. There are many things not considered an offence under current law," said Loveleen Kacker. "We need to spend more on child protection. Right now it is only 0.03 per cent of the budget. The Ministry is introducing an Integrated Child Protection Scheme soon. It is disturbing that 40 per cent of our children are at risk."

Creating outreach services for street children and child workers and strengthening support services under the Juvenile Justice Act are also included in the report's recommendations. More public awareness about child abuse is necessary to acknowledge and tackle the problem. Children, too, have to be aware of their rights.

"This survey highlights the urgent need for sex education, not only for pre-adolescents but even younger children. How else will children learn to be strong and understand how to protect themselves?" asks Ingrid Mendonca, from Terre des Hommes, a child rights organisation. "Unfortunately, the most progressive States are moving backwards by trying to ban sex education. It is urgently needed."

The entire system has to be made more child-friendly, says Vidya Apte from the Forum Against Child Sexual Exploitation. "The issue is swept under the carpet. Most doctors, psychologists, lawyers, judges and police officials don't know how to handle such cases. It is not part of their training," she says. "It is time to remove the taboo around this issue. We have to help children to protect themselves. If we feel embarrassed to talk about it, how can we advise our children?"

The government report also stresses the importance of education. "Beyond doubt, schools, as compared to other situations, are the safest place for children, and therefore efforts should be made to increase the enrolment and retention of children by adopting innovative, child-friendly methods of teaching," says the report. "Adequate infrastructure including sanitation facilities, keeping in mind the special needs of the girl child, will encourage enrolment and retention of girl children in schools," it says. "Schools must have proper facilities in place, teachers who work diligently, and midday meal schemes in order to get kids back into school. There should be a school within 5 km of every village or settlement. Then, a total ban on child labour is more likely to be effective. Right now, there isn't enough political pressure to ban child labour," says Mendonca. India has 110 million child workers - double the total population of Italy.

What is needed is not just a few new laws but an entire overhaul of the system and better awareness within society. The State will have to invest a lot into protecting and promoting child rights to restore the image of the happy Indian family.

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