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Behind Closed Doors | Justice for India's Child Sexual Abuse Victims

The abuse occurs within the confines of their homes and communities, and within circles of trust and protection.

Published
India
5 min read
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Child sexual abuse is a deeply complex crime that permeates various layers of society. The children who are victims of this crime primarily go through myriad emotional trauma and challenges. The crime violates a child survivor and their families at so many diverse and intense levels, often scarring them lifelong and leaving indelible marks, and alters the social and behavioural interactions for the child, as well as their families.

Child sexual abuse occurs within the confines of their homes and communities and within circles of trust and protection. The abuse also happens as a result of trafficking, or acceptable norms in society like child marriage. Apart from these, one of the new and emerging forms of child sexual abuse is in the online and digital space.

Given the many categories of abuse, the handling and support of these survivors need to be nuanced and tailored to their many specific needs. 

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From the trauma that emerges directly from the abuse and the incident to the trauma in the pursuit of justice and the multi-fold challenges emerging while waiting for justice, the survivors go through unfathomable mental agony. Apart from these, there is a very large number of women and children who choose to remain silent and continue to live with the trauma of having suffered sexual harassment or even sexual assault, but never come into the justice delivery system.

A comprehensive strategy to provide mental health to each one of these four categories is being implemented by over 160 NGOs in over 400 districts. The support needed by these people is primarily psychological and mental health support to navigate through the tough times starting from the crime itself. The second type of support is in how to navigate through the complicated legal processes and even how to prepare for the deposition, etc in the trials. The end goal is reparation and integration into mainstream society. 

These interventions need to be institutionalised in our societal response and what is needed are interventions in policy, institutional framework, capacity, knowledge, economy and technology.

Policy: The country needs a national framework of action to address all kinds of sexual abuse cases, and the action plan should provide psychological and psychiatric support as a must, ensuring that paralegals and support persons are appointed in each such case. Time-bound guidelines to dispose of the cases at every level and in the event of a delay, stepwise increments in compensation, in accordance with the delay in the completion of the legal process, must be enforced.

Irrespective of how intense and effective the psychological support is, a child and their family cannot seek closure till the case continues. Delay and denial of justice are continued revictimisation of the victim and a violation of their rights.

Institutional framework: There is a need for a core institutional framework to ensure access to mental health support for the victims. For this, there needs to be in place trained individuals who can provide psychological first aid within the communities, villages schools, police stations, first responders, legal services authorities, Anganwadi workers, or any other person who has been entrusted by the government to work with the children. 

Besides, as directed by the Honorable Supreme Court of India in 2013 (Bachpan Bachao Andolan vs Union Of India), para-legal volunteers (PLVs) should be appointed at all police stations across the country. There is an urgent and mandatory need for the appointment of support persons in every case of child sexual abuse. 

Capacity: India might have reached the moon, but we cannot overlook or undermine the harsh fact that 23 per cent of our children get married before they turn 18. Every child marriage is child rape, and each of these children is a victim of child sexual abuse. And yet, the number of child marriages reported in an entire year remains a mere 1000. India needs to build the capacity of those agencies that are dealing with children and their issues so that there is better reporting and understanding of these issues.

When such a case is reported or when a case comes to the knowledge of the agencies that are working in the community, there has to be the capacity of these agencies to respond as well as initiate the legal process. 

Knowledge: Oftentimes, the victims and their families are not even aware of the help at hand. While we are grappling with the fact that at least four out of 10 children are being sexually abused or a victim of POCSO, we are also faced with a dire situation where six out of 10 children are not aware of any of the mechanisms that are available for them or available to them to seek help. Moreover, knowledge of digital child sexual abuse and how to deal with it is dismal at present. There needs to be enhanced knowledge and the know-how to deal with the situation. This knowledge within the communities, families, teachers and children needs to be spread about the many faces and mediums of sexual abuse, the available help and how to seek it.

Economy: The fifth is the economy as well as the emergency and urgent response. So the E stands for ensuring investments in mental health, having budgetary allocations for support persons, budgetary allocations for paralegal volunteers, and having psychological clinics in every district mandatorily so that every victim of child sexual abuse goes to a psychologist or a psychiatrist at least five times.

Technology: A technological base, which can respond to the basic questions and the basic requirements of a child or the parent about what they need, what they can do, and where they can go is the need of the hour. 

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Creating support groups for survivors as well as their families, and conducting parental workshops will create a safe space for the survivors where they can heal, be informed, and not be further deprived or isolated from society. With shared insights, perspectives and support, such peer groups help the survivors and their families to once again reintegrate with society, build trust with others as well and help them feel capable despite the vulnerabilities as well as uncertainties they felt due to the trauma.

When at least 2.43 lakh cases of child sexual abuse are still pending in the country, the victims are constantly reminded of the trauma as long as the case drags on. Moreover, the fear in the minds of the victims who report as well as a large number of children and women who do not report, the fear and trauma continue. 

The legal processes and the justice delivery system need to create trust in the minds of the public to enhance the belief that society stands by the victim and every process is for their protection.

The biggest crisis of mental health is in the women and children who have not found the voice to come forward and who continue to suffer in silence and in the survivors and families who continue to suffer till the processes of law continue. Psychological first-aid needs to be part of our policy framework, and in the circles of trust and response at every level, mental health needs to be prioritised and capacity enhanced.

(Bhuwan Ribhu is an author, an advocate, and an activist working for the protection of the rights through his organisation ‘Just Rights For Children’. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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