Unwarrantedly taboo subject

Sensational reports highlighting widespread sexual abuse of children by teachers, care givers, care providers and neighbours which have been appearing in the media with increasing frequency of late, suggest that children are becoming increasingly vulnerable in Indian society, which is experiencing rapid structural changes in demography and economy. The pressures of urbanisation, accelerated rural-urban migration of families in search of work and livelihood, changing societal mores and traditions, altering lifestyles are some of the factors which have cumulatively impacted behavioural norms in Indian society, leading to the rising incidence of crimes against children. 


While paedophiles seem to be on the prowl everywhere, families and children seem blissfully unaware of the lurking danger around every corner and of precautionary measures that need to be taken. There seems inadequate awareness that crimes against children have devastating effects, causing unimaginable pain and suffering which could undermine the future of children by obliterating their skills and learning. Ensuring every child’s safety and security is the hallmark of civilised societies and every State’s responsibility as enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Conventions on Rights of the Child (1959 and 1989) and the UN Millennium Development Goals, 2000. Yet a survey (2007) of child abuse and neglect in India, commissioned by the Union ministry of women and child development,  indicates that 53 percent of children in the age group five-12 suffer sexual abuse, and 70 percent of them don’t report their humiliation to anyone.


Against this backdrop it’s necessary to critically examine the role played by social institutions and agencies of education such as the family, school and media in addressing this grave issue. These agencies need to play a more proactive role in educating children, family and community about preventive measures to ensure the security and well-being of children.


 It is unfortunate that the entire school system seems to be indifferent to crimes perpetrated on the student community, despite wide publicity given to this issue. Regretably, prevention of offences against children seldom form part of school curriculums, nor do they find their way into classroom transactions. Moreover crimes against children is rarely an important agenda item at teachers’ association meetings, even when their own pupils are child abuse victims.   


Ironically, at a time when the issue of sex education in schools is being hotly debated across the country, there is a curious reluctance on the part of state governments in particular, to educate children about the risks of sexual abuse and the need for precautions to safeguard them against victimisation.


Yet given the alarming increase in child abuse and sex crimes against children, there’s an urgent necessity for the teachers community in particular to shed prudery and impart information on sex and sexuality in their classrooms. Children too, need to be encouraged to speak about their vulnerabilities and must be educated on certain essential elements of human physiology, as also ways and means to protect themselves from paedophiles and sex offenders. In essence, simple face-to-face dialogues need to be conducted in informal ways. While in theory it’s easier for parents to discharge this duty within their households, given the social conditions — particularly widespread illiteracy in India — teachers need to assume this burden.


Moreover rather than introducing sex education in primary school, it’s more important to provide knowledge about sexual abuse and preventive measures in terms of certain ‘do’s  and don’ts’. School-based education programmes can teach children how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser’s enticements, break off interaction, and summon help in times of crisis. Such programmes should also aim to promote disclosure and reduce self-blame among children in cases of victimisation. 


Social scientists agree that socially determined contact crimes such as sexual offences cannot be combated through conventional policing. Child abuse is a complex phenomenon which needs to be addressed in meaningful ways. Schools and teachers have to devise their own strategies of imparting education in this direction to children and parents in locally appropriate and acceptable ways. The entire purpose should be to equip children and their families to prevent sexual abuse and crimes against children. As school managements make greater efforts to integrate such programmes, it is also necessary to build in counseling strategies for victims to alleviate their trauma.


On a larger scale, school managements need to network with neighbourhood communities and devise suitable child protection programmes in consultation with criminologists, sociologists, civil society organisations and other welfare agencies. Against the scenario of rising criminality and sexual abuse of the nation’s children, this is too crucial a subject to be kept under wraps.


(M.D. Usha Devi is professor & head, Centre for HRD, Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore)