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No help for the abused Indian child, say NGOs

Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation and physical and mental torture within their homes. And the law can't help them. This was the conclusion of a workshop sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund at New Delhi on Tuesday.

The laws are ineffective and there are few agencies to implement the few there are to stop domestic violence against children, due to the cultural immunity society gives parents and guardians. This had to be changed and support systems created, both within the family and the society to help distressed children, the participants concluded.

Giving an overview of the two-day workshop's theme: ''Dangerous homes: Communicators' initiative on child rights against domestic violence,'' Razia Ismail of UNICEF said in the present social, cultural and political context, it is considered bad taste to discuss child abuse and hence intervention was very difficult. The solution lay in changing the mindset of people who felt "this does not apply to me," she said.

While participants agreed that there were no simple answers, they felt a concerted effort from every section of society would bring the problem out in the open. In most cases, sexual assaults against the children were hidden by the family due to the social stigma attached. A social activist from the voluntary organisation Sanjeevini cited an instance in which a mother, grandmother and aunt of a 10-year-old girl kept quiet after the child was sexually attacked by her uncle.

''In such cases, the child is a silent victim against whom adults gang up and they (the children) suffer untold mental tortures from such maltreatment,'' she said.

Kanwaljit Deol, additional commissioner of police, Delhi, pointed out that 89 per cent of the rape cases in 1996 involved relatives and acquaintances. She said the police had its limitations when dealing with such cases, pointing out that the law is useful only when it is broken. And even then it had to be invoked.

''Unless a child or someone on behalf of the child invokes the law, he (or she) cannot be helped,'' she said. ''Unless cases are reported to us, we have no locus standi.'' She pointed out that an abused child never came on its own to the police. It was after repetitive abuse that a non-governmental organisation or a close friend brought the matter to the police stations, she said.

Even then, the law gives no status to a third party trying to file an FIR and the police can only take down the victim's evidence, she said, adding that the problem was compounded by the fact that children rarely gave a straight version of what happened.

Observing that the police alone would not be able to provide a just solution to this problem, Deol said there were no support systems for children.

Rita Panicker, director of Butterflies, an Delhi NGO working with street children, said sexual abuse of children was a pervasive problem in India and could no longer be dismissed as a western phenomenon. She also dismissed claims that it was limited to the poorer sections of society.

A survey conducted by Butterflies in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences found that of 362 patients treated for sexually transmitted diseases a large percentage were children under seven years of age. Of these, 24 per cent had gonorrhoea and 10 per cent had herpes. ''The cases were not confined to the lower strata of society, Panicker said, adding that in most cases of child abuse, the response of the parent, especially the mother, was to deny the incident.

She said the problem was compounded by the fact that the topic of sex was taboo. When a child's protector becomes an abuser, the betrayal of trust causes immeasurable trauma to the victim, showing up in later life in feelings of confusion, guilt and low self-esteem, she said.

The social activist suggested a legislation which would protect children against domestic violence. Observing that studies had shown that parents with a history of abuse in turn became child abusers, she called for an inter-disciplinary approach to look into the social, economic, cultural and psychological factors of the problem.

Dr R Mitra, a clinical psychologist, observed that children were not taught to cope with their frustrations. ''We see the child as an extension of ourselves and not as a separate entity. The worst thing we can do is to tell the child not to express anger. This leads to repressed feelings,'' he said, citing the odd fact that Switzerland was the most violent country in the world.

A study in a maximum security prison there showed that 65 per cent of the terrorists had Protestant ministers as fathers. The implication here was that the upbringing in a repressed environment could affect the child's future.

Dr Mitra also suggested that focus should be placed on social pressures which forced parents to abuse children.


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