By Diki Choden Bhutia & Shradha R. Chhetri
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted general human activity but has also caused the reality of many inhumane practices to surface. Since the implementation of the lockdown, there has been a steep climb in domestic violence cases in the nation and state. While the overall rate of crime may have decreased during the lockdown, reports of abuse and violence faced by children have significantly risen.
Children are especially vulnerable during the lockdown – those who come from broken homes or live with their abusers are at a high risk of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
What do our lawyers say?
A few weeks ago two lawyers, Sumeer Sodhi and Aarzoo Aneja wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, requesting him to take suo moto cognizance of the increase in the number of child abuse cases during the nationwide lockdown. The lawyers stated that hotlines are receiving more cases of child abuse than usual and the Childline India Helpline has also received more than 92,000 calls asking for protection of children from abuse and violence during the period of lockdown.
It also highlighted that the Government has taken no notification, guidelines or measures for the protection of children from abuse during lockdown period and that urgent measures should be taken on a priority basis by child welfare committees, Juvenile Justice Boards and Children’s Courts etc.
Sujay Singh Hamal, a lawyer in Sikkim who frequently does seminars on the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) 2012 says, “This topic is very intense right now due to the ongoing lockdown added with the steady rise in domestic violence cases and child abuse cases. This is a fact, it cannot be denied that these atrocities are taking place even in Sikkim, but the problem right now is due to the lockdown we aren’t able to assess the fact and figures and statistics of this.
“Particularly in Sikkim, the most prevalent child abuse is denying them of their Right to Education. Most educated folks have domestic help and they are depriving them education, this could be due to ignorance and lack of awareness on the people’s part. The domestic help kids are oftentimes sexually, emotionally, physically and financially exploited.”
On what the State could do to help these children, he says, general awareness should be spread and taboo of not speaking up on the sexual or physical abuse should be eradicated. Child care shelters should be contacted and the children there should be asked if they are comfortable and all police and miscellaneous complaints on child abuse should be followed and paid attention to in priority. As well as a thorough study should also be conducted in all Sikkimese households whether child abuse is taking place or not and that more figures need to be collected he suggested.
“There are fortresses where we cannot go because they belong to big and powerful people, so first we gave to collect figures to penetrate these fortresses. Even though the domestic help may be well looked after but there’s no denying that they are being deprived of their education,” he says.
Sikkim’s dismissal of domestic helper’s rights
The society’s underlying problem is the fact that co-dependency and exploitative behaviour is ingrained, masked as ‘normal’ and carried forward without much thought. Children who grew up in homes where domestic helpers sat on the fringes of the living room, wore hand me downs and were talked to harshly cannot regurgitate the experience out of their system – they live it and continue it well into adulthood, some emulating their elders to a horrifying degree.
District Child Protection Officer (DCPO), North Sikkim, Wendy Lepcha informed that while there haven’t been any child abuse cases reported in the North District since the lockdown, they have received pleas of help from domestic abuse victims. She explained that in a domestic abuse situation, it is the husband, who after drinking alcohol, beats the wife in front of the children making them an involuntary witness to this violence traumatizing them, and often times these children trying to run away from their situation at home, stay with friends or relatives which makes them vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual behaviour early on.
“Domestic violence and child abuse go hand in hand, so we have also started the initiative of a Block Level Child Protection Committee (BLCPC) and Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC) in all GPUs of North Sikkim, so that even if victims can’t reach out to us, we can still reach them through Panchayats since they will be the Chairperson. Through this BLCPC and VLCPC, we have sensitized them on the POSCO Act also. In the North we have received more reports of domestic violence and child abuse verbally and emotionally,” she says.
“Sexual abuse among children is the most prevalent of child abuse in Sikkim, and oftentimes it is one of the family members who are the perpetrators- someone the victim is vulnerable with and who is trusted by the victim and the victim’s family. The best way the general public can help is by being alert and when they hear weird or odd things since our society is very small, please pay attention to it and report it to law and order authority and to us. Even though we have our helplines out, the victims cannot always reach us- they either cannot get hold of a phone or know where to call so the biggest help the public can do is report whatever they hear or see that’s odd.”
On May 1, at the state’s border- Rangpo Bazaar in East Sikkim, a sexual assault on a minor took place. The victim was a 17-year-old domestic help and the assault was done by the father of the house where she worked. The FIR was lodged by the son of the house against his father when the victim made him known of the assault and accused was booked under Section 376(C)/ 34 IPC R/W SEC.5 (N)/06 POSCO Act, 2012. The victim was sexually abused by the accused several times as she was a worker at the accused’s hotel. The case is currently under investigation.
Lakpa Tshering Sherpa, the Field Officer of the child helpline of the Social Justice and Welfare Department, who informed that the victim is yet to undergo the medical tests and once done, they are going to make the victim undergo counselling and therapy.
Sherpa also informed that sexual abuse is one of the most common among child abuse victims and that there is a rise in sexual abuse cases during the lockdown.
“Right now often what is happening is that vulnerable and young children are trapped through the guise of ‘boyfriend, girlfriend’. Parents should teach children sex educations and awareness on sexual abuse and relations. We do awareness programs often at schools but the problem is that they don’t understand properly, this is where the parents can help us- teach them what is sexual abuse and what kinds there are. We request parents also to attend when we ask these awareness programs in schools. We have a statewide child helpline- 1098 where you can report child abuse, torture on domestic help, sexual and physical abuse on children and all kinds of assaults done on minors.”
Earlier, a petition had also been filed to the Delhi High Court concerning the rise in domestic violence and child abuse cases nationally during the lockdown. The petitioner sought the Delhi High Court’s interference in adopting and implementing effective measures to help victims of domestic violence and child abuse during the lockdown period. The petitioner, an NGO has asserted on the significance the health impact of such violence has particularly on intimate partner/domestic violence, on women and children which include injuries, serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies. The petitioner says that the Delhi High Court’s intervention is required due to the fact that access to other ordinary channels such as courts, police, protection officers, friends, and relatives is now remote in lieu of the lockdown.
Physical abuse is not the answer
Chumsang Palden Lachenpa, DCPO for East District who has been working in this field for the past 6 years, describes physical abuse as when “a minor is beaten heavily via bodily contact or by using an object”. How many people have been subject to corporal punishment or harm due to bodily contact at homes or school? A huge chunk of the population jokes about or oddly reminisces the various instances of physical punishment in adulthood, without realizing the terrifying normalcy of it. Parents who hit their children and later insist that “we hit you for your own good”, believe in the statement with all their heart. Except, many of those children grow up not understanding the concept of love without abuse.
There are many who justify for the need of hitting a child to make them understand what went wrong, but it could only be a step toward lifelong trauma if the child is unable to process and communicate emotions for fear of saying the wrong thing and having to endure physical pain.
“There is a difference in the older and new generation: the latter is sensitive and matures early. Instead of beating them, we should have a different punishment method. For example, in school, the teachers can ask students to stay back and clean the compound or do their homework instead of resorting to corporal punishment.”
The social media quagmire
Sikkim does not have any reports of online sexual abuse/harassment, at least as of now. But Lachenpa explains that sharing videos or photos of the victim or the act is punishable by law.
“Whenever we get any case, the first thing we have to do is maintain the privacy of the victim. It will have long term traumatic repercussions on the victim if their information is circulated online. Under the JJ Act, no personal information is to be distributed.”
So what if one is forwarded a photo or video of minors being subjected to abuse? She says the answer is simple – “you have the full authority and right to report such incidents and people.”
Many people, when having received a forwarded video/screenshot of sexual or physical abuse, make the mistake of sharing it further instead of breaking the chain. There is the justification that “the abuser must be exposed” but at the cost of revealing information about the victim in question? There is no excuse for being an enabler.
In the same thread, one must also talk about sensitizing the media.
“Time and again we have been in touch with media persons to be wary about personal information of the victim. I apprise the media to please not disclose any information when these cases occur,” says Lachenpa.
CWC member, Pushpa Mishra agrees. “Sikkim is a small state. Sometimes when the accused’s details are made public, people recognize them and immediately make a connection, so then the victim’s identity can be found out through that. Ideally, giving the perpetrator’s name is also not the right option. Many media houses are not careful about that but it will traumatize the victim later.”
She adds, “Even people who are close to victims and have access to private information like the address of their safe houses should be careful not to take photos or share information of the victim on social media. The culprit might find out where the child is and manipulate them.”
But at the same time, Mishra debates on whether the anonymity of the perpetrator should be maintained.
“We have seen so many POCSO cases that sometimes we wonder if people would be afraid of the consequences if we call out the criminals to raise public awareness. We can feel the pain of these children. Sometimes even we are exhausted from all these cases pouring in every day. The anonymity provided to perps is an advantage sometimes.”
In 2018, India became the 9th country in the world to have it’s first National Registry of Sexual Offenders. Around 4.5 lakh people have been reportedly listed in it, but it comes with its own set of problems. Privacy issues, sweeping the problems of the Indian criminal justice system under the rug and not letting the criminals have the chance to be rehabilitated in prison (the Indian prison system, unfortunately, begs its own article), believing that recidivism is imminent.
Child abuse has no age barrier. Victims are often objectified – no thought is given to their age, gender, mental state or sexual orientation. The dehumanization creates a vile mentality that grows when left unchecked.
In India and also in Sikkim, almost all the cases registered under the POCSO Act are with regards to girl children. In the state, there are few reports of sodomy in boys. The other horrifying yet extremely common statistic is that there are hardly any cases where the child is harmed by an unknown person. Most of the perpetrators are either family members of someone who is friendly with the family.
And what about children with disabilities? Mishra points out that there are few reports of abuse against differently-abled children, but says that there are sometimes chances of them being abused by their caretakers.
“The problem is that they might not be able to share directly with us or communicate properly what happened. We use special educators to help us with that.”
How can you help?
“Parents should be vigilant right now”, says Mishra. “They should know what their children are doing and who they are talking to. Some children will not even know they are being abused or manipulated. Having a clear conversation and effective communication are important. In some cases, parents don’t even know about the delay in their children’s menses, even for 5 or 6 months. Later, when they eventually find out, it is too late and nothing can be done. Until that point, the children will not reveal who has done because sometimes they don’t understand what has happened. They don’t know that they have been harmed”.
What should you do if there is such a case in your area? “If in case, in my neighbourhood, there is such a case and I do not report it, then I will be liable for punishment. One has to report. Children are our future. If they are safe then our future will be good. We should not keep our eyes closed to such incidents.”
Communication is key
Sex education is almost a taboo in India. Yet the reports of sexual harassment and abuse continue to pour in every day, with alarming speed. There is a lack of healthy environment for talking about sex. Mishra explains that most of the victims of sexual abuse are from broken families but since the members of the family never open up to each other, it is difficult to report.
Except, the Social Justice and Welfare Department’s initiative to conduct awareness programmes in schools on good touch and bad touch to young kids has helped a lot. It is informed that the maximum number of POCSO cases have been reported through schools when students confided in their teachers about what happened to them.
In our neighbourhoods, sometimes one hears the sound of a child wailing at a distance, crying aloud “stop” to the person hitting them. Neighbours who feel uncomfortable at the sound have the privilege of closing their windows and ignoring its existence. This momentary ignorance and dismissal of primitive parenting practices encourage a culture of silence, where years later, the child grows into an adult and cries out for help again, the neighbours can shut the windows on them again.
For help or inquires, the following are contact details of the concerned authorities: