Couple of days after the beginning of Assamese New Year, a sub-centre of Childline in Boko, Kamrup district, Assam, received information about an elopement case of a minor. A 45-year-old man, already married and a father of two, ran away with a 14-year-old Class IX girl student studying in in her village school. The man had assured the girl that they will be wedded soon and coaxed her to engage in sexual relationship with him. The man’s wife got infuriated. Unable to take any action against him, she thrashed the girl mercilessly that left one of her eyes damaged.
At the time of rescue, the girl’s hands and body had bruises and blood clots due to bite marks, allegedly left by the man’s wife. The Childline and Child Welfare Committee (CWC) Boko issued directions that she be given proper medical care and ordered to file an FIR and initiation of an investigation against the accused under Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
In another case, a 13-year-old girl who went through sexual abuse for two years was found to be six months pregnant. The 58-year-old accused had raped her first in 2016, but, no police complaint was filed against him. Instead, the accused was allowed to go with just a warning by the Rabha Sangh, a village union of the Rabha tribe, and her family who thought this will bring shame to their village. Lack of action against the accused instilled more confidence in him to harass the minor for another one and a half years, sans fear.
“The rural Kamrup area in Boko registered five incidents of sexual abuse or rape against the minors in April 2018. From April 2017 till March 2018, 10 cases have already been reported. Villages in Boko with reports of child sexual abuse this year are — Nagarbera (3), Kalahikash (2), Selosuti (2), Berabhanga (1), Sakhati (1), Tupamari (2),” Muksteshwar Rahman, member, Childline Boko told Tehelka.
“If we dig out the unreported incidents of sexual abuse and rape against the minors, the number will be outrageous. For example, there were three cases in March that were not reported due to social stigma.”
Mukteswar said that 8 to 16 years of girls are the prime targets of sexual abuse and rape in Boko’s villages, and the accused are from 16 to 58 years of age.
Similarly, in the Rani area in rural Kamrup district, child marriage are significantly high with maximum eloping cases taking place starting from the age of 11 years in the case of girls and 14 to 45 years in the case of male. “A total of 56 child marriage took place from April 2017 till March 2018 in Rani. And, Childline, Rani, rescued 85 cases in 2017-18,” said Mustafa Ali, member, Childline, Rani.
The village Goroimari has maximum reports of child sexual abuse and the village Kanhara with maximum child marriage cases. Both the villages come under Chhaygaon police station in Rani.
Other villages with child marriage and sexual abuse cases are Toparpothar, Choudhurypam, Hatipara, Borakhat, Majortop, Bhitorduwar, Bhalukabari, Aaguni, Jarsimalu, Champupara,etc. (under Chhaygaon P.S.) and Kapurpura, Lohatghat, Sontala, Rajapora, Kahuwa, Kulshi, Jupangbari, Majkuchi and Shantipur (under Palashbari P.S.).
Child marriage & sexual abuse
Factors pertaining to deprived socio-economic situations appear to be mainly responsible for regular sexual abuse and child marriage cases in South Kamrup’s Boko and Rani areas.
Ignorance in the communities about laws and punishment against any sexual offences, reluctance to initiate police complaint, non-filing of FIR by the parents due to societal pressure and social stigma are the prime factors, besides, high rate of illiteracy and poverty.
Another factor which cannot be overlooked is the regular intervention by its Sangathans (organisations) like Rabha Sangh or Sangathan’s leaders when it comes to such matters. Most often the Sanghs or its group leaders intervene in the operations of the Childline and NGOs so that their villages or communities are not seen in bad light. Most Rabha Sanghs are also known for awarding justice, punishment and making decisions on behalf of affected families according to their terms and conditions. It cannot be denied that there are similar Sanghs in certain villages who are now coming out with tough rules to stop child marriage and sexual abuse.
Thirdly, almost nil conviction rate encourages the perpetrators to return to ground zero. As mentioned earlier, decisions are mostly taken by Sanghs and are not favourable to victims, accused are easily released with warnings or beating and thrashing, without any police involvement.
Abuse against minors
There appears to be no end to the outrageous number of sexual abuse or rape cases involving children in India. Unlike the past, the child abuse incidents today are finally coming to light and getting the attention of the civil society. If we look at the present-day reports from January to April 2018, there are at least 50 incidents of either rape or sexual abuse involving minor victims alone, considering every region of the country. Even the cases of assaults on eight-month-old toddlers are on the rise, not to forget they are the soft and easiest targets for the assaulters.
“The reported rapes and abuses will never reflect the actual number of incidents of actual assault and abuse because most of the incidents go unreported,” said Prerna Changkakati, Director, Assam Centre for Rural Development (ACRD).
“The implementation of the law is weak. The offenders are let off on bail, without proper evidence. The evidence is not collected, charge sheets are not filed on time. The entire process and the response of the system to these crimes are sluggish and mishandled. Unless the laws change, which hopefully the new Ordinance on the death penalty that sets a mandatory time frame of two months for the police investigation and such cases are fast-tracked and disposed, these crimes will continue to happen,” Prerna added.
Srinagar-based advocate Subreen Malik said, “Patriarchy, ignorance, weak laws, weaker implementation, a social attitude of not prioritising these areas of life along with an understanding of a society to be silent about these issues. There is silence, stigma, shame and denial about any form of sexual abuse and other abuse of personal nature involving family name and honours.”
“The state of Jammu and Kashmir has no POSCO Act giving the possibility to the rise of sexual abuses on the minors. For eg: in Pattan, a man who raped a boy was not booked under child rape but under 377, unnatural sex offence,” Malik added.
Kashmir Women’s Collective founder and women rights activist Mantash Binti Rashid said, “Interestingly, most boys think that abuse on the street can be prevented by women’s headscarf or burqa. Such archaic understanding of gender-based violence needs to be challenged by engaging with young boys and girls. This won’t change over-night.”
Senior advocate Bibhuti Bhushan, who is based in Sambalpur district, Odisha said, “Availability of internet to one and all, especially, the access by adolescences or pre-matured people is inciting criminal activities in the society. There is no mechanism to manage and control the kind of content they watch on the internet. A Childline member from Sambalpur, on the condition of anonymity, said that the local district courts do not give adequate importance to child abuse cases or its hearing, therefore, the judgment takes time, so the conviction against the accused.
Advocating on gender equality through pedalling his bicycle from state to state since 2013, Rakesh Singh said, “I strongly believe that until gender education or genderisation is welcomed and taught in the society, the rape and sexual abuse against the children will continue to grow. Sensible citizens can take out a daytime in every week to meet and interact with random people, sensitise them about various issue depending irrespective of mindset, ideology, etc. Outrage shouldn’t be like occasions-gather and disperse.”
Singh, who has covered 18 states in 45 months and roamed 25,300 kms on his bicycle to propagate the message of gender equality added, “We do not need anti-Romeo squad, cow vigilantism group, the society needs people for sensitisation of the masses on gender equality, women’s right, right to education, basic laws, human rights, etc… “Let’s not forget that four factors- Family, upbringing, tradition and syllabus play a significant role in one’s life, therefore, what we teach and what we learn need to be emphasised.”
Subreen said,“There’s no sex education in schools for example. Parents are simple and ignorant in their approach, they themselves don’t know about good touch or bad touch, leave alone educating their children about it. … A lot of work is possible on the ground — at the societal level, with youth, through policy implementation. Unless a multi-pronged approach is used we cannot succeed in seeing a decrease in such crimes.”
KWC member Mantash said, “We feel that society needs to evolve its understanding of gender, victim survivors of gender-based violence need immenseosupport and justice and then only we can bring down instances of such crimes. They are serious crimes… “Kashmir’s child abuser Aijaz Sheikh has systematically molested hundreds of boys over decades in North Kashmir in the garb of being a peer, a faith healer. Similarly, Gulzar Peer of Budgam raped girls at his home in the name of healing them. Men like them are free because society is silent, laws are weak and there’s no deeper and progressive understanding of gender-based issues in a small, conflict-ridden, insecure society of Kashmir which is struggling for three decades now due to political conflict.”
Prerna said, “An important aspect that needs to be looked is the aftercare or counselling of children who have faced sexual assault. Enough resources, including manpower, money, technology needs to be dedicated by the government to strengthen the system and expedite the process in such cases of crimes.
“We have to go back to understand why these crimes are happening so often. The justice delivery has to be quick for cases of sexual assault against children,” she added.