A 38-year-old man who was arrested recently in New Delhi confessed to having sexually abused over 500 children. Only 15 of those incidents had been reported to police. Reporting rates for child sexual abuse are known to be low, yet the number of registered child rapes more than doubled between 2009 and 2014. It’s the result of a “conspiracy of silence,” Indian lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar tells The Diplomat.
Chandrasekhar, an independent Member of Parliament in the upper house, convened a two-day national consultation on the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) Act at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, the southern city he represents in the House, on February 4 and 5.
“Crimes such as child sexual abuse and trafficking are a form of terrorism perpetrated against children, and require a Zero Tolerance response,” reads the consultation’s brochure, noting that a government study found that more than half of all children in India have faced some form of sexual abuse, nearly three-fourths of the victims don’t share their attack with anyone, and only three percent of the victims report it to their families and the police.
Chandrasekhar, who has been in politics for about 11 years, is known mostly for his work in the areas of governance, economy, and digital technology. While child sexual abuse is “not my usual area of focus,” as he put it, he is deeply concerned about the issue.
Here are excerpts from his interview with The Diplomat:
There is hardly any lawmaker in India who speaks out strongly against child sexual abuse, but you do. What makes you interested in or concerned about the issue?
About two and a half or three years ago, a young family came to me in Bengaluru and told me a horrifying story of their two-year-old child, who was sexually abused. The story would have ended there, but I realized as I followed the case that the system was repeatedly letting them down, institutions were letting them down. There was apathy at various levels of the government, the police, and the judiciary. This obvious, horrific crime, to my surprise and shock, received the least response. That is how I said, “This is something that I need to take up.”
As I engaged on the issue more and more, I saw that at various levels of the government there was a denial about the scale of this problem. An absolute denial, or apathy at the worst. It became obvious to me that apathy and denial were causing the offenders, who were usually repeat offenders, to offend again and again.
More than one million children are involved in child prostitution in the country, according to estimates. Do you think successive governments are to be blamed for this?
Governments in a democracy like ours respond to popular will and popular sentiment. The principal blame is, we as a people, we as citizens, we as communities and societies have failed to recognize the depth and the scale of this problem. For many years, this issue has been brushed under the carpet through a combination of shame and a sense of vulnerability. So the lack of awareness of this problem, and when there is awareness then the attempt to deny it, have contributed to a conspiracy of silence. This conspiracy of silence suits governments and institutions very well, because then they don’t have to act.
My basic objective is to break this silence, to break this misplaced shame or fear, or the attempts to brush it under the carpet.
Do you think the media raises the issue in a manner that is proportional to its scale?
When society and the community are silent, the media remains silent and institutions don’t act. But for the last two years, we are seeing much more confident coverage by the media; we are seeing more and more victims and parents of victims approach media without worrying about shame or vulnerability. We are seeing a much more honest discussion and debate about this crime and the criminals involved.
We still have a long way to go because it is one thing to start a discussion and awareness, but another to get institutions to start prosecution and investigation and to align themselves to this priority of making children safe.
Do you think the existing legislation in the country is able to deal with the challenge of child sexual abuse and human trafficking for sex?
In India, we don’t have any shortage of laws. You can argue that we have an overdose of laws. Some of these laws sometimes intersect and cross and contradict each other. We have enough laws that should technically protect everybody and give justice to everybody in this country. The problem almost always is, one, the enforcement of the law, which is the police part of it. And the second [problem] is the slow process in terms of judicial adjudication. So even if you are prosecuting someone under a particular law or a statute, if that process takes 12 years and 15 years and the accused is out on bail and can commit crimes again, the law has no meaning, the law becomes less relevant. So the judicial processes and the police processes are the key for us.
Do you think the Ministry of Women and Child Development takes the issue seriously and is doing enough to deal with it?
Had you asked this question a year or two years ago, I would have said, “No.” I would have said that, like previous governments, they are not treating it with the priority and the urgency the issue deserves. But I think in recent months, partly my interventions, awareness through media, civil society campaigns, and public scrutiny have caused the ministry to wake up.
What did you hope to gain from the national consultation?
One, to continue the awareness building, to continue to ensure that every part of the government system is aware of the responsibility to protect our children. I keep saying, it’s a responsibility and obligation. I think the more we talk about it and the more we expose it to the various government stakeholders, the better it is.
Two, to also start a discussion and a debate about the legislative legal framework and processes under the law, to deal with questions like what are the lacunae in the law, is the law working, how can we improve the law, why the conviction rates of the POCSO [Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses] Act are abysmally low, and so on.
The focus on children has been centered on physical health, like food, diet, and nutrition. The focus must also be on their psychological well being.